This was my uncle sloganeering. He is an oncologist in the United States. He had come to visit us with his family. Being younger than many present during this imperialist diatribe, I stayed silent. I heard one of my other uncles – who had not abandoned the country for exotic places - mutter in an undertone that was clearly audible words which were crafted to perforate the stoutest ego.
“You left the sticks for the States just the other day, and now you think you’re a big shot!”
I need not describe the titters that went round.
Notwithstanding the popularity of this repartee, I disapproved of its logic. I would have said something like:
“Well, Uncle X, it is entirely possible that what you have said may turn out to be true. After all, it is a prediction, and we cannot know whether it will turn out true or false. Think, however, of all the empires which have come and gone, and the confidence each had in its own perpetuity, and then perhaps, on the basis of the analogy, you will be less confident of the eternal prospects of your adoptive country. Of course, you could be right....”
That is to say, I would have argued with him, rather than against him. The particular type of argument that my stay-at-home uncle used is of a very pernicious variety – and perhaps for that reason universal. It is the argumentum ad hominem. And the sub-specious that was deployed on that evening was of the even more odious argumentum ad hominem (abusive) kind.
Although I have so far never had sufficient cause to regret the day I taught myself logic, I fear the event may not be too far into the future. For I have found that men and women are as apt to hit below the belt in argument as a pair of unrefereed pugilists in the ring. And, of course, the experience can be excruciating! The analogy fortunately ends before one reaches the lower parts of the anatomy; it is a cultivated soft spot. Only through study can one develop such a weakness; for what is not perceived as an injury in conversation is not counted as a blow.
I fear the event – regretting the study of logic – may not be too far into the future because the scars are getting too numerous. It appears that one cannot converse without concurrence, or one invites abuse. It is tempting to conclude, and repose in the false security, that people in other places – far, far away - do not commit informal fallacies. Experience with heterogeneous assortments of humanity has disabused me of this notion. For thinking is a chore, and no mortal will engage in such chores if a suitable factotum is at hand. And fallacy is a sly servant.
I began this essay with the abusive variety of the ad hominem kind. That is not because it is the most painful; in fact, in many ways it is the most anodyne. One instantly loses all respect for one’s adversary, and once that occurs, the enemy is as good as defeated. No, the more painful fallacies are the ones that fail to remove the other to a safe mental distance, but rather permit him to penetrate the epidermis, much as a mosquito bite continues to irritate the skin long after the incision.
Take the argumentum ad verecundiam, for instance. It is the perennial appeal to authority under which minions take cover. When wielded by the man-in-the-street who cites some authority to support a particular bias on an arbitrary occasion, it annoys, but does not cause any gritting of the teeth. But it is the academic who hides behind an esoteric point of view completely at variance with all decency and commonsense who generates a furious and seemingly automatic motion of the molars, canines, etc. For he basks not only in the confidence of his own degrees, but the reflected glory of the institution he happens to serve. And what could be more authoritarian than an institution? The smugness of such people discombobulates to an extent that one is tempted to repudiate education for the rest of one’s life!
If the ad verecundiam sets one’s teeth in motion, the fallacy of accent stirs the innards. It is a fallacy guaranteed to irritate the bowels and send one retching intellectually. Most common in advertisements, it is there also the most innocuous. LOSE WEIGHT IN 7 DAYS is relatively harmless even when followed by ‘after two months at our gym’ in tiny print. More sinister is the caption under a photograph of two women in chador and sunglasses, laughing at the camera: Not gloom and doom all the time. The implication of gloom and doom almost every living second (except when photographed by a western journalist) in a Muslim country is artfully suppressed. One is reminded of the story of the captain and the first mate. The captain, a stout teetotaler, and the first mate, an inveterate old toper, got along miserably on board. Exasperated with his bibulous subaltern, the captain entered the following in the log: ‘The mate was drunk today’. The mate discovered this and got his own back by recording, when it was his turn to enter the log: ‘The captain was sober today’.
Of course, the universal favourite is the argumentum ad populum. The man who does not love adulation is as rare as a cuckoo in winter. But – wonder of wonders! – men are as fond of tailor-made flattery as of mass flattery. Bespoke blandishment – blandishment delivered face-to-face, keeping one’s individual configurations clearly in sight – is understandably, if not justifiably, popular; but the blandishment of men and women in the mass, faceless, anonymous, blurred – this challenges understanding. And when one contemplates the fact that such a principle is the basis of democracy, one comes to appreciate the patrician contempt felt by Plato and Marx for such a form of government. The living room scene depicted in the opening lines of the essay shows a kind of ad populum at work. My patriotic uncle courted cheap and transitory popularity to counter what, admittedly, was an obnoxious point of view. The faith that an obnoxious view deserves an obnoxious counter-move reduces the opposing parties to a level of equality. And when we leave the commodious confines of the living room for the ampler amphitheater of an election speech, where the intellect of the speaker must ferret out the least enlightened member in search of his vote – much as Shakespeare’s jokes sought as target the least cultivated yokel for his penny but without any of the compensating sublimity of expression or action – we have the perfect forum for the incendiary speech which leads ultimately to incendiary acts. Nor is the fallacy reserved exclusively for oral purposes. The written – or, more frequently, the printed word – adulates the ‘democratic’ ‘progressive’ ‘modern’ ‘forward-looking’ man, woman, or nation. These adjectives represent qualities the writer appreciates; and since this particular collection happens to occur most frequently in western newspapers and magazines, they represent qualities which make foreign individuals and foreign nations ‘western’. The art of the huckster has been perfected, not where the sun rises, but where it sets. There must surely be a moral there.
Then there is the petitio principii, begging the question. President Clinton announced that the nuclear defense shield would be extended to ‘civilized nations’. And who decides whether a nation is civilized or not? Answer: the civilized nations.
This sort of reasoning hovers perilously close to the argumentum ad baculum. Those nations who have the power to define themselves as civilized are civilized, just as money is accepted because it is accepted. Just as there is no gold standard for the currency, so there is no logical underpinning for most declarations. They circulate because some authority – the equivalent of a central bank – has by fiat declared them legitimate. Thus, the party that wins through force of arms or superior financial prowess announces itself to be ‘democratically elected’. The individual who can afford a retinue of lackeys – sometimes a whole national elite – stamps his (her) backside ‘Legal Tender’. And in this he (she) all too often receives on that same secret zone the signature of ‘civilised’ nations – a sort of fallacious International Monetary Fund. Power has a logic of its own which merits study; but the student of logic learns to distinguish the power of logic from the logic of power. And, like Socrates, he would never overpower an opponent into a knockout.
His aim is not to defeat but to inspect. The 'Queensberry rules of discourse’ is a figurative rubric for the intellectual calisthenics that is logic.