Rhetoric: Fallacy of Disenfranchisement

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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The Little Old Lady and the Dog – a Modern Parable

I have one or two friends who are fond of forwarding “loaded” jokes of the variety that, on one level, seem to be straightforward humor or truism, but with a second layer of gratuitous and purely political invective grafted on. Somehow, these unfailingly parrot the far end of the “right-wing” political party line, with which I find myself currently and profoundly disaffected. After receiving one more of those from a friend with just such a penchant for politically-hijacked “jokes,” I wrote this up and almost did a “reply-all” to chain letter and all its recipients with my own composition below attached. But, proving a point, by embarrassing my friend in front of all his other friends, is just not worth ending a 55-year friendship — even though it’s true enough that I am always in the right, whereas he is always 100% in the wrong and never has a leg to stand on. So I will just share this with you as food for thought, Dear Readers, and let it go at that.

The Little Old Lady and the Dog

There was this little old lady Gladys who went for a walk with her Yorkshire terrier. Along the way, she met her old friend Mrs. Gunderson, who said, “Why hello Gladys, how good to see you again, how are you?”

Gladys said, “I am fine, I am very glad to see you, and I do so want to tell you about my new little dog Herriot! But I must say how very upset I am about how all these Liberals are trying to wreck the country with equal this and equal that and tax the rich and spend spend spend. Land sakes, there they go again, trying force all these illegals down our throats and expecting us to like it, can you imagine? Next thing you know they’ll be wanting to marry. They’re just awful! Now just look at how they’ve ruined our school system: why, kids can’t even count change properly like we could when we were their age, not of course that I would stoop to count change out to some … some commoner! Everything we did in the day was superior to anything they’re doing today. You didn’t catch US spending all day texting and surfing the internet! And, when we wanted to make money, we’d go out out and earn it the tried-and-proven hard way, honest money every penny of it, devoting lifetimes of sheer hard work and loyal drudgery to a single at-will employer … if, of course, we didn’t marry into the right circles soon enough – my dear, how is that husband of yours doing in what, that clerical position of his? You do look a little harried today! No no, you didn’t catch any of us growing so-called “startups,” they call them now, peddling IPO’s while still in their teen years, and retiring as billionaires in their mid-twenties! And they’re all these damn Nancy Pelosi Liberals, you know, every single last one of them, who will try to twist the conversation around into the Environment when all we’re discussing is how to make a $20 profit on a truckload of old-growth redwood. They’ll take a simple innocent declarative sentence like this one and embroider and embellish it until it sounds like Al Gore’s Sermon on the Mount! Who the blazes do they think they are? They act like they’re so high-falutin’ SUPERIOR when in fact you or I have more superiority in our little fingers than they have in their amply fat Burger King rear ends, my dear! And, let me tell you another thing, they complain like crazy when we try to tell our side, the real truth of the story, and they LAUGH at us like we’re demented old coots when we try to warn them of the many evils of their godless ways. If there’s one thing I just don’t like, it’s their little smug, defamatory, self-righteously hostile attitudes. If the misbegotten little shits can’t be forced to listen to reason, why don’t they all go back where they came from?”

Mrs. Gunderson said, “Why my dear Gladys, this is all well and fine, I’m sure! But what about your darling little Yorkie?”

Gladys said, “Oh, Mrs. Gunderson, my goodness, he’s not important; he’s just along for the walk — don’t you see, dear? The important thing is for us to be ready to take any conversation, situation or scenario and turn it into a venue for righteous political agenda.

©Alexander Forbes and www.summitlake.com December 7, 2011
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Rick Santorum

Heard on PBS: Now that Bin Laden’s gone, who will al-Qaeda find to take over?

“Rick Santorum,” I said. Well, why can’t they take Santorum? He dresses better, causes lots of harm, and everything he does seems perfectly legal.

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Getting The Salt Out

The issue:

Packaged grocery store foodstuffs are heavily over-salted to make them “taste good” and hide other flavoring and culinary deficiencies. If you are young, are not on a low-sodium diet by doctor’s order, and you enjoy canned soups or Top Ramen, for example, you are headed for medical issues. If you are already on a restricted sodium intake, you quickly find it’s almost impossible to shop for prepared foods that you like that also have low or even moderate sodium levels.

