Friday, April 13, 2018

Political Fallacies: "I don't understand" isn't an argument

There is a particular kind of weirdness that is common on social media these days.  A post goes something like this:

"I don't understand how anyone can be against this.  If you oppose it, you're a bad person."
The implication is that the writer's opinion is so self-evidently right and obvious that anyone who disagrees must be irrational.  If you're on the side of the writer than it probably has you nodding your head in agreement.  If you're on the other side, you feel disrespected and alienated.  Either way, it has succeeded in one thing - cutting off engagement and discussion that might have actually been beneficial.

This kind of statement is a fallacy known as the Argument from Ignorance.  In such an argument, the speaker states that something is true, simply because they don't know anything that would disprove it.  In the modern day, where the internet makes knowledge available to anyone with a smartphone, PC, or library card, there is really no excuse for descending into this error.  If you "don't know" or "don't understand", I guarantee you there are dozens of people ready, willing, and able to offer you the information or perspective that would dispell your ignorance.

Please note, the problem here isn't taking a position or having an opinion.  Even a strong one.  It is trying to assert that because you don't understand the other side, your side must be right.  It's like a blind man arguing because he can't see it, the traffic light must be green and anyone who asserts otherwise is crazy.

My challenge to you:  STOP USING "I DON'T KNOW" OR I DON'T UNDERSTAND" AS AN ARGUMENT. USE IT AS AN HONEST QUEST FOR KNOWLEDGE.  ENGAGE THE OTHER SIDE AND LEARN THEIR ARGUMENTS, IF ONLY SO YOU CAN HONESTLY JUDGE THEM.  The only way to learn is with an open mind.  The only way to stop arguing is to start listening.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Political Fallacies: Protests are a feature of democracy not a bug

The modern attitude toward peaceful protest is weird and contradictory.

Most of us look back on historical protests with affection and admiration:

  • Martin Luther:  Overthrew the dominant position of the Catholic Church on European life and theology without ever swinging a sword (although, his writings sometimes provoked violence on both sides).  He is admired by all Protestants and seen as a key figured of history.
  • Mahatma Gandhi:  Gained independence for India from the British Empire without firing a shot.  He is admired and widely quoted on social media.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:  Lead the Civil Rights Movement for African-Americans which ultimately brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  He has his own federal holiday and is nearly universally admired.
  • Tiananmen Square:  Because of the nature of Chinese media, we don't know the names of the peaceful protesters.  Even the famous man who blocked a column of armored vehicles is only known as "Tank Man".  But these brave men and women are admired around the world. 
But when a peaceful protest pops up in the modern day, it is sure to be condemned and excoriated by its opponents.  Marchers against racial injustice face the opposition of not only white supremacists but also people who want them to "Get over it."   Picketers in favor of Confederate statues face opposition not only from African-Americans in their community but also people who want them to "Sit down and shut up."  Protesters for the "Me Too" movement calling for gender equality face opposition not only from sexists but also people who want them to "Go home."

Odds are at some time since Donald Trump became president, you have condemned someone's peaceful protest because you disagree with them politically.  Odds are even better you shared or re-posted a meme that implies or openly states that your opponents should have their protests shut down.

But peaceful protest isn't a "bug" in our democracy.  It is a feature and an essential part of how the American experiment works.  The American Revolution didn't begin with the "shot heard round the world".  It began with the Boston Tea Party which was a (relative to the time) peaceful protest against unjust taxation by Britain.  Peaceful protests from the very beginning have been a way for the people to express grievances to the powerful without having to resort to civil unrest, riots, or uprising.  They allow even the poorest and least powerful amongst us to communicate their concerns and priorities to the community and to their leaders.  This is why the right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the Bill of Rights right alongside the right to free exercise of religion and free speech.

