David Silverman on Atheist Bilboards

Introduction: This is a tweet from David Silverman (President of American Atheists) defending the practice of placing billboards critical of religious views in public places.

Key Facts: David Silverman is the President of American Atheists which is a non-profit organization promoting the interests of nonbelievers in the United States. Under Silverman’s leadership, American Atheists have put up a number of public billboards promoting atheism and criticizing religion. These billboards have themselves drawn criticism from religious figures and in some non-believers as well. Some of the criticisms have been directed at specific themes and specific statements included in the billboards. Others have been directed against the general wisdom of putting such statements out into the public.

Text: This is the tweet in question.



Comments: Two general points come to mind when considering this argument.

One is the possibility of a double standard in reference to billboards expressing a stance on religious topics. Christians in particular have been accustomed to producing such statements for as long as some of us can recall. The placement of anti-religious sentiments on a public billboard is however a relatively new practice, and it may draw more criticism due in part to the unusual nature of the messages. Simple confirmation Bias may be another factor insofar as the bulk of the public is unlikely to agree with an overtly atheistic message.

A second concern lies in the potential obfuscation of specific concerns about specific billboards. While this particular tweet addresses the issue in the abstract, some of the concerns raised about these billboards have been about very specific details about specific billboards put out by American Atheists, This is particularly true of those raised by unbelievers – whom Silverman presents as the party he intends to answer here.

Statements: The argument is set out as follows. Two missing statements [4] and [5] have been added. [4]  helps to seal the relevance of statements 2 and 3 to the rest of the argument and [5] is most likely the intended conclusion of the argument.

[1] Atheists who object to billboards attacking religion are ALSO victims of religious indoctrination.

[2] Lies deserve death.

[3] [Lies do not deserve] Protection.

[[4]] [Religious claims are lies.]

[[5]] [Atheists ought not to oppose billboards attacking religion.]

Discussion: Issues raised by this argument include the following; ad hominem, nteractional eclipse, micro-reasoning, missing statements, the principle of charity, provincialism, and thought policing.

Ad Hominem: The assertion that critics (atheist or otherwise) of billboards promoting atheism are victims of religious indoctrination is an ad hominem (circumstantial). If there is a non-fallacious way to interpret that suggestion it would be to treat it as a simple explanation to be taken at face value. In others words, it would be possible to simply think of this as an empirical question about the motivations of a select group of people. The second statement in the tweet, however, belies this interpretation as it makes it clear Silverman means to argue with his critics. This is not simply a diagnosis; it is an attempt to undermine the credibility of billboard critics.

Interactional Eclipse: To the degree that this argument constitutes a form of thought policingn, it is explicitly an attempt to subvert efforts to engage in critical thinking about the value of anti-religious billboards through appeal to social dynamics.

Micro-Reasoning: As with most (if not all) tweets, the brevity of this argument is a problem, hence the need to supply nearly as many missing statements as those clearly expressed.

Missing Assertions: The intended conclusion of this argument is most likely some statement intended to discourage unbelievers from engaging in criticism of billboards promoting atheism. I have accordingly supplied statement 5 as an attempt to express this missing statement.

I would also suggest an additional Missing Assumption (statement [4] that religious views are lies). If this assumption is not true, then both statement 2 and 3 fail to produce anything of value in the argument.

Principle of Charity: It isn’t entirely clear whether Silverman means to suggest this argument applies to all instances in which atheists prove critical of billboards attacking religion or simply those who do so on principle (I.e. those who object categorically to the creation of such billboards instead of those with particular objections to specific billboards). His wording could facilitate either interpretation, and it is likely those who agree with him will include parties adopting each interpretation.

For purposes of keeping the discussion thoughtful it is probably best to treat this argument as applying only to those who object to such billboards in general. The alternative would construe Silverman’s criticism as applying to any range of particular criticisms of any billboard one could conceive criticizing religion. It would in effect amount to a blank check to produce any content (no matter how foolish) critical of religion without fear of counter-criticism from other atheists. That would hardly be a reasonable position, so it’s not the most productive interpretation of the argument to pursue here.

Provincialism: Insofar as this argument seems to be encouraging atheists to be less like religious people, it could be viewed as an appeal to provincialism. Essentially, the appeal here is something along the lines of; ‘this is how WE act” or even “this is how WE should behave.” Well, WE (i.e. atheists) may or may not typically fall prey to religious indoctrination, but that appeal isn’t very cogent.

