Other Pieces

By now we’ve gone through 17 major fallacies of logic or groups of fallacies, a significant number of lesser fallacies and additional word-borne attacks. But I still have a few topics remaining… topics that I feel are crucial to clear thinking. And so I’ll close this set of examinations with them.

I’m calling these Other Pieces, but in my mind, they are Essential Pieces, because they are drawn from my personal experience in making sense of the world and making my way through deceptions and attacks.

I am convinced that these are important for everyone, simply because we all live in the same world and we all share a set of mental and emotional structures. I am highly confident that what has been important for me will be important for most others as well. We do differ a bit, of course, but I remain convinced that they are important for more or less all of us.

Insufficient definition

One of the greatest difficulties with communicating – and this is true of the best-intended communications as well as the worst – is the defining of terms. We have thousands of words and many ways to use each, and that makes for a lot of uncertainty.

For example, when your friend refers to “God,” does she mean a being that created the world and then moved on, a being that controls every event in the world, a spirit encompassing all of reality, or something else entirely? Unless you know what she means, the argument she makes and the argument you hear will be very different things.

And so it is important that we define our terms, and that we clarify the terms used by others:

Excuse, me Bob, but how exactly are you using the term _____?

If a word in a conversation is open to several meanings, whatever follows it could be understood in several ways. And that’s a recipe for all sorts of errors.

And so, if we want to understand, or to be understood, it is essential that we define our terms well.

When we are speaking or writing, it’s important that we define each potentially uncertain term the first time it appears. If we do not, confusion will build until we do, sapping the energy of our hearers or readers. Likewise it’s important when listening to do as illustrated above: to clarify the precise meaning of terms at the earliest opportunity.

The concept of “less bad”

In English, we don’t have a word for “less bad.” When comparing a group of things that are in some way negative, we typical call the least objectionable of them, “better.” But there’s a problem with that, because we also associate “better” with something having positive value.

Better, as we normally use it, means more good.

And so, if we want to understand precisely, and not allow verbal slights-of-hand, it’s important for us to make it clear when something is less bad, but not actually good. If this isn’t done, it’s not terribly hard to use this kind of progression in an argument:

  1. Person A brings up two bad things.
  2. Person B is asked which is better, and chooses one.
  3. Thereafter, Person A treats the “better” thing as good, and Person B allows it to continue, feeling that if he doesn’t, he’ll be contradicting himself.

Collective identity

A collective identity is a single designation for a large number of individuals, and it is fraught with problems. To begin with, all humans are individuals, and so collective identification is always wrong. No two of us – not even identical twins – are exactly the same.

Furthermore, collective identity greatly distorts reality by focusing only on difference. The variation between members of a group (measured by comparing DNA, for example) is almost always greater than the difference between the average member of Group A and the average of Group B.

Finally, collective identity can be deeply dangerous, particularly when it morphs into collective guilt. This is the root of every genocide: Armenians, Jews or whomever are seen as one bad thing – as a herd rather than as individuals – and then a “solution” is put forward. I like to explain it this way:

If Hitler had told a young German to “Go kill Herman Mandelbaum the butcher,” his odds of success would have been slim. But by depersonalizing the Jews, action against them became much easier: They weren’t individuals to be recognized and evaluated normally, but a swarm of vermin, to be recognized and evaluated as vermin are, and dealt with accordingly.

Along with this goes the practice of attributing guilt to a group, rather than to the individual who behaved badly.

Now, to be fair, there are instances where we have to look at a large group of people as a unit, simply because we lack the ability to process four million individual identities. A group designation simply the best we can do. But in those cases, we must never imagine that our conclusions are anything more than gross generalizations.

When that’s the best we can do, so be it, but we must never imagine that we’re being precise or fair, because we’re not.


Paul Rosenberg