I’ve long been fascinated by rhetorical fallacies, because we encounter so many of them that they begin to fall into recognizable patterns. I even wrote a 2004 article “Rhetoric 101,” primarily to aid in sorting out cascading political arguments about gay marriage equality.
Most likely the same as you, I can’t keep track of all these categories of rhetorical error. Fortunately, there’s an excellent reference site at Nizkor.org that lays these all out for us.
Common fallacies and logical falsehoods we’ve probably already heard of include:
- Argument ad hominem (“against the person”): trying to invalidate an argument with a personal attack on the speaker.
- Straw man: substituting a falsified version of the opponent’s premise and attacking the falsification.
- Smear: usually, the intentional distribution of a falsehood about a person, group or idea
- Slander: a smear against a person
- Defamation: smear or slander applied to an entire group, race, nation or culture.
- Appeal to Authority: An authority on this subject has already said that X is true.
I’ve noticed a popular fallacy that seems to be of a distinct category. I call it “Fallacy of Disenfranchisement” because it attempts to disqualify a speaker from even expressing an opinion. It circumvents arguments ad hominem by entirely eliminating the ‘hominem.’ This fallacy might also be called a “reverse appeal to authority.”
I encounter it fairly frequently in forums where military veterans join in the dialog:
“If you have not served, you do not know what you are talking about, so you can’t criticize/so shut your piehole.” [concerning recent war atrocities]
As a Vietnam veteran, I bristle when I see vets, claiming some sort of moral high ground solely on account of military service, attempting to silence others (who of course may even be veterans themselves).
But it’s not just veterans who pull this cheap trick:
- “Ann Romney never worked a day in her life” [Obama campaign spokesperson, later repudiated] — therefore women who run a household are disqualified from speaking out on jobs and the economy.
- “Obama never ran a business in his life” [candidate Mitt Romney] — therefore only ex-CEO’s are qualified to run the world’s most powerful nation.
- “You don’t know what it’s like to be gay …”
… or African American, or a female subjected to male executive chauvinism, or Native American, or Hispanic … This area can be a rhetorical slippery slope.
As a simple statement of fact, yes, this form of declarative can make a very powerful statement. Heterosexuals have never walked in a gay person’s shoes. Caucasians have never been subjected to the racial abuse so often heaped on minorities by other Caucasians. Until recently, most men were notoriously clueless about unwanted familiarities and even predatory behavior with the opposite sex, and they laughed about it. And so on.
Perhaps it would be a better world if we could all walk in another’s shoes for that proverbial mile! But this should never be allowed to stop anyone from getting the facts, trying to judge them fairly, and acting appropriately.
Having said all that, if you’ve never come home from a war zone where you’ve risked your life for your country, you’re never going to fully comprehend what it’s like to return to Stateside to find yourself despised and reviled by your civilian peers (as happened to me in 1964).
If that’s the point we want to make, so be it. Stop there. But if we wish to engage others on the tactical points of national policy, or on minority rights or any other debate topic, our special status never excuses us from reasoned discussion of the facts, just like anybody else.
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