Thought Policing: One of the more compelling features of this argument lies in its implied comparison with believers. It is not merely that Silverman is suggesting that his atheist critics have been indoctrinated; he is reminding atheists that the conduct in question is unbecoming for unbelievers..This is classic thought policing., which goes a little beyond the normal ad hominem to invoke peer pressures and trigger loyalties associated with group membership. Just how significant such loyalties may be for atheists is an interesting question, but the argument still works this angle. The social dynamics at issue thus overshadow the rational significance of the argument itself.

Diagram: I take it that 2 and 3 are intended (with missing assumption [4] to prove statement 1, which is in turn intended to demonstrate the truth of the missing conclusion (statement 5).

2+3+[4] -> 1 -> [5].


Evaluation: Let’s consider both inferences:

2+3+[4]=>1. The truth of each of the assumptions in this inference would certainly be debatable. It isn’t clear that religious claims are all untrue (much less that they are lies), nor is it clear that lies deserve death (which is presumably a metaphor indicating the discrediting of such claims and a hope that they will eventually cease to circulate). If we assume by protection that Silverman means only protection from criticism (and not protection from coercive sanctions, then perhaps statement 3 fairs reasonably well in the truth evaluation, though a creative thinker could probably find a reason to protect at least some lies.

The inference itself fairs no better. It isn’t clear that objections to the billboards are offered in an attempt to ‘protect’ religion. Nor is it clear that the billboards play any constructive role in advancing the demise of religious beliefs.

If one doesn’t assume the charitable interpretation of Silverman’s intent, the problem becomes still sharper insofar as specific concerns about specific billboards may well address the effectiveness of those billboards in advancing a critique of religion.

4 -> 5: This is arguably an ad hominem (circumstantial) and/or an argument from Provincialism, as outlined above. In either event, the inference would be fallacious. Also, the argument side-steps the possibility that atheists might have reasons to oppose the billboard campaign other than latent sympathy for religious sentiment.

Also, if we do not adopt the charitable interpretation of Silverman’s position, it seems clear that atheists (even those who genuinely hope to confront religion whenever possible) may have a number of concerns about specific messages contained on specifi billboards.

I think the argument has to be considered unsound.

Final Thoughts: In the end, this argument does strike me as a simple effort to engage in thought policing. It effectively urges atheists to support their own camp regardless of any concerns they may have about the specific messages placed on these billboards or the general effectiveness of public billboards as a means of challenging religious views.

A Meme of Race

ctzeorzw8aqoujcIntroduction: This meme uses an observation about race to make an argument about the relative significance of race and personal decisions in determining success or failure in life.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: “3 men in 3 different positions. In America, color doesn’t define your future. Your choices do.”


Comments: I don’t know anything in particular about the history of this meme, or about the specific circumstances of those men pictured in it. It’s probably fair to think of this as one round in the culture wars. The absence of context is of course one of the characteristics of argumentation-by-meme. In effect, this lack of context serves to encourage readers to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions about the issues in question.

Statements: The components of the argument are represented below. Two possible missing assumptions have been added (in blue).

[1] 3 men in 3 different positions.

[2] In America, color doesn’t define your future.

[3] Your choices do [define your future in America].

[4a][Success or failure is best explained in terms of a single cause.]

[4b][If race determined the success or failure in a person’s life, we would expect all three of the black men in this picture to occupy similar roles in life.]

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; false alternatives, micro-reasoning, missing assumptions.

False Alternatives: There are a few ways to model the reasoning in this argument, but it’s tough to get around the presentation of two (mutually exclusive) options as the totally universe of possible explanations for success or failure in life.

Micro-Reasoning: As with most memes, this argument reduces a complex issue to an extraordinarily small text.

Missing Assertions: It may be helpful to think of this argument as resting on a missing assumption. I have supplied two different variations of this missing assumption. When either assumption is added, the inference is perhaps a bit more cogent, but the truth value of the assumption is questionable at best. So, adding these assumptions doesn’t improve the soundness of the argument too much, though it may help to clarify the nature of the issues in question.

20161216_173528-copyDiagram: I can think of a several different ways to model the reasoning in this argument. I am presenting 3 of them here:

Option alpha: This approach leaves out the addition of a missing assumption. Statement 1 is thus taken to prove two separate claims, all on it’s own.

Option beta: In this example, missing assumption 4a is added to statement 1. The two together are taken to prove both statement 2 and statement 3. The additional assumption helps to explain why statement 1 might lead to statements 2 and 3, but as this assumption is of dubious truth value this simply transforms the problem from questions about the  cogency of the inference to one about the truth value of one of its premises.

Option boo: In this version, statement 1 is combined with missing assumption 4b (that the variety of life outcomes is consistent with the notion that race determines those outcomes). The to together are taken to prove the truth of statement 2 which is then taken to prove the truth of statement 3.

