Fallacy #5: The Loaded Question

The loaded question fallacy is an attempt to win an argument by starting it with a question or statement that contains a false or misleading assumption. The usual example of this (and one that makes the trick easy to understand) is this question:

Have you stopped beating your wife?

Whether you answer yes or no, you’re admitting that you’ve beaten beaten her in the past; that is pre-supposed by the question itself.

So, this fallacy is really just a dirty trick, although it’s usually wrapped in something like justice-seeking.

Most uses of this fallacy, however, are not so obvious. The one we’ve been hearing a lot over the past twenty years has been this:

If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.

What’s assumed in this statement is the starting position: That it’s right or normal for someone to point a gun at you, to judge you according to their rules, and then to shoot or not shoot, depending on whether you do as they wish.

Let me state that another way for clarity:

The statement says that you won’t be hurt if you obey a person who claims the right to watch every move you make, and who begins the interaction with a weapon pointed at you.

That is what is implied by this question, which becomes clear when we consider that it is asked by or in support of a government… a government that’s spying on you and is eager to destroy terrorists.

All of that is implied in the opening statement.

The Legit Version

Now, before we get too far, let’s be clear about the legitimate use of “if you have nothing to hide.” In commercial or contractual interactions, being transparent may be something agreed upon by the parties. And in those cases, hiding relevant information really may be unethical and evidence of bad dealing.

This is yet another reason to remember that when judging, we need to look at whole situations, not just at rules.

Latching upon a rule is to bypass reality. It is, in a very real sense, a type of idolatry: a desire for a handy, accessible tool that will save us from having to deal with our very complex world.

How The Trick Works

To understand why this trick works, let’s deconstruct the “nothing to hide” slogan. We can start by considering the implications of the words if you have nothing to hide:

    • First of all, it is an accusation, implying that your hesitance is cause by your engagement in evil.
    • Secondly, it is a threat to turn you in to the authorities.
    • Thirdly, it implies that the entity you are hiding from is supremely righteous and morally superior.

What we see here is multiple layers of applied fear: Fear that people will think you’re evil, that power will hurt you, and that you are morally inferior. This fear is delivered indirectly – by implication – but that doesn’t make it less powerful. If you’ve ever been on the target side of this saying, you’ve almost certainly felt it. Fear cuts and intimidates; it’s an attack on your mind and will.

When you feel fear being shot at you, the odds are very high that the implications being made are flatly false. For example, the authority the fear-shooters want you to feel morally inferior to are nearly always governments… a group that nearly everyone (including the fear-shooters) complains about daily. By any objective standard, governments are morally worse than an average working person.

This most effective versions of this trick also rely upon unexpected delivery. By thinking that you’re having an honest conversation, you’re already set up for an ambush. The other party – the accuser – can turn and throw a barrage that you didn’t see coming. Unless you’re well experienced in such things, the shock of it will take you a few seconds to recover from.

During those seconds, however, it will appear to everyone else that you’ve lost, and you’ll probably feel like you lost. The confusion of it all will probably make whatever comments you make seem rather lame.

What To Keep In Mind

The way out of this trap is not to quickly answer the question, but to begin by finding the false assumption behind it. That, however, takes time. And so, until you’re comfortable handling this fallacy (and when combined with fear we may as well be honest and call them attacks), what you really need is to buy time for yourself.

It would probably be very useful for you to get in the habit of saying, “Wait, I want to understand precisely what you’re saying here.” That will give you a chance to take a deep breath and back up to the beginning. It will also change the emotional dynamic of the situation, not only for you, but for any observers and even for your attacker.

Once you’ve created that little bit of space, you can continue: “So, you’re saying that as long as I’m not doing evil, I should be happy about being spied upon?” At this point, the conversation turns nearly 180 degrees.

Bear in mind that almost any attack of this type will be full of dishonesty (I don’t think I’ve ever seen an exception); if it wasn’t, they wouldn’t need to attack; they could merely explain their better idea to you.

The perfect answer to the “Have you stopped beating your wife” question is, “I’ve never beaten my wife, and it is malicious of you to frame a question in such an accusatory, dishonest way.” But again, that requires either a lot of experience or some time to recover from the blow and think it through.

The direct answer to the “nothing to hide” statement would be something along these lines: “I don’t accept you or the people you’re threatening me with as legitimate judges of my actions. You have no right to stand over me and pronounce judgment upon me.”

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg