As we did last time, we’ll combine several formal fallacies in this installment. I’m doing this because I think the application of these fallacies has more practical importance than their logical derivations. That is, all fallacies are applied by real humans, against real humans; and so I want to make that the primary focus, not their formal (almost mathematic) explanations.
I have nothing against the formal renderings of these things, in fact I find them necessary, but for application in actual human affairs, usage is more central than analytics.
And so I’m calling today’s fallacy the appeal to diversions. We could include many formal fallacies under this description, but here are the primary types:
- Appeal to consequences: “Your argument is false because it will result in XYZ.”
- Appeal to widespread belief: “Everyone knows that is false.” (Or true.)
- Appeal to ignorance: “You can’t prove this is false, so stop arguing.”
- Bulverism: “You suffer from oppositional disorder; that’s why you came to such a bad conclusion.”
- Appeal to worse problems: “If you think it’s bad here, go see how you like it in North Korea.”
- Playing the servant: “How can you accuse me of that? I’m working for the very highest ideals.”
The fundamental operation of these fallacies are actually the same: All of these are distractions from the truth. Their purpose is to divert us from a direct examination of a claim.
Looked at calmly, it’s obvious that all these arguments are frauds; their very purpose is to eliminate critique, which wouldn’t be necessary for solid beliefs. And so by making such an argument, the speaker is condemning his or her own claim.
How The Trick Works
The first thing to understand about this trick is that its goal is not precisely to win the argument; it’s just to make the contrary opinion go away. After that, the win is implied: He made his ridiculous case and we shut him down.
What makes these arguments work, of course, is emotional pressure. Imagine a lone male, standing in a group of females, airing an opinion and being told, angrily, that, “Of course a man would say that.” Or a young woman with no college degree airing a contrary opinion to a group of professors, and being told, “You’re criticizing someone far better than yourself.” That kind of pressure turns the holder of another opinion into a heretic and chases them away.
Said another way, this trick works when emotional pressure overcomes truth, making it less compelling than the emotions being thrown at you. And once you are emotionally centered on the dark scenarios spun with this fallacy, defensiveness comes easy and the diversion will likely accomplish its purpose.
As we’ve noted several times, humans have a weakness for conformity, and so people using this fallacy are likely to “play the room against you.” That is, they’ll make you feel that everyone in the room opposes you. Alternatively, they may conjure images of an audience, leading you to imagine them all listening and observing. Or, they may want you to fear the audience they’ll recount the conversation to.
Now, let’s examine what the victim of this trick will feel in all six of the variations we started with:
“Your argument is false because it will result in XYZ.” You are being cast as a destructive, injurious person. Rather than defending the truth of your opinion, you’ll be pushed into a defence, not of your opinion, but of your self: “No, I’m not saying that children should be deprived of good nutrition.” After that it will be difficult to get back to an actual examination of facts.
“Everyone knows that is false.” You are not only holding a different opinion, but actively calling everyone else stupid. (Which people deeply resent.) Your opponent will try to make you imagine large numbers of offended people, all centering their anger upon you.
“You can’t prove this is false… can you?” You are being made to feel stupid, that you were unprepared to make such a statement, and were arrogant to try. (Remember, a thing being false and being able to prove it’s false are two very different things. Sometimes proof requires million-dollar machines.)
“You suffer from an oppositional disorder; that’s why you came to such a terrible conclusion.” You are being made to feel defective.
“If you think it’s bad here, go see how you like it in North Korea.” You are being made to feel ungrateful and that you’re blowing things out of proportion.
“How can you accuse me of that? I’m working for the very highest ideals.” You are being made to feel unappreciative, acting presumptuously, acting above your station.
In all these cases, focus is being turned upon you and away from the validity of your claims. And so the trick works because it applies pressure directly to your weaknesses. Humans are vulnerable to status, conformity and fear, and in all the cases above (and many others like them), these vulnerabilities are being attacked. These attacks are weapons, no less so than swords.
What To Keep In Mind
The first thing to do in these cases is to notice the bad feeling that is being thrust upon you. Recognize that something is wrong. Next, realize that this feeling came from the other party and that it is being used as a weapon.
As with other emotional attacks, you’ll have to absorb the blow. Again I wish I had a better suggestion for you, but I don’t. Take the pain, but remember that it’s a blow from a bully and nothing more. Such emotional strikes usually recede fairly quickly.
So, absorb the blow, then remember our go-to line: Wait… I want to understand what you’re saying here… are you saying that my point doesn’t matter, because you think ______?
At this point you should be feeling a bit better, and able to expose the attack for what it was. Here are responses based upon our six examples:
“Your argument is false because it will result in XYZ.”
First of all, you haven’t shown that XYZ is inevitable. Secondly, you haven’t shown that my opinion would lead to XYZ. I think you can’t refute what I said and are trying to escape it by attacking me personally.
“Everyone knows that is false.”
Everyone doesn’t know that’s false; I know plenty of people who think it’s true. But more than that, everyone once believed the the sun went around the Earth, so “what everyone believes” is no standard at all. I think you’re trying to slash at me because you can’t refute my argument.
“You can’t prove this is false… can you?”
There are hundreds of things I can’t prove that are likely true; we’re all in that situation. Honest people don’t try to sweep away arguments with unfair and overly-broad statements. Do you have anything else? Maybe something that doesn’t reek of a personal attack?
“You suffer from an oppositional disorder; that’s why you come to such a terrible conclusion.”
So that’s your argument? Ignore the facts and call the other person insane? How very convenient for you. Is that what your profession teaches… to escape losing arguments by calling people crazy?
“If you think it’s bad here, go see how you like it in North Korea.”
I’m not talking about North Korea, I’m talking about here. I think you’re holding to North Korea because you can’t face the truth about what’s happening here.
“How can you accuse me of that? I’m working for the very highest ideals.”
Self-praise doesn’t make anyone right. Either you have facts or you don’t. And proclaiming your untouchable ideals makes me think that you don’t have facts.
If the conversation turns contentious (but not actually dangerous), I recommend saying something like, “I don’t think you want your opinion examined, otherwise you wouldn’t need to launch such an attack,” then turning and walking away.
If the situation could become dangerous, please walk away after the first attack. Turn, step away, and leave quietly; you’re dealing with barbarians and probably shouldn’t have come in the first place.
More next time.