Note: The reason statements 2 and 3 are represented here in the form of a serial argument rather than separate conclusions in a divergent argument is that the missing assumption focuses attention on statement 2 without contributing directly to statement 3. The notion that statement 2 would then provide evidence for statement 3 seems the best way to proceed from there.

Evaluation: No version of this argument comes out sound, because the argument turns on false alternatives no matter how you look at it. In option alpha, the false alternatives leaves conclusion 2 and 3 unsupported by assumption 1. In option beta, the false alternatives have been expressed directly in terms of a missing assumption, but that assumption is likely false. In option boo, the missing assumption has been articulated in terms of a conditional statement, but that statement too is clearly false. No matter how we set this argument up, it turns on an unrealistically narrow set of possibilities.

Why does every version of this argument turn on false assumptions? Because it addresses the question of what makes the difference in the lives of these men as though a single causative factor will account for the difference rather than a combination of different factors. The notion, for example, that race might make some outcomes more or less likely than others without totally determining the outcome is simply not considered in the text of this meme. So, whether race is construed as a direct biological cause (as racists would have it) or a social construction (as those interested in social justice might suggest), the meme sets aside any efforts to consider how racial factors could interact with other issues such as class, religion, family background, or personal resilience to produce an account of these different life trajectories.

Final Thoughts: In addition to the sloppy argument, it’s tempting to suggest there is something prurient about this meme. It invites all of us to entertain questions about what makes the difference success and failure for black men. For most of us, that is a question about someone else, which is probably what the author of the meme has in mind.

Helpful Principles of Reasoning

Some of the ideas commonly cited as logical principles are probably better thought of as matters of argumentative ethics rather than the calculation of logical relations between different statements or propositions. They involve assumptions about how best to go about reasoning with others (which of course includes ideas about how to read and interpret the efforts of others to reason with us). The list of such ideas would certainly include: Burdens of Proof, Ockham’s Razor, and the Principle of Charity as well as some logical fallacies. Many assume that these principles are as much a part of any logical system as anything one might encounter in formal logic (say, the principle of double-negation). Others dismiss these ideas outright. I think it best, really, to regard them as practical decisions which help to facilitate a more productive approach to reasoning. One cannot give the same account of such principles that she might for concepts like double-negation, yet they can help us shape our arguments and our analysis of arguments into something more productive than it would be otherwise.

Burden of Proof: This is the notion that in any given debate, one side or another may bear more responsibility than the other for producing evidence in its favor. It is enshrined, for example, in the American legal system wherein we typically regard people as innocent until proven guilty (at least with respect to criminal charges). The notion has also generated a great deal of interest in the philosophy of religion wherein debates between atheists and believers often focus on questions about the responsibilities of each regarding the production of evidence.

Much of the issue turns on questions about the (a)symmetry of affirmative and negative propositions. If we take any given proposition (p), the question arises as to whether or not its affirmation (p) is equivalent to its negation (not p). Given that P and Not P are contradictory propositions, this would seem to suggest a formal equivalence. If one is true, the other must be false. If it is false, then the other must be true. This would seem to suggest that any given proposition and its negation are equivalent for purposes of logical testing. Yet, this is a very formal approach to the subject. It doesn’t take into account some of the vagaries of semantics (questions of meaning) or the practical constraints that may skew the production of evidence and/or the significance that evidence would have in practical reasoning. This is where the case for asymmetry arises (i.e. the view that there are significant differences between the truth value of affirmative propositions and their negations).

One argument for asymmetry rests on the notion that negation (pr at least some versions of it) itself is inherently ambiguous. In some cases, such as predicate term negation, the conditions under which the truth of a negative claim are fairly clear. If, for example someone were to say’ “Dan is in Barrow, Alaska,” I could say no, and I could do so on very definite grounds (i.e. that I am presently on vacation in Azusa, California). In this case, my rejection of the initial claim is based on a very clear condition in which the facts asserted in the claim are not consistent with the evidence at hand. If all negations were so simple, one could as easily accept the burden of proof for negative claims as one could for affirmations. But some negations are more complex than that. If I reject the claim that “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” I could no longer point to a specific fact that disproves the proposition. Rather, my argument would pertain to the nonsensical nature of the statement (which was of course precisely the point of Noam Chomsky’s original presentation of it). Instead of proving the point wrong in any fact-based argument, I would be challenging the meaning the statement, and (if that statement had a legitimate proponent) challenging her to produce something more meaningful before moving on to questions about the factual evidence that would confirm or deny it. For this, and several other reasons, it is sometimes suggested that negation is more problematic than affirmation. To affirm a statement is true, one must accept as meaningful all of its terms and affirm the state of affairs they describe. In contrast, any number of problems could lead to its negation.

