When I was a college freshman around 50 years ago, I took an advanced course in logic. I loved it. What I remember most, even after all these years, is the idea that in making an argument people often resort to logical fallacies.
Name-calling doesn’t solve problems or advance solutions.
Logical fallacies are in essence non-arguments masquerading as arguments, brandished to mislead or browbeat others into rhetorical submission. The college course pushed me early on to be on the lookout for the dozens of different types of fallacies. They are used every day, everywhere. I came to see these forms of illogic as a type of propaganda, wielded in place of reasoning or facts. Yet, no matter how empty, they can have enormous persuasive power.
The backdrop to my college years was the tumultuous late 1960s, the height of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The country was convulsed by political upheaval. For my logic final exam, I wrote about the logical fallacies then being deployed by politicians and protestors alike seeking to inflict verbal wounds on their opponents.
There was no shortage of material to choose from.
Debating whether the United States should continue fighting in Vietnam inevitably drew references to the “domino theory”—that Communism would spread around the world, or something of a Red Herring (Logical fallacy No. 1) to distract attention from Vietnam. Also, the United States had to stand up to the Chinese, thus making China into something of a Straw Man (Logical fallacy No. 2). Officials employed Circular Reasoning (Logical fallacy No. 3) when talking about the “light at the end of the tunnel” and suggesting if we stay and fight a little longer our soldiers would be coming home soon.
The technique I remember most clearly came under the heading of Argumentum Ad Hominem, the personal attack, especially the use of Name Calling (Logical fallacy No. 4). This form of verbal abuse smears an opponent with negative words. Police were “pigs” and young protestors were “un-American” and “filthy, long-haired hippies.” Freedom riders were always “outside agitators” to Southerners who also used forthrightly racist epithets. Martin Luther King was a “communist,” and any politician opposed to the Civil Rights Bill was a “bigot.”
Looking back with the perspective of half a century, we can see that this once-shocking rhetoric and the Guilt by Association (Logical fallacy No. 5) that set whole generations at odds are illogical. Now, as then, name-calling doesn’t solve problems or advance solutions through enlightened political discussion. It’s not meant to. Instead, it incites fear and promotes prejudices. And worst of all, it works.
All of which brings me to Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP standard bearer.
For Trump, name-calling is a surefire, free way to make headline news.
The list of Trumpisms he has deployed in the name-calling category alone is staggering. His usual cheap shots are “stupid” and “loser.” Trump’s campaign-long barrage started when he announced his candidacy and labeled Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals.” Then there were his opponents, “lyin’ Ted” Cruz, or “little Marco” Rubio who was also “sweaty.” There was “idiot” Lindsey Graham, and “Choke Artist” Mitt Romney, who also “walked like a penguin.” On the Democratic side there is “Crooked” Hillary and “Goofy” Elizabeth Warren, also called “Pocahontas.” Barack Obama is simply the “worst” president in history.
This list could go on and on, and it probably will for months to come. Just this week, Trump called an ABC news reporter who challenged him on claims of raising money for veterans “a sleaze.”
Logical fallacies short-circuit any opportunity for reasoned discussion. No real facts are offered. No rational argument is presented. Just thought-terminating diversion.
And sadly, mud sticks. Fling enough of it at your opponents, over and over, and it’s bound to leave smudges or worse.
For Trump, name-calling is a surefire, free way to make headline news and at the same time stoke the prejudices of supporters. Delivered with a smirk and the certainty that he is right, the crowds cheer—a bandwagon (Logical fallacy No. 6) effect. He must be right because the crowds continue to cheer.
Of course, this debasement of dialogue does nothing to advance the reasoned debate of ideas and issues that is critical for a functional democracy. It halts consideration and can never produce political compromise. Over time, a steady diet of propaganda, where logical fallacies supplant fact-based debate, will devalue our overall problem-solving and political discourse and perhaps create generations less capable of sound judgment and reasoned debate in the future. Why bother discussing nuances of foreign policy, when all Trump has to say is that China is killing us, our allies have to pony up, and Mexico has to pay for a wall?
From my college coursework through a long career in journalism, I have kept alive a belief in logic and the value of reasoned discourse for democracy. Our progress as a society depends on it. If you don’t believe me, look at the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda or Germany. In the past, those countries and others have experienced the consequences of rhetoric getting out of hand, of logical fallacies used to avoid reasoned debate, to deride opponents and later silence and demolish entire populations of citizens. Do we not fear there may be no recovery from a descent so steep and imperiled as the current political trajectory we are now on?
A society advances with logic; it falls with logical fallacies.