A few weeks ago, I got into a mild Twitter spat. (I know! Trust me, whatever you’re yelling, my husband already gently suggested. Twice.)
Usually, I can avoid social media quagmires. This time, I lapsed because a friend (an actual friend, not a “friend”) took something I said, and restated it so that it meant something else, something I totally disagree with. Then he called me an idiot for holding a belief I don’t hold and saying something I never said.
This is what’s called The Straw Man logical fallacy. It’s a common rhetorical tactic, and it’s a fallacy because instead of trying to refute an argument with reason, or evidence, it merely tries to distract the other party by being really irritating. You provoke your opponent into debating a different issue, and forgetting their initial point altogether.
It’s probably popular because while it’s only effective some of the time, it’s irritating all of the time.
In a few weeks, the U.S. political conventions will be over, campaigns at all levels of government will be in high gear, and we will be buried under a blizzard of logical fallacies. As writers, you might want to weigh in on these debates, and if you do, you’ll want to avoid logical fallacies, if you can. Not only will it make your writing stronger, it will cut down on the number of times you irritate your friends.
You already know the Straw Man. Here are three more insidious ones to watch for:
The Gaslight Fallacy: Suggesting someone is mistaken, delusional, or malevolent for thinking you said something, or did something, that you actually said or did. You see this a lot during campaigns when a candidate says something dumb, and the next day their spokesperson responds with, “I don’t know why the media keeps reporting my candidate said X; they must all be liars because s/he totally didn’t.”
The Ad Populum Fallacy: Appealing to emotional, dearly held principles, like religious beliefs or someone’s identity as a citizen, rather than offering reasons and evidence. “You’ll come to the Pep Rally Bonfire on Friday if you are a true Rydell High Rangers athletic supporter.”
And maybe the most popular Election Year Fallacy…
Moral Equivalence: “That candidate is just like Hitler.” We are writers. Surely we can come up with a more descriptive, more accurate analogy.
I’m not trying to make this season more irritating for you, and to prove it, I made you something: A Logical Fallacies Bingo card. Cross off a space every time a different candidate or campaign deploys a fallacy. Share them with friends, hand them out if you’re group watching debates or conventions. It’ll be fun, and maybe even keep us all out of social media spats, as well.
Dean of Faculty