On a more practical level, one can point to the difficulties that arise from specific contexts of contested claims. If I assert that one of my students (let’s call him ‘Bill’) cheated on a test, most people would regard it as unfair for me to suggest that it was Bill’s responsibility to prove me wrong. If I can produce evidence that he did cheat, then it might be fair to expect Bill to answer that evidence. So, for example, if I showed that his essay looked a lot like a Wikipedia entry, I would expect him to show that I was wrong or accept the consequences for cheating. What I could not do is expect Bill to prove that he had not cheated on the test himself. (More important, I suspect that in such an example the Dean of Instruction at my college would expect me to produce an account of my reasons for thinking the student had cheated. Only then would she turn to the student for a response to the accusation.)

There is no Bill by the way, at least I’m not talking about one. If any past or future Bill’s read this, no I’m not talking about you. Really, I’m not.

This last example helps to illustrate something else that’s interesting about burdens of proof; it is only one component in a complex dialogue, one responsibility which may (or may not) fall to a particular party in a debate. Once an initial case for the affirmative side in a debate has been made, it is common to expect that a burden of moving the debate forward will pass to the other side. He or she cannot simply sit there and say ‘no, no, no’. At some point, she must address the claims made by those who do have a burden of proof, either by producing a direct case of her own (i.e. proving the affirmative claim wrong, much as one might do in the case of predicate term negation) or by refuting some aspect of the case against her. Another consideration here lies in the way that possession of the burden of proof can also be tied to the privilege of shaping and defining the terms of debate. If I am attempting to prove that Bill cheated, then I am the one putting forward a specific case, applying a specific definition of what it means to cheat to the situation. Bill may take issue with any of these elements (including the definitions I apply to relevant terms), but in all likelihood, the terms of the debate will be set by my efforts to provide an initial case against him. So, the burden of proof is not a uniformly disadvantageous thing to carry into a discussion. It comes with benefits too.

The fact that burdens of proof are themselves subject to debate does provide one significant argument against invoking them. Their role in legal reasoning is set by established conventions, of course, but in less structured contexts such as the aforementioned debates between atheists and theists, questions about who does and who does not have the burden of proof are every bit as strident as those about whether or not God exists, who She is, or what sort of church she ants you to go to. So, instead of helping to shape a productive conversation, invoking this principle often serves to provide the sticking point which stops that debate from happening. This doesn’t make the concerns that lead people to argue for asymmetric burdens less valid, but it does serve to lesson the practical value of this principle in that context (and many others).

Ockham’s Razor (alt. Occam’s Razor): This principle is attributed to the Franciscan Friar William of Ockham who formulation is usually translated as follows: “Plurality must never be posited without necessity.” Ockham wasn’t actually the first to articulate the principle, and he certainly wasn’t the last, but he was known to use this principle rather often. One of the more common reformulations of the rule reads; “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” Perhaps the expression most in keeping with the rule itself is; “The simplest explanation is the best.” Perhaps , we could simply say; “keep it simple stupid.”

…okay, that’s probably too simple.

Anyway, the concept here is that given different alternative explanations for the same thing, we ought to choose the one that makes the fewest assumptions possible. This is sometimes described as the principle of Ontological Parsimony. Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that we should opt for explanations faulty explanations on the grounds that they are often simpler than accurate ones. The idea here is to shed unnecessary assumptions when they do not actually add accuracy to the explanation. It is a rule of thumb that applies when all other things are equal.

Oddly enough, this principle of simplicity raises all sorts of interesting questions about the nature of reasoning in general, and about the practice of scientific explanation in particular, but for our purposes here it is enough to think of it as a good rule of thumb when considering alternative explanations with roughly equal explanatory value. This rule of thumb is not strictly a function of truth-functional relations between propositions, or even about how to weigh evidence. It comes into play only after the evidence is judged to fall equally on two or more theories (assuming that ever really happens), so it is more a question about the practical choices one makes when reasoning than the logical relations between inferences. Hence, its inclusion in this list.

Principle of Charity: The principle of charity comes into play when to interpret another person’s reasoning. As it happens, we can often interpret what another person says in more than one way. If we are talking to them, or otherwise engaging in continuous dialogue (say by email or chat-room) we can sometimes clear this up by simply asking them what they mean, but if we are stuck with a written text and no clear way of soliciting clarification, then sometimes we have to choose between multiple plausible interpretations.

In such cases, the principle of charity would tell us to choose the interpretation that provides the most sound construction of the argument in question. As an extension of this, one ought to refrain from treating an ambiguous text as an argument if the only argument this then produces would then be obviously unsound.

