5 Common Argument Tactics That Need to Die
I am a sick man. Imagine my soul, withered and black, clawing ineffectually at the inside of my ribcage. It cries ashen tears that smolder when they strike the earthen floor of my innards. And yet, on the outside, I appear fine -- I kind of feel like the word "Adonis" is overplayed at this point, but as far as an accurate descriptor of my physical self, you can't do much better. So why am I so disgusting on the inside? Because I am a man who argues on the Internet, and I have rage-typed myself beyond the realm of redemption. But maybe -- just maybe -- there's still time to save you.
One thing I've learned from the past two and a half decades is that, in the Internet debate, your worst enemy is always you. Lots of common go-to arguments end up working more or less like the demon from Pumpkinhead: your body and soul will be so tainted by the experience that any victory will be bittersweet and violently Pyrrhic.
So, listen close, dear reader, as I explain how you are fucking up your own life whenever you find yourself ...
Accusing Someone of Using a Logical Fallacy
What You Think It Means
"You can't insult me, that's an ad hominem fallacy!"
"No, no -- I'm afraid you've fallen victim to the genetic fallacy. Here's a helpful link to explain what a weasel-dicked moron you are."
"Rhythm: you have it or you don't -- that's a fallacy!"
Imagine this: two men are arguing over who has a bigger dick. The first man argues, "I'm way better at sports, Kevin, and therefore my dick is huge." If Kevin can correctly identify the fallacy in that statement, then he wins every-fucking-thing, for-fucking-ever. A person who commits a fallacy, or "fellater," has been completely discredited forever, as has any opinion he or she has ever expressed on anything. That person and their entire family must immediately hang themselves with a gold-threaded Ethernet cable, in accordance with ancient and unquestionable laws.
May they go with the glory of the Ancient Gods, for it is by their sacrifice that our great society may endure.
What It Really Means
Understanding logical fallacies is an important skill, because the human brain is a flawed machine notoriously bad at picking out mistakes. But -- and this is important -- it's a passive trait. You can't use your knowledge of logical fallacies to debate somebody, because whether or not someone is using a logical fallacy has little to do with whether or not they're right. And if you don't believe me, then you're making a logical fallacy. Possibly even two of them.
Look at it this way: saying "you made a logical fallacy" by itself doesn't hurt their argument, and it doesn't strengthen yours. All you did is change the topic of the conversation so that now you're having a meta-argument about how arguments should be made -- a topic far more robust and intimidating than even the mightiest dick. Also, there's a big difference in saying, "There's a flaw in your argument, and it's relevant for this reason," and, "You are making a stupid error, and here are some Latin words to make you feel stupider." The only reason people ever use Latin words in normal conversation is to feel superior to other people. Just ask Val Kilmer in Tombstone ...
... or me in 2010 when I named my cat Res Ipsa Loquitur (The Thing Speaks for Itself) because she wouldn't shut up.
We just call her "Skullface" now. I don't know why.
If you'll allow me to put this in D&D terms: a knowledge of logical fallacies is like a ring that gives you +3 to Strength. It'll improve your defense and offense in certain contexts, but if you're trying to use that ring as a weapon, you're really bad at RPGs and the game master is going to get irritated with you, because how would you even make a roll for that?
Saying "Out of Context" (Without Giving Context)
What You Think It Means
"Now, listen, when I said, 'Nothing arouses me more than driving my Humvee over baby ducks,' that was taken completely out of context, so you have to ignore it."
If you're trying to make a point and you want to use a quote, god forbid you remove it from context, because if you do so you are always lying.What It Really Means
So we all get that every time you quote someone, it's "out of context," right? That's why we do quotes: because it's unwieldy to repost an entire film, comic book series, article, or speech every time we want to talk about it. So when you claim something is taken out of context, that's a tautology, which is a really obnoxious way to say, "You're repeating yourself, dumbass."
I get that when people say something is being presented out of context, the idea is that the missing context totally changes the meaning, but at the same time, how often do you actually see that follow-through that explains how the meaning was changed? Even though the argument is completely pointless without that? The classic example is Charles Darwin, talking about evolution forming the human eye:
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.
"What a wacky organ!" -Charles Darwin
Some creationists say that this proves that Darwin had no faith in his own ideas. If I say that's taken out of context and you believe me, then you're taking my word for it just as much as as someone who disagrees with me would be putting faith in the person who took the quote out of context in the first place. But if I provide that context ...
Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist ... then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real."
"They taste funny too." -Charles Darwin
Then ... well, I'm still not providing the whole context there, because I'm worried about how long this entry is getting, but you dig my point, right? You dig right into it. Next entry.
What You Think It Means
"I know all the other 'Donald Trump Is a Lizard King Truthers' are fact-phobic delusionoids, so let's just look at this logically ..."
Sure, there are a lot of idiots who agree with you, but that doesn't reflect poorly on your views. In fact, listening to their stupid points makes you want to speak up even louder, to drown them out!
What It Really Means
You've been tricked by a weird quirk in the human brain that politicians, cult leaders, and crazy people on the Internet are using to deceive you. Turns out, people feel more confident announcing their opinions on an issue if they hear people expressing their stupid (but agreeing) opinions first. To get how this works, imagine you're a normal person who doesn't know a whole bunch about movies, but you're in a conversation where everyone's talking about advanced cinematic techniques and film technology and whatever a "Sidney Lumet" is. You're probably gonna keep sorta quiet, because it'd be embarrassing to admit how much you loved Pacific Rim in that context. But if one of your friends says, "Man, Michael Bay sucks because he uses CGI, and CGI is always terrible no matter how it's used," then there's your opening! That dude's clearly an idiot, so if you start talking, you get to sound smart by comparison. His dumb ideas gave you confidence in your less-dumb ones.
