Clearing the Decks

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Here’s a reasonable rule for critical discussion: all views for consideration should receive the same degree of scrutiny.  Subjecting one account to a low level of critical evaluation, but another to a higher level, is not only unfair, but it clearly risks incorrect outcomes. In retrospect, it is easy to see how such a shift can occur, especially when the claims on offer are controversial and when one sees some in the conversation as adversaries or allies. When a person we despise says something, we might even positively want them to be wrong. So, when they say something anodyne, like the sky is blue, we may be motivated to reply in the following fashion:

Oh yeah?  Well, sometimes, it’s red, purple, and yellow. That’s called sunset. And sometimes, it’s grey.  That’s called overcast. Oh, and sometimes, it’s just black.  That’s called night. Nice job overgeneralizing from sunny and cloudless days, you jerk.

You get the picture. Yet when a friendly interlocutor offers up the sky is blue, we tend to treat it with the modest degree of scrutiny that it calls for – as a general statement, with many exceptions. No problem.

One reason why the shift in critical scrutiny is hard to detect in situ is that it happens over time and with a background assumption about the exchange established in the process. This overall pattern we call the clearing the decks fallacy. Here’s how it unfolds. Step 1: Subject your opponents to the highest degree of scrutiny. Step 2: Once it is clear that the opponent’s views cannot satisfy that degree of scrutiny, conclude that they are nonviable and unsalvageable. Step 3: Pronounce your own view, but in a way that assumes that the appropriate degree of scrutiny has greatly diminished (after all, the opposition has been refuted). Step 4: If objections do appear, reply with a reminder of Step 2 – that the alternatives have been eliminated, so objections that must be based on their assumptions are undercut. It’s a neat dialectical strategy: one clears the decks of one’s opposition by adopting an unforgiving critical stance, but then one proceeds as if those same standards are inappropriate when it comes time to articulate one’s own view. In short, one applies demanding standards to clear the decks of one’s opposition, but then retracts those standards when presenting one’s own position once the opposition has been eliminated. Two features of the clearing the decks fallacy deserve emphasis. Read more »

On Straw Men and Their Audiences

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

The straw man fallacy admits of a wide variety of forms, ranging from what we’ve called the weak man, to the burning man, and even to the iron man. What makes all these different forms instances of the same general kind is the dialectical core of the fallacy – the misrepresentation of the argumentative state of play between contesting sides. In most cases, one side is represented as argumentatively worse off than they actually are (though, in cases of iron-manning, one improves an interlocutor’s case). Again, it is this dialectical core that makes straw man fallacies as a class distinct from, say, fallacies of relevance like ad hominem abusive or arguments from pity. In fact, what’s interesting about straw man arguments is that they are, really, arguments about arguments. In other words, when we argue, we can commit particular kinds of fallacies, but unique kinds of fallacies occur when we reason about how we reason. They are fallacies rooted in and made possible by our meta-cognition.

A longstanding, and perhaps obvious, problem with straw man arguments is that when they are presented to the target of the straw-manning, they typically are ineffective. We generally can tell when an interlocutor has misrepresented our view. The straw man directed at you at best can function as a signal that your argument is hard to understand or that your interlocutor is dense, but when a straw man of your view is presented to you it is unlikely to change your mind about how things stand. One wonders, then, how straw man arguments function. Our answer is that straw men arguments do their rhetorical work not on the speaker depicted as made of straw, but rather on an audience of argumentative onlookers, often selected specifically for the argument by the straw-manner. Read more »

How not to accuse someone of prejudice

by Emrys Westacott

Ob_fdeef4_capture-d-ecran-2013-04-15-a-12-45-1A colleague recently responded to a memo I circulated by telling me they considered it unintentionally heterosexist. I didn't agree. After a brief exchange of e-mails that served only to sandpaper each other's sore spots, my colleague called my attention to the following passage in Allen Johnson's book Privilege, Power, and Difference:

If someone confronts you with your own behavior that supports privilege, step off the path of least resistance that encourages you to defend and deny. Don't tell them they're too sensitive or need a better sense of humor . . . Listen to what's being said. Take it seriously. Assume for the time being it's true, because given the power of paths of least resistance, it probably is.[1]

The passage is well-intended and, up to a point, reasonable. But it should also be read with caution, since I believe it can easily encourage fallacious thinking and thereby harm the very cause it hopes to advance—a cause with which I fully sympathize. Of course, the tenor of the passage is to encourage a self-critical attitude, and we're all in favor of that. But the same kind of reasoning could also be used to fend off the advice being given. After all, one can easily rewrite the passage to put the boot on the other foot:

If someone tells you you're being hypersensitive or unreasonable, step off the path of least resistance that encourages you to defend and deny. Don't tell them their behavior supports privilege. Listen to what's being said. Take it seriously. Assume for the time being it's true, because given the power of the paths of least resistance, it probably is.

As my colleague and I found, navigating these shoals in our everyday interactions, achieving the proper admixture of knowledge, understanding, self-awareness, sensitivity, and reason, can be difficult. Still, I believe that in our attempts to manage this, it is important that we recognize and respect basic logical parameters. If we fail to do this, we do our cause a disservice.

In discussions of sexism, racism, heterosexism, heteronormativism, and other forms of prejudice, I have sometimes encountered two particular forms of specious reasoning. I will label these the appeal to subjective response and the accusation of privilege. My purpose here is simply to explain what these are and what is wrong with them.

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