This may seem like another way of telling people to play nice, but the principle of charity is also about ensuring that your own efforts to evaluate an argument are actually productive and useful. Given the opportunity to stick someone with an argument containing an accidental (unnecessary) flaw, will enable one to reject their reasoning, but if that flaw isn’t essential to their point, then the resulting evaluation will apply to a less intellectually useful version of their argument. By contrast, if you construe an ambiguous argument in the most charitable way possible, then should that argument prove unsound, your evaluation will be more decisive. By following the principle of charity, we choose not only to give those whose arguments we consider a better chance of approval, we also ensure that our own time and effort will be spent considering serious thoughts and substantive considerations.

I think the practical nature of this principle is self-evident. It is not strictly a function of logical relationships. One might add that there are clearly circumstances in which people may not wish to follow this rule of thumb. Certainly a Public Relations representative or a lawyer, perhaps even a politician, may gain some ground by exploiting ambiguities in the positions of their opponents. Whether or not that always helps them in the long run is an interesting question, but it seems fair to say that in at least some cases some people may accomplish their own goals better by violating this principle than by following it. In the realm of academic study, this is perhaps less likely than some of these other contexts. (Note that I do not say it never happens in academia, or even that it would never be sound practice to adopt an uncharitable interpretation of someone with an opposing view.) Suffice it to say that there are genuine benefits to following the principle of charity, and that such benefits have led many to recommend some version of it to those new to the subject.

Two additional considerations: Note that the principle of charity does not mean that one ought to improve upon the arguments of others before evaluating them. It sometimes happens that one will hear an argument and realize that you could improve upon it by changing some of its details. You can choose to do this or not as you see fit (perhaps after responding to the argument as it stands), but this isn’t really about the principle of charity. The principle of charity apples only insofar as one is considering plausible variations on the argument one has actually been presented.

Secondly, if a controversy generates sufficient interest in the public, it will produce a variety of different arguments in favor of different positions. When evaluating those positions, one may be confronted with a choice of different arguments with varying degrees of worth. One may even find that the less worthwhile arguments in favor of a position are significantly more popular than the more thoughtful variations. In such cases, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with commenting on the cheaper variations on a theme (it may even be helpful), providing that doing so does not become a substitute for responding to the better and more sound variants. One should also take care to avoid responding to the more thoughtful variations on a stance as though they were producing the cheaper (and more easily dismissed variants). Given sufficient time and space, it is often worthwhile to produce separate responses to the different variations of a position, dealing with each according to its own merits.

Fallacies: Some fallacies can be understood in terms of practical assumptions about the purpose and social context of reasoning.

Ad ignorantiam: These arguments explicitly turns on questions about the burdens of proof required of participants in reasoning. While it is possible to think of the ad ignorantiam fallacy as occurring whenever someone fails to provide a reason for a conclusion, the possibility that burdens of proof may be skewed by the nature of the propositions in question puts this fallacy on the table whenever people raise such questions.

Circular Argument: It’s one of the more interesting features of circular arguments that they actually pass some of the tests of deductive validity (if the premises of a circular argument are true, the conclusion must be true). That should make them valid arguments, right? Still, we don’t think of it that way, and the difference lies in the rhetorical purpose of making an argument in the first place. Simply put, a circular argument fails because it fails to provide a reason worthy of consideration. This is only a problem if we regard the purpose of the argument as one of providing a new reason to begin with. So, this fallacy brings us back to the practical significance of argumentation. It is less a problem of inference relations than a failure of persuasion.


Mini-Hitchens History of Religion

christopher-hitchens-religion-ideasIntroduction: This meme contains a quote from Christopher Hitchens.

Key Facts: The line can be found on page 64 of Hitchens’s book God is Not Great. Hitchens larger argument may well be worth looking at in another post. For purposes of this discussion, however, we are focusing on the use of this meme.

Text: “One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on.”


Comments: In itself, this meme does not clearly present an argument. It seems fair to suggest, however, that the meme is commonly used to discredit religious thoughts. So, we will focus on the prospect of using the meme to generate an argument in opposition to religion. This will necessitate reconstruction of a missing (or implied) assertion.

Statements: The very first sentence contributes little to the point except perhaps a sense of urgency. If we add an implied conclusion (represented in square brackets), this argument has two statements.

[1] One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody had the smallest idea what was going on.

[[2]] [Religious beliefs are false.]

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; genetic fallacy, micro-reasoning, missing assertions.

Genetic Fallacy: Insofar as the argument uses the origin of religion as a reason to reject the truth of religious beliefs, it is likely a good example of a genetic fallacy.

