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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Captain Memo

Mondegreens, Mumbling, and Mis-speech

Examples of good speakers

In the world of public speaking and narration, not everybody can be a Mike Rowe or Max Raphael.

1) Mike Rowe does the distinct and recognizable narrative for many Discovery Channel shows. His speaking style is characterized by clearly enunciated and animated dialog. Continue reading

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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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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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