But why are protests needed in the Age of the Internet, when anyone in the world can post to social media or start a blog or website to communicate their ideas?  There are a few very simple reasons:
  1. Online speech is solitary - one voice in the wilderness - whereas Peaceful Assembly brings together people to work together towards change.
  2. Anonymous speech is useful but may imply a lack of courage.  Peaceful Assembly requires the protester to put themselves into the public space and declare their position.
  3. Written speech can be ignored by looking away.  Peaceful Assembly forces its way into the attention of the public and the powerful.
My challenge to you:  STOP BASHING PEACEFUL PROTESTS.  INSTEAD, LISTEN TO THEM, OFFER A THOUGHTFUL CRITIQUE OF THEIR POSITION, AND JOIN YOUR OWN ASSEMBLY TO GET YOUR POSITION OUT INTO THE PUBLIC SQUARE.  And keep in mind the right is to *peaceful* assembly.  Feel free to bash any group - Right, Left, or Center - who uses a protest as an excuse for violence.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Political Fallacies: Don't Trust Anyone

There is an old axiom amongst journalists:  "Follow the money."  There is another old saying from Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."  And, of course, there is the old scriptural chesnut:  "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." - 1 Timothy 6:10a (ESV)

Money is a useful thing and not evil in and of itself.  It allows us to trade and exchange for goods and services without having to barter for each and every transaction.  Money allows us to live.  And because of that, money becomes an easy lever to manipulate people.  Whether we realize it or not, any threat to our source of income is a threat to ourselves.  And we will act to protect it.

The problem is, this normal human reaction is not restricted to "bad people" or "corrupt politicians".  It happens every day in the news that you read.  Every news organization has to be sensitive to the people paying the bills.  PBS is dependent on donors and government funding.  CNN and FoxNews are dependent on their big corporate advertisers.  Facebook is dependent on its network of both big corporate and small-scale advertisers.  And because of this, all of these news sources have to ensure their reporting never offends their supporters to the point where funding is withdrawn.

This was most recently and dramatically seen in the case of Laura Ingraham and David Hogg where a casual insult by the conservative host against the Parkland, FL teen caused her advertisers to pull their funding.

This means that every news source you value is inherently biased.  It is not that the journalists there intend to deceive, but they and their editors consciously or subconsciously slant their reporting to keep the money flowing.  It is well known that CNN tends to liberal views and FoxNews tends towards conservative views.  But even your local paper will inevitably be biased by its own local sources of revenue.

What is the problem with this?

  1. No source of information can be trusted 100%, no matter how honest or sincere it is.
  2. You'll never have all the facts if you rely on a single source.
  3. Any attempt to "fix" bias will just lead to new biases driven by new funding sources.
Luckily, the solution is relatively simple:  Get your news from a variety of sources.  While any one source is driven by it's internal biases, it is unlikely for two news sources to have exactly the same bias.  And the more diverse your list of news sources, the clearer your picture becomes.

My challenge to you:  CREATE A LIST OF DIVERSE NEWS SOURCES THAT YOU CHECK ON A REGULAR BASIS, INCLUDING SOME YOU DISAGREE WITH.  It doesn't have to be an everyday thing.  But try to stop by every site at least once a week.

Here are a few sources offering different viewpoints:

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Political Fallacies: Yes, Virginia, We're All Hypocrites

I have bad news for you.  You're a hypocrite.  Yes, the epithet Jesus consistently applied to his enemies also applies to you.  Think I'm wrong?  Consider this:

  • If you're "Pro-Life" on abortion, odds are you support the Death Penalty
  • If you're "Pro-Choice" on abortion, odds are you oppose choice when it comes to Gun Ownership
"But," You shout, "You're oversimplifying these issues!  These are complex problems that can't be completely covered by a label!"


If you've spent any time at all in the politics of late, you see one kind of story shared and re-shared relentlessly, whether it be on social media, blogs, or traditional media.  The basic template is this:

  1. Such-and-So said this about a political issue
  2. The same person also said the opposite about a different political issue
  3. This proves they are a hypocrite
  4. Therefore, you should ignore everything Such-and-So says
This technique combines three different kinds of logical fallacy:
  1. Genetic Fallacy:  Discrediting an argument by going after a person instead of addressing the ideas they raise.
  2. Straw Man Fallacy:  Discrediting an argument by presenting an oversimplified and incorrect version of it.  
  3. Whataboutism:  Discrediting an argument by raising another issue that is irrelevant but alarming, instead of addressing the ideas they raise. 
Make no mistake.  The originators of these posts know exactly what they are doing.  They are trying to get you to stop listening to their opponent and walk away.  It's the laziest way to win an argument.