Micro-Reasoning: As with many meme, the reasoning here suffers a bit from its brevity. In this case, the meme hints at an unstated conclusion, perhaps even pointing to one not entirely consistent with that of Hitchens original text.

Missing Assertions: This meme contains only one line. If it suggests an argument, as I think it does, that argument contains at least one missing assertion (in this case, a conclusion).

Diagram: This one is pretty simple.

1 -> [2]

Evaluation: There are two items to evaluate in this argument. The truth of premise 1 and the relevance of the inference. The argument comes up short on both counts.

Premise 1 is questionable at best insofar as it takes religion to be a primitive (and erroneous) effort to explain the world in the absence of reasonable scientific methodology. It isn’t clear though, that the point of religious institutions and or mythic narratives of ancient people is to explain objective phenomena. Neither is it obvious that ancient people’s were ignorant about the world around them. Of course, the meme itself doesn’t entirely make it clear to whom Hitchens refers when he is talking about prehistory, but at least some peoples with not actively recording their own history had a quite sophisticated understanding of many things. Did they understand the details of modern chemistry or physics? No. But that hardly qualifies as not having “the smallest idea what is going on.”

The inference from 1 to [2] provides no support for the conclusion. This is a classic genetic fallacy. If there is any reason to suppose any given religious tenet is wrong, it is not because of its origins.

Final Thoughts: I can think of two contextual problems that could undermine this analysis; my construction of the argument may not be representative of Hitchens’s own intent and it may not be representative of the specific intent of those who circulate the meme.

Hitchens’s intent: Here, I think the solution is simple. It doesn’t really matter. The original context of the quote has been jettisoned in the production of the meme. People circulate the meme itself without necessarily attending to its source. It’s worth keeping in mind that the meme itself doesn’t present Hitchens’ full argument on the history of religion or the significance of that history in polemic dispute, but that should not stop us from addressing the significance of the meme itself as it is circulated about the net.

Intent of Those Circulating the Meme: Here we come back to the one sentence nature of this meme (and it should be noted that other versions include more wording). It’s almost tempting to suggest that this isn’t an argument at all, because it doesn’t draw a conclusion from a premise. I do think it’s fair to suggest that the meme is normally offered with the intent to discredit religion. One has only to formulate the missing conclusion. In effect, this takes the meme to be an expression of an argument against religion by those circulating it. If someone circulates the meme for other reasons, then presumably, this entire analysis would not apply.

Caitlyn Jenner’s Political Priorities

Introduction: Dawn Ennis conducted an interview with Caitlyn Jenner which was published in The Advocate on March 2nd. In a brief discussion of election politics Jenner expressed her preference for a Presidential candidate, providing a brief argument on the topic in question

Key Facts: Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner) is transgendered. Her high-profile transition from male to female identity gained significant attention in the media. Its relevance to her choice of candidates provides an explicit feature of the argument in question.

Text: Here are the relevant comments (with the argument in bold):

It was also contentious when the conversations aboard that bus turned to politics, which Jenner says they often did. “It got heated! Especially with poor little me, who’s the lone Republican conservative against all the liberal Democrats.” So heated, Boylan can be seen shouting “That is a lie!” at Jenner, at one point even swatting her head with a rolled-up newspaper.

And drama is sure to ensue when Jenner meets Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. The only candidates she spoke about with The Advocate, however, were Republicans.

“That’s just political B.S.” she says of Donald Trump’s recent inability to disavow David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. So who does she support for the nomination? I ask.Discussion: The argument raises the following issues:

“I like Ted Cruz,” she declares. “I think he’s very conservative and a great constitutionalist and a very articulate man. I haven’t endorsed him or anything like that. But I also think, he’s an evangelical Christian, and probably one of the worst ones when it comes to trans issues.” 

“I get it. The Democrats are better when it comes to these types of social issues. I understand that.” So why support Republicans? “Number 1, if we don’t have a country, we don’t have trans issues. We need jobs. We need a vibrant economy. I want every trans person to have a job. With $19 trillion in debt and it keeps going up, we’re spending money we don’t have. Eventually, it’s going to end. And I don’t want to see that. Socialism did not build this country. Capitalism did. Free enterprise. The people built it. And they need to be given the opportunity to build it back up.”

Jenner reveals she met Cruz prior to her transition, more than a year ago, “and he was very nice.” 

“Wouldn’t it be great, let’s say he goes on to be president,” she tells me in relating a conversation on the tour bus. “And I have all my girls on a trans issues board to advise him on making decisions when it comes to trans issues. Isn’t that a good idea?”

“You’re going to be Ted Cruz’s trans ambassador?” I respond.