Kinda like how putting a tall chess piece next to a short chess piece really highlights how much they look like butt plugs.
This explains all the stupidity in the world. It's why your favorite politician will frequently make really lame points in speeches to supporters -- they know it's making them feel smarter by comparison. And it's why every single time someone brings up an insane conspiracy theory, they'll start off with, "Now, don't lump me in with all the nutjobs ..." It's those nutjobs that gave them the confidence to speak up in the first place.
The problem is, if you're motivated for a cause by nutjobs, and those nutjobs are the people most associated with your cause ... well, that doesn't by itself mean that the whole movement is full of shit, but it's a pretty big hint. Correlation may not prove causation, but as a great mathematician once said, it does "waggle its eyebrows suggestively and mouth 'look over there.'"
But none of these are as stupid as ...
Complaining About "Bias," a lack of "Balance," or "Agendas"
What You Think It Means
"We need to remove all bias from journalism, because if someone is biased, they cannot be trusted to say or do anything."
To engage with bias is to engage with the sordid face of evil itself. Anyone with an agenda is dead set on the destruction of everything you value in the world, and they will not rest until the last glimmering light of beauty is extinguished and all that remains of our once-great society is a hot wind whispering through dry, desolate fields beneath a burning sky.
What It Really Means
I'm going to defer to people smarter than me now, and borrow someone else's words to point out that "a point of view is not the same thing as a bias," and consensus is not the same as collusion. An example that article uses is the debate over the age of the Earth: the fact that scientists overwhelmingly agree that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old doesn't prove that science is biased against Christianity, it shows that creationism doesn't make sense in scientific terms.
A lot of the time, complaints about "bias" are really just an effort to make a bad idea seem good. People may argue: "They won't teach my ideas in schools, they edit them out of Wikipedia articles, and no news organization will cover them. Clearly, there's an agenda against my ideas!" Sure, that's possible. But it's also possible that the ideas are just really stupid, and nobody wants to waste their time on them, right? Not every perspective in every debate deserves attention. Journalists make the call to ignore stupid ideas all the time, and it's vitally important that they do so, or every news story about a murder case would have to include a sidebar about why that jerk totally deserved it.
That's not to say that bias isn't a problem, because it totally is. It just requires a lot of research and explanation.
"Bias in journalism is a complex and delicious concept worthy of much analysis. Like eyeballs." -Charles Darwin
Bias is a problem when it's a "systematic distortion of reality." And to figure out when that's happening, you gotta identify what information is being withheld, why, and who's benefiting. Yes, that's a lot of research and hard work, but that's what you signed up for when you brought up "bias."
You always have to ask yourself, "Why would someone spread this lie?" And if your answer is, "To advance the agenda!" then you're missing the point, because that's a bullshit non-answer that's tricking you into not thinking. Why do they want that agenda advanced? Where is the money? Where is the power? Remember, the human brain has an overwhelmingly strong urge to ignore flaws in arguments it agrees with while seeking out flaws in stuff it doesn't like, because we want to win more than we want the truth. If you don't work to counteract that, you're basically just a putty patroller from Power Rangers, an anonymous soldier for an evil agenda who's about to get beaten up by a teenager in cut-off jeans. Is that really what you want?
Besides, who told you about this bias? Was it someone on Twitter? Because if so, you should keep in mind ...
Every Debate on Twitter Is a Waste of Time
How You Think It Works
"@You Let's debate this thoughtfully, like adults, in a public format that will be remembered forever in this, the golden age of human thought."
As a piece of technology, the Internet is capable of stimulating human debate and interaction on a level never imagined by anyone in history. Now that news sites report on Twitter fads and #hashtags have proven their ability to save the world, the Twittersphere has established itself as the forefront of human thought, and, as such, the default platform for all intelligent debate.
How It Really Works
One-hundred-forty characters, guys. I love Twitter, probably too much. I have a lot of fun cracking jokes and poking funs and hucking guffaws just all over that place -- but the moment you try to argue there, you're an idiot. Hi. I'm an idiot.
I can't remember ever winning a single debate on Twitter -- and I can't remember losing one, either. The only way they ever end is when I get distracted by real life or suddenly realize what I'm doing and say, "What the fuck am I doing?" But it's a rhetorical question, because I know exactly what I'm doing. I just can't bring myself to face it.
The problem is in the human brain. Turns out, it's really easy for us to contradict ourselves without even realizing it. If you have someone fill out a questionnaire about specific, detailed opinions, and then read back those opinions but make them the exact opposite, then those people will start arguing against what they said they believed. They'll even develop "coherent and unwavering arguments" in support of something that, just moments ago, they disagreed with. It illustrates that, like we've shown before, people are more interested in being right than they are in any specific ideology. And if you think the sensation of winning isn't worth mangling your own ideals beyond repair, you've clearly never held a cup made out of pewter.
Hope you love fingerprints that just magically appear!
Now, think about how Twitter works. First, there's only 140 characters, so arguments are limited to pithy summaries. Second, it's almost impossible to keep track of how the conversation progresses, especially if people are posting multiple tweets to each other -- so it's unlikely that anyone will keep track or even realize if they've contradicted themselves. Third, even if you win, there's nothing you can do with that. You can't show anybody your victory, because any Twitter conversation about something important is going to be complex and fragmented, and good luck getting anyone to care about screenshots of a 37-chapter-long Twitter bitch-fest.
Here's this entry in Tweet Form: I just had a great idea, everyone: let's never argue about anything on Twitter ever again.
For more from Sarge, check out 5 Human Flaws That Prevent Progress and Keep Us Dumb and 4 Common Complaints That Completely Miss the Point.
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