“On Tuesday, the prestigious Institute of Medicine said the food industry has made little progress in voluntarily reducing sodium. The advisers urged the FDA to set maximum sodium levels for different foods in a stepwise rollback, so that eventually average consumption would drop by about half a teaspoon.” — Yahoo news

The FDA:

“We believe we can achieve some substantial voluntary reductions,” Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “We are shaping a strategy, and that strategy involves working in partnership.” — Yahoo news

The McLaughlin Group:

“Long-running panel discussions on topical (mostly political) issues that sometimes play like a noisy family dinner in which everyone speaks at once, until moderator John McLaughlin brings all to order. It’s punditry that can get loud and a bit frenzied, b…” — PBS

The truth is that the McLaughlin Group behaves like a dysfunctional family that’s having a really bad day. There is, in plain fact, no moderation of this free-for-all verbal brouhaha. In the histrionics over table salt, conservative Pat Buchanan (well-known known to liberals as the racist, homophobic commentator and former journalist) came across as one of the sanest and most level-headed.

Some air-head from the Washington Post said that the FDA proposal is further proof of the Obama Administration’s drive to increase government intrusion into the private sector, as evidenced by the proposal’s tendency to deprive Americans of free choice.

What Part of “Moron” Don’t They Understand?

This whole issue IS about free choice. There is no proposal to regulate the manufacture, sale or distribution of table salt, as is done with liquor, explosives, or prescription drugs. Reducing the salt content of prepared foods as a class restores free choice to Americans, since it is easy to add salt,  but impossible to remove it.

The shouters and screamers are always free to reach for the salt shaker and shower their dinner plates and soup bowls with thousands of extra milligrams of salt (and I hope they do), but the rest of us should be free to regulate our salt intake – up, or down – as we choose.

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Cooking for Partisans and Politicians

Lidia Bastianich

Lidia Bastianich on her cooking show

I enjoy watching cooking shows. And this is odd, because I rarely cook. Nowadays, my idea of a gourmet meal is Camembert and crackers.

I enjoy most all of the TV chefs. I didn’t quite “get” Julia Child until she’d passed on. I used to watch Rachel Ray with my late partner Bob. Mostly these days I enjoy “Lidia” – Lidia Bastianich.

It’s true I do enjoy really good salads, pasta and such (when I don’t have to prepare them myself). What I enjoy most about these famous chefs is their unpretentious, task-oriented attitude. The show isn’t about them. It’s about the food. It’s about quality ingredients. It’s about allowing the ingredients to shine at what they do best.

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Sticks and Stones

One would doubt there could be many left in this country who have not already made up their minds about November 2004 — the universal choice is either the current administration or absolutely anybody else whomsoever. Feelings are high. Yet I persist in saying passionately that name-calling is injurious to everyone on all sides.

Terms like ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’, applied to candidates on either side, announce to thinking people that the brain has been shut down: alas, yes, it’s too late for discussion or analysis with this chap. Deprecating terms fairly shout: “Don’t even bother discussing the issues with people like me. Your candidate’s a moron. If you’re going to vote for him, you must be a moron too.”

We rightly recoil stiffly when we hear terms like that used to dismiss folks on our own side with no further hearing. Do we presume our audience to be safely on “our side”? Or do we write them off as already lost to the other? No matter. People who hear name-calling react the same way, and with good reason. Admit it. You do too.

The administration’s popularity is at an all time low. And we as a people are more highly polarized than we have been in 40 years. I think it is important to reach even people who think they’ve made up their mind by hammering on the issues one by one. The issues are the sticks and stones that topple administrations. They have done so before and will do so again.

It’s not true that “names will never hurt me”. Whatever cause you fancy, name-calling hurts your own position by making it look weak, poorly thought out, and too fragile to expose to the light of day.

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SF Cop Killer

In San Francisco we have a situation in which a fine young police officer was gunned down and murdered recently. Officer Isaac Espinoza, 29, arrived on the scene with his partner to question a 21-year-old gang member. Apparently afraid the police might say something about his AK-47, the gang member without warning sprayed some 50 rounds at the officers, murdering Espinoza with three shots.