“Yes, trans ambassador to the president of the United States, so we can say, ‘Ted, love what you’re doing but here’s what’s going on.’”

She wasn’t joking.


Comments: Jenner explicitly acknowledges the value of one point against her choice. It’s one of the more interesting features of this argument. This theme (expressed in statements 6 and 7 below) is accordingly flagged with a minus sign to indicate its status as a counterpoint to Jenner’s overall position. I have also supplied two missing assumptions (22 and 23). Assumption 22 seems to help summarize some of Jenner’s specific points on the economy and provide an intermediate conclusion in her argument. Assumption 23 helps to clarify the counterpoint Jenner is trying to overcome through much of the argument.

Statements: The relevant statements have been reproduced and numbered below. Several comments have been deleted as they do not contribute to the argument. Any rewritten sections have been placed in square brackets.

[1] I like Ted Cruz.

[2] I think he’s very conservative.

[3] [He is] a great constitutionalist.

[4] [He is] a very articulate man.

[5] I also think, he’s an evangelical Christian.

[-6] [He is] probably one of the worst ones when it comes to trans issues.

[-7] The Democrats are better when it comes to these types of social issues.

[8] [I am willing to support Republicans anyway.]

[9] Number 1, if we don’t have a country, we don’t have trans issues.

[10] We need jobs.

[11] We need a vibrant economy.

[12] I want every trans person to have a job.

[13] With $19 trillion in debt and it keeps going up, we’re spending money we don’t have.

[14] Eventually, it’s going to end.

[15] I don’t want to see that.

[16] Socialism did not build this country.

[17] Capitalism did.

[18] Free enterprise [did].

[19] The people built it.

[20] And they need to be given the opportunity to build it back up.

[21] [when Jenner met Cruz prior to her transition, more than a year ago] he was very nice.

[[22]] [Republicans will handle the American economy better than Democrats do.]

[[23]] [Concerns about transgendered issues do not support a vote for Cruz.]

Discussion: The argument raises the following Issues: causation, counterpoints, false alternatives, lost in translation, missing statements, and qualification.

Causation: It isn’t really clear whether the the relationship between 5 and -6 is best represented as an inference or a cause and effect relationship, and it seems unlikely to me that Jenner herself made up her mind which she meant to assert at the time. In effect, this would mean that Jenner simply sought to explain or otherwise elaborate Cruz’ position on the subject of transgendered issues. It is at least possible that she mean to use 5 as evidence for -6, which is what the diagram suggests. I’ve elected to use this the latter approach. If this overall argument were an effort to discredit Cruz, I would be more concerned about representing this as an inference, but as  Jenner is actually making an effort to support Cruz, I don’t believe the overall soundness of her argument hinges on this decision one way or another.

Counterpoints: Jenner explicitly acknowledges that Democrats will handle transgender issues better than Cruz would. Much of the rest of her argument is aimed at explaining why she would vote for Cruz (or perhaps some other Republican) anyway.

False Alternatives: Jenner’s comparison between socialism and capitalism suggest a universe of precisely two competing economic theories, neither of which is spelled out in precise terms. Not only does this leave out alternatives, it rather caricaturizes the range of possibilities within each of these options. It’s hard to escape a sense that the choice she presents is misleading.

Lost in Translation: There are a number of things about this diagram that make me uncomfortable.

It isn’t entirely clear how Jenner’s thoughts about communism color her specific concerns about the economy. She hasn’t spelled that out in the argument above. So, the current diagram groups up her comments on the subject into a few larger themes, and that’s as far as I have taken it. This is a little bit arbitrary and it doesn’t provide us with a means of assessing how Jenner (or those reading her argument) might entextualize the relationship between these sub-themes. I am concerned that the argument might be improved if I formulated an intermediate conclusion for each sub-theme and then presented statement 22 as a conclusion drawn from an argument linking each of these conclusions. Simply put, that’s more rewriting than I think one really ought to do for an argument.

A second point relates to the scope of concerns Jenner may have about transgender issues. We don’t really learn what specific issues she may think fall under this heading or what impact she thinks Cruz may have on these issues. It might also be that Jenner has a broad range of concerns about social justice issues comparable to those of transgendered people. No specific concerns have been articulated in at least this version of the argument, however, so they aren’t on the table. This is one instance in which sticking to the argument as stated does seem to narrow the range of issues the author may have had in mind. It certainly leaves us with a more narrow vision of the subject than it deserves.

Missing Assertions: Both of the missing statements provided in this argument reflect an attempt to spell out intermediate conclusions Jenner appears to be drawing and provide a transition from her more detailed arguments toward her final conclusion.

