The Weak Man Fallacy

Is paranoia and militancy the core of the Tea Party Movement? In the context of my recent foray into the Tea Party movement, I’ve been thinking recently about fallacies and bad critical thinking in the public sphere. My friend Robert Talisse has an article with Scott Aikin that I think all philosophers should read. In it, Talisse and Aikin propose a variant of the “Straw Man fallacy,” the “Weak Man.” The Weak Man fallacy doesn’t misstate a rival’s position like a ‘straw man,’ but instead

chooses the opposition’s weakest (or one of its weakest) arguments or proponents for attack.

Talisse developed an account of this fallacy in an article in Scientific American, “Getting Duped: How the Media Messes with Your Mind“:

Weak man tactics are harder to detect than those of the straw man variety. Because straw man arguments are closely related to an opponent’s true position, a clever listener might be able to spot the truth amid the hyperbole, understatement or other corrupted version of that view. A weak man argument, however, is more opaque because it contains a grain of truth and often bears little similarity to the stronger arguments that should also be presented. Therefore, a listener has to know a lot more about the situation to imagine the information that a speaker or writer has cleverly disregarded.

The problem is that there are always both strong and weak interlocutors in the electorate. There are a lot of crazy, wrong, and stupid people in the United States. Should bloggers and scholars devote their energies to responding to them? Or should they respond to the strongest, smartest, best proponents of a policy with which we disagree?

This is made doubly difficult due to the history of ‘dog whistle‘ political discourses in the US. As Lee Atwater put it:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger”.

Atwater’s point has often been misinterpreted, in part because his practice was so despicable. His claim was not that state funding cuts actually count as racism, it was that forcing racist politicians into dog whistle politics raises the tone of the debate, so that we can hope, eventually, to be having a substantive conversation about policy rather than a coded conversation about race. Of course, it’s clear that there will always be a portion of the population that hears some talking points as coded racism, and it’s clear that some politicians will take advantage of that fact in order to ‘switch codes’ and gain their trust. But how much of our time ought to be devoted to combating the use of increasingly anachronistic codes, and how much to ferreting out the best policies?

To my mind, we’re hurt more by our paranoia about codes than by the codes themselves. If everything is a “message,” if everything is rhetoric, than there’s no reason to listen to the opposition or consider alternatives. By accusing reasonable folks of being in league with unreasonable and basically racist arguments, we’re denying that they are honorable or worth considering as equals. Not everything is a power struggle: sometimes, especially in democratic deliberations about complex institutional reforms, people argue because they actually want to get it right.

As I see it, the way we deal with out fellow citizens largely depends on applying the principle of charity both in our interpretation of their argument and in our selection of which arguments to interpret. But this task is complicated by the role that scholars, teachers, and public intellectuals play in policing the boundaries of reasonable public discourse itself.

Sometimes we target arguments for racism or sexism because such arguments are gaining or currently hold enough traction to influence public policy. This is obviously important. However, sometimes it seems that we target those arguments because we’d like to tar our opponents with the stink of racism or sexism. This seems to be what’s happening with the Tea Party movement. By targeting the lunatics and the racists, we ignore the possibility that there’s a core of reasonable people with reasonable cause for disaffection with American politics. That’s a strange refusal of empathy, given how disaffected many of us were just a few years ago, and how little has changed, in practice, except for some of the personnel: there are still innocent prisoners in Gauntanamo Bay, there are still CIA black sites, we’re still at war with two different countries, the Patriot Act is still in place…..

If we really believed that fringe activists and lunatics represent the core of the Tea Party, then we ought to wonder whether all fringe theories are the tools of someone’s propaganda. But then we’d have to ask whether the 9/11 Truthers were just as much a leftist conspiracy as the Birthers are alleged to be a rightist conspiracy. Yet we know that’s not the case: “If there were a conspiracy,” we think, “I’d have been invited, right?” And yet we continue to ascribe such motivations to our opponents.

I think it’s absurd to claim that last decade’s paranoids were “really” motivated by a desire to delegitimate President Bush and undermine the war on terrorism. Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly liked to make such claims… but at the time most liberals understood that the conspiracy theorists were a Weak Man stand-in for our legitimate grievances. We knew that when idiots got up and “proved” that the World Trade Center was deliberately demolished, no one benefited. It didn’t help the antiwar movement, it didn’t prevent massive tax cuts for the rich, and it didn’t keep President Bush from engaging in domestic spying. It was just superstition and paranoia. Like the Birthers, such insanity could be ignored or laughed at, but it never helped anyone to debunk it.

Of course, politics is not public policy scholarship. There are a lot of false assumptions circulating due to voter ignorance, and many of them impact the range of viable policies. Correcting some of those has to be the purpose of political speech. So that means we spend a lot of time distinguishing IMAC rationing from a death panel, or the “public option” from single-payer. If you’re interested in the debate, and you know enough to make those distinctions, you should, of course, correct your ignorant relatives when they send you their crazy email forwards, or chime in at the dinner table.

But assuming you’re interested in the debate and truly want to get the right answer, you can’t be satisfied with having defeated the loony fringe. You’ve got to seek out the smartest opponents you can and try seriously to match your arguments against theirs. This usually involves undermining one’s own certitude, embracing fallibilism and forgoing strict pluralism and relativism. I say that if we’re not willing to do that, our confidence is unearned.

There’s a major public choice barrier to having the kinds of debates that really need to be had publicly: that’s the draw of the smoky back-room deal, where none of the ignorant masses can intrude with their absurd rhetoric and misplaced fervor. But if we want to be a mature democracy, we’ve got to hold each other to high standards of civility and public discussion. The costs are what always stick in our craw: putting up with idiots, responding to smugness with a smile and a reiterated request for calm debate, and worse, the necessity of sometimes giving up on a conversation with an opponent who refuses to see reason. I think the rewards are worth it: more public participation, better policy outcomes, less polarization, and more cross-cutting interaction with those with whom we disagree.

Of course, I’m biased. Moderates are just so much more interesting than partisans. Activists are all about incommensurable principles and painting the opposition as malefactors. You always know what a partisan is going to say before he says it, and the gaps in their knowledge are usually staggering. With moderates, it’s amazing how much you can learn from the moments of surprising disagreement: a principle differently applied, a piece of data which you never considered, or a different sense of how institutions fit together optimally.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s real evil in the world and it’s important to oppose it; but it’s rarely particularly interesting. Evil is, by its nature, superficial and boring, and those who oppose it generally have to be fairly single-minded in order to sustain their efforts. Torture, war, and exclusion are exceptions to this: holdovers of crueler times that liberal democracies just haven’t mastered yet. So by all means, let’s get to work on those issues. Still, most things that we work on in advanced liberal democracies aren’t about pure evil, and treating them as if they are just damages our capacity to work with our fellow citizens to get the right answers.

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