What is the problem with this?  
  1. A confidence artist convinced you to turn off your brain.
  2. It's impossible to convince an opponent you never engage with.
  3. It's impossible to learn anything unless you engage those you disagree with.
My challenge to you:  STOP WORRYING ABOUT WHETHER YOUR OPPONENT IS A HYPOCRITE AND ENGAGE THEIR IDEAS.  YOU DON'T HAVE TO AGREE; YOU JUST HAVE TO LISTEN HONESTLY.  You may be surprised to learn your opponent has a point... or you may find an opportunity to show them your side of the issue.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Political Fallacies: Ideas vs Teams

A recent study confirmed what I have been observing over the last dozen years or so.  In the USA, politics is no longer a battle of ideas but a competition between teams.

Of course, it has always been so to some extent.  Politics is the science of forming coalitions to further personal goals.  This is why we have a Congress to pass laws instead of an enlightened king or executive: only by forming coalitions can we ensure that the top priorities of the maximum number are achieved. This is also why we have political parties:  to allow people to come together and form an alliance that achieves goals that not everyone wants but that everyone in the party can live with.

But while parties and coalitions drive votes, it has been ideas that have driven the parties.  From the beginning of the nation, political parties worked to ensure their top priorities were based on more than personal preferences and piques.  Federalism and Anti-Federalism were defining issues because the first generation had severe disagreements over whether centralization or decentralization were better for the freedom of the individual and the good of the nation.  (We are still fighting that battle in the Gun Control debate, among others.)  Kennedy to Reagan defended Democracy over Communism not only as a practical matter but also in the arena of ideas as they fought in the Cold War.  As recently as President Bill Clinton, the debates over Health Care Reform were over the idea of a government-run universal system and a privately-run independent system.  Which was really better for the consumer, the nation, and the world?

Something different has followed the rise of social media.  We no longer are talking about big ideas.  The formation of echo chambers where we only speak with those who agree with us have eliminated the need to defend a position.  Instead, we defend our "friends" against all attackers, right or wrong.  Our political parties have turned into teams.  And like the Yankees or the Red Sox, it no longer matters who has the best players, best managers, best philosophy, or best mascot.  We support our team simply because it is OUR team.

What is the problem with this?  There are several, which you have probably noticed in the politics of the last 8 years or so:

  1. If you support a Team instead of a Philosophy, you find yourself loving or hating people based on their allegiance instead of their character.
  2. If you support a Team instead of an Idea, you find yourself supporting and defending things that you don't actually believe.
  3. If you support a Team instead of an Ethical System, you see no problem in hating someone simply because they support the other team.
My challenge to you:  STOP SUPPORTING YOUR TEAM, RIGHT OR WRONG, AND GET BACK TO LOOKING AT THE IDEAS YOU VALUE.  You may be surprised to find out who you've been helping or hurting while you were busy playing the political game.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Billy Graham as Saint *AND* Sinner

Reverend Billy Graham died on Thursday, February 22 at age 99.

Most of the articles about his passing were laudatory, but there were a few that excoriated Graham for charges ranging from misogyny (for his "never eating along with a woman other than his wife" rule) to anti-semitism (for failing to chastise Richard Nixon for comments about Jewish leaders) to prejudice against same-sex couples (for standing against marriage equality).

It was easy to dismiss most of these criticisms as out of touch with history and/or an attempt to use a good man's death to grab pageviews and advertiser dollars.  But the more I thought about them, the more annoyed I became at the attempts to tarnish a good man's name without allowing family, friends, and admirers time to mourn.

Then, while sitting in church on Sunday, God began to work on my heart.  "What is wrong with noting the failings of a Christian who has died?" He asked. "My word is unflinching when presenting the failings of my people.  Moses was unforgiving and guilty of manslaughter, David was an adulterer and a murderer, Jonah had no compassion, Peter was violent, and Paul was a political extremist who demanded the death of his enemies.  Even the relatively modern saints you know are deeply flawed.  Martin Luther was an anti-semite and John Calvin was a tyrant.  Only Jesus was without sin so that he could die for all who did."

The thing is, Billy Graham wouldn't have minded his sins being made public.  He was very clear in his sermons that all have sinned.  That we are creatures of sin.  And that apart from God, we are doomed to remain in our sin forever.  He taught that we need Jesus to find forgiveness in God, and that seeking forgiveness is not a one-time thing but a lifestyle.  He taught that we will fail and we will be wrong in our lives - just as God says in the Bible.  That is exactly why we need a Savior.   Every day.

So go ahead and list the sins of Billy Graham.  That doesn't tarnish or reduce this man of God.  It reminds us of the very lesson he most wanted to preach - We are all sinners in need of the grace of God.  And Jesus Christ offers that grace free to all.  Amen.