Friday, April 19, 2013

Brain Damaged Woman Employs Logical Fallacies

James Tarantos at the Wall Street Journal catalogs the various logical fallacies employed by ex-Congress woman Gabrielle Giffords in the gun control fight:
Gabby Giffords Poisons the Well 
Although Giffords was unable to complete her term in Congress, she did recover sufficiently to make something of a return to public life. The "civility" campaign having long since fizzled, she got on board with the new moral panic, the one about guns.

If Alter meant it when he said he hoped Giffords would become a "referee" of public discourse--an advocate for reasoned civility--he ought to feel terribly disappointed. She has instead turned out to be a practitioner of incivility and unreason.

That's a harsh but justified appraisal of her op-ed in today's New York Times, titled "A Senate in the Gun Lobby's Grip." It's a reaction to yesterday's failure of President Obama's gun-control proposals in the Democratic Senate. Giffords's 900-word jeremiad should be included in every textbook of logic and political rhetoric, so rife is it with examples of fallacious reasoning and demagogic appeals. Let's go through them:
• The argumentum ad passiones, or appeal to emotion. She leads with this one: "Senators say they fear the N.R.A. and the gun lobby. But I think that fear must be nothing compared to the fear the first graders in Sandy Hook Elementary School felt as their lives ended in a hail of bullets. ..
• The appeal to motives. Giffords claims that the senators who voted against the measures "looked over their shoulder at the powerful, shadowy gun lobby" and "made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association." ...
• Guilt by association. See the references to the "gun lobby" in the preceding paragraph.
• Poisoning the well. She reveals that some of the senators who voted against the amendments "have met with grieving parents" and that some "have also looked into my eyes . . . and expressed sympathy" for her and other Tucson victims. Her purpose in citing these facts is to impugn the senators' sincerity: "And still these senators decided to do nothing. Shame on them." In reality, they didn't "do nothing"; they rejected particular legislative proposals. It does not follow, and indeed it seems unlikely and is boorish to assert, that their expressions of sympathy were not heartfelt.
• Begging the question. Giffords characterizes the proposed amendments as "common-sense legislation" that "could prevent future tragedies." She also describes them as "these most benign and practical of solutions." She pretends that the central matter in dispute--whether the benefits would outweigh the costs or indeed whether the proposals would have yielded the benefits their advocates promised at all--has already been settled in her side's favor.
• The no-true-Scotsman move. "These senators have heard from their constituents--who polls show overwhelmingly favored expanding background checks," Giffords writes. She ignores the possibility that those polls are flawed and that the senators are hearing a different message from their constituents. Then she qualifies her claim of public unanimity: "I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth . . ." See what she did there?
• The argumentum ad baculam, or argument from the club. This consists in attempting to persuade by making threats. Giffords urges "mothers to stop these lawmakers at the grocery store and tell them: You've lost my vote" and in other ways for those who agree with her to work for the lawmakers' defeat--a call to action, not an argument. There is, of course, nothing objectionable about citizens in a democratic republic engaging in such action, but that goes for those on the other side as well. And it's worth recalling that the "civility" hypocrites back in the day proclaimed themselves troubled and outraged by the phenomenon of citizens confronting their elected representatives at public meetings.
• The argumentum ad miserecordiam, or appeal to pity. "Speaking is physically difficult for me," she writes. "But my feelings are clear: I'm furious." It should be obvious that this in no way speaks to the merits of the legislation or even the character of its supporters and opponents.
• The false dilemma. This is Giffords's closing gambit: "To do nothing while others are in danger is not the American way."
• The appeal to authority. That would be Giffords's own authority as a former lawmaker. "I was elected six times to represent southern Arizona, in the State Legislature and then in Congress," she writes. "I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither." Perhaps her legislative experience gives her some insight into the senators' state of mind, but if so, she does not share it with readers, whom she expects to accept her conclusion unquestioningly.
To be fair, the fact that she's employing such illogical arguments has nothing to do with her brain injuries.  They've been staples in the arguments for gun control all long, in fact, they're staples in most political arguments on all sides.  I might have even employed one or two of them myself, at rare times...

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