Assuming a first-degree conviction, if ever there was a candidate for the death penalty, this senseless foul act deserves the death penalty.

The problem is that the citizens of San Francisco elected District Attorney Kamala Harris, who campaigned on a platform promise to never prosecute for the death penalty. The DA’s office is preparing charges which would ask for life imprisonment.

Groups and individuals asking Harris to reconsider her position include Sens. Feinstein and Boxer, state Attorney General Lockyer, the Police Officer’s Association, and newly appointed SF Police Chief Heather Fong.

Mayor Gavin Newsom has reaffirmed that Harris was elected on a no-death-penalty platform, and he’s not interfering with that.

When a police officer falls, we are all attacked and we are all wounded. We tender our deepest sympathy and regrets to the Espinoza family.

Please see our recent post “Death Penalty”. We sympathize strongly with those who would push for the death penalty in this case, but we have an even bigger problem with the way it has been presented to the public.
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Death Penalty

Topics unpopular: my position on the death penalty is that it’s a moral option in a free democratic society. My reason for having to make this statement now will become apparent when I post my next entry, “SF Cop Killer”.

Most people will offer a strong, reflexive, ingrained opinion for or against the death penalty — based on gut feeling and/or arguments with which I usually have little quarrel. Far from not having taken a stand on this either way, I have strong convictions for both sides.

I don’t feel guilty about the inconsistency, and you shouldn’t either. The contradiction is not of our making. There are severe conflicts in the law, and the way in which it is applied in individual trials appears too often to be flawed and subject to processes that fall far short of blind impartial justice. I don’t have control over that and am not responsible for reconciling the inconsistencies of society.

On the one hand, I generally have no problem with the death penalty for a jury conviction for first degree murder. People often detest arguments that incarcerating inredeemably incorrigable killers for the rest of their life is expensive and a waste of the taxpayer’s money. I’m not one of those people.

On the other, we see in the newspapers too many documented cases of individuals convicted and sentenced to death or life imprisonment, who, after any number of years ranging up to the better part of a human lifetime, are found to have been wrongfully convicted. To kill even one innocent man to punish ten others is morally wrong.
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Getting Over It

We caught a TV sound bite last night from Senator John McCain. Topic: Vietnam. Message: “Get over it”.

McCain’s quote was tough to find via Google. Relevant links were paraphrased and densely interspersed with commentary. We found it in the Arizona Republic:

“I believe Bush served honorably. I believe Kerry served honorably. Let’s get over it, stop it now,” the Arizona Republican said. “We should be fighting this war [Iraq], not fighting the one that ended over 30 years ago.”

And now, stay tuned for commentary. “Get over it?” John, if we didn’t figure out Vietnam issues 30 years ago, what makes you think we get to say we have a handle on them this time around?

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Wrong News, Polysyllabic Professors

During a discussion of the war in Iraq, somebody commented that I must watch “the wrong news”. I’m not totally unfamiliar with the theory that having the right attitude begins with an exposure to the right news.

What would the “right news” be? I thought I’d surf the web. Starting with good old reliable William F. Buckley Jr. (National Review – founder and patron saint), I hit paydirt right away. I wrote back:

Actually I get most of my in-depth info from the New Yorker. Including, I think, my earlier note about Afghan women’s rights. I just can’t remember which issue.OK, so maybe the New Yorker isn’t the National Review, which says:“But just as millions of Americans were flat-out wrong about the urgency and necessity of fighting the Cold War, today there are millions of good and decent Americans who do not want to look the current enemy in the eye. They cling to polysyllabic professors who find clever ways to say the same dumb things over and over again. They look to America-detesting Europeans, mistaking cynicism for sagacity.” (4/23/2004 by Jonah Goldberg)

Give me polysyllabic professors every time. When it comes to looking current enemies in the eye, we should be pretty proficient, as we have so many of them. And what about the overachieving guy who votes to conscript his neighbor’s sons? If that’s not tough love, my name isn’t Chris Matthews. Hey, at least we should be grateful we have somebody to explain the tough decisions to us.


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