Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Abyss, the 47 Senator Letter to Iran and the Ad Hominem Fallacy

By Steven S. Vrooman

Just in case you were wondering whether or not the application of argumentative fallacies, as facilitated by a previous blog post, matters, the recent issue with 47 Republicans in the Senate sending a letter to Iran is a useful example of what we can learn. 

It is important to note that we are not really gunning for the Truth here. Sure, we could point out the flaws in the arguments, but Chaim Perelman points out that even the best human arguments in practice are just "quasi-logical" (more on Perelman will be forthcoming in a future post). We could apply fallacy analysis to rank the arguments in terms of truth, but that also only has limited value. In this case, the letter to Iran really does only tell the truth, in a way. But that is not the reason it was written or publicized. The letter is a part of a two negotiations (at least), between the US and Iran and between the GOP and President Obama. What it implies and what is left out are perhaps more important than the letter of the letter. 


we would argue that an ad hominem argument, which asserts (or implies) that an idea is wrong because there is something wrong with the asserter of the idea, is a poor reason to reject an idea. In terms of this fallacy, I always think of the scene in The Abyss, where Lindsey wants the alien crackpot character to stop agreeing with her: "Hippy, do me a favor and stay off my side":


So we know that even though the idea is NOT less true because a weird guy with a rat believes it (in fact, 26 year-old SPOILER ALERT, the idea IS true), we also know that people are persuaded by these kinds of things. The Lindsey character wants him to shut up because of that.

So following the way that ad hominems work is an interesting way to trace how rhetors seem to be understanding their audience.

In addition, in cases like with this letter, where no clear argument is being made by one side of the debate, provide an interesting test case. What exactly, is President Obama supposed to say? What he did say was this: "It's somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran. It's an unusual coalition."

So a classic ad hominem, right? Link the GOP to the "bad guys" in Iran. It's the kind of argument American politics likes to sling around.

But there's more here. This ad hominem becomes an enthymeme (an incomplete argument where the audience is induced to supply the conclusion) suggesting like:

  1. Conservatives in the US and Iran are in communication.
  2. Perhaps we communicate with those we have something in common with, especially if the communication is out of the ordinary.
  3. What could these conservatives have in common? 
  4. Well, the US conservatives seem to want to derail a settlement with Iran.
  5. Is that because conservatives are interested in war, not peace, in order to gain political power?
  6. Isn't that what "bad guy" conservatives all over the world try to do?
  7. Is conservativism then not a "real" ideology but instead a shallow play for power?

You can see where this is going:


It would be hard to argue these ideas in the public sphere if you are the president. Some things are unseemly for a president to say, at least traditionally. In this way, the ad hominem serves two purposes. First, it teases us with the idea that it might be more, that there might really be something substantive to this connection, not just another political insult. Second, it provides all the deniability you could want. When challenged, Obama's spokesperson can simply say that he was observing an interesting fact that is observable in the situation and meant nothing by it.

And the politics continues.

The goal in this kind of analysis is not to find out the truth as much as it is to try to find out how the arguments work in the field of discourse. Over time, patterns emerge which can tell us important things about the parties involved. 

An example of this kind of pattern and what it means will be for a future post. For now, I'd just like argumentative fallacies to re-enter American discourse. We are not the fallacy police, like the grammar police. Rhetoricians have something else to offer.

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