Qualification: There is a stark contrast between Jenner’s comments on transgendered issues which she speaks of in terms of better or worse polices and those of the economy which she speaks of in very stark terms, alluding to the possibility of a major collapse. In effect, she qualifies one range of issues in measured tones while engaging in rhetorical brinksmanship with the other. As much of her argument rests on a sense of how these issues balance her choice of wording substantially skews the relevant issues, effectively loading up the significance of one topic while minimizing the significance of another.

Diagram: Fortunately, I ordered spaghetti earlier tonight, and it came in a brown paper bag. (Whew!) So I was able to put the full argument into diagram form. Honestly, it’s kind of messy (the diagram I mean), but hopefully, it captures a sense of the major themes in this argument.

Statements 2-4 all attribute positive attributes to Cruz and lay the foundation for her initial approval of the candidate.

Statements 5, -6, -7, and -23 all outline the concern that  Cruz may not be a good candidate for transgendered people.

Statements 10-12 outline a range of concerns about the need for jobs.

Statements 13-15 outline concerns about government debt.

Statements 16-20 present Jenner’s economic concerns in terms of a stark contrast between socialist policies and those of capitalism.

Statements 9, 22, and 8 help to summarize Jenner’s thoughts about the economy and explain how those overcome her concerns about how Cruz will treat transgendered people.

Statement 21 reads like a throw-away comment, but it too seems to be a reason for voting for Cruz. It might even be a rather common one. Jenner met the man and she seems to like him.




Evaluation: I’m just going to focus on a few key issues in this argument.

Statements 2-4: The truth of each of these statements is debatable (especially 3), as is the wisdom of treating them as assets for the candidate.

The inference from -23+8 to 1: This is perhaps the trickiest sub-theme in Jenner’s argument. Ultimately, the inference boils down to a judgement call about the significance of the concerns pointing Jenner to vote for Republicans versus those raised about transgender issues under a Cruz Presidency. At least in principle, this issue is partly objective. It may well be that economic issues will impact the lives of transgendered people (and of Americans in general) more than the possible mistreatment of transgendered people under a president hostile to them and to their rights, but the reverse could also be true. In effect, this would boil down to the particulars. Will an insensitive President be content to allow religious exemptions for discrimination against transgendered people or will he actively try tojail them? Something in between? Conversely, would poor economic policies slow growth or spark a mild rise in inflation? Or will the crash the whole thing as Caitlyn suggests. In effect, that question is finessed above as a result of Jenner’s language. She speaks of the economy in terms of a worst-case scenario while addressing transgendered issues in terms of a measured scale. She rates Cruz low on that scale, but she doesn’t describe that in the nearly apocalyptic terms she uses for economic issues.

The sub-argument from 16-20 down to 22 is probably the worst element of this argument. It implies a range of judgements about specific policies that may or may not be true. Jenner doesn’t make these judgements explicit, so it is hard to evaluate them, but the language of a comparison between capitalism and communism does more to obscure the issues than to clarify them.

The sub-argument from 13, 14, and 15 down to 22 is probably the most interesting, because it’s potentially the most empirical. Just what sort of policies contribute to the debt and/or its solution is open to debate of course, and Jenner does not provide us with a specific reason to believe the Republican Party will solve these problems, much less a specific reason to believe Democrats would make them worse. Still, if one were to look at a component of this argument that points to genuine factual questions, I would say it’s this one.

Final Thoughts: It does occur to me that my diagram may not help here. It may well be that generating a few more missing conclusions would help to clarify the argument in question and link Jenner’s specific concerns to her ideological commentary. The problem of course is that those conclusions would be unsupported themselves and highly questionable in themselves. I would thus be adding still more statements to the argument only to reject them at face value. This would transform questions about the cogency of an inference into questions about the truth of an unstated position, but it wouldn’t improve the overall argument.

As to the overall value of the argument, I reckon it to be unsound. We could set aside the entire question of communism and just focus on the specific details of questions about debt and the best policies to resolve it, but Jenner doesn’t supply us with a real argument to that effect. So, her comments leave us with little clear reason to support Cruz or any other Republican over a Democrat. Finally, she doesn’t really explain how she weighs the larger judgement call relating the best way to balance transgender issues (or those of social justice in general) against economic concerns. Instead, she finesses the judgement through a biased account of the possibilities. In the end, she hasn’t doe much to show us why one ought to vote for Cruz.



The Palliative Rejoinder

You won’t see this fallacy anywhere else, because I’m coining the term for it right now. Perhaps this could be viewed as a minor variation of the red herring or a logical extension of simple inconsistency, but I want to call attention to something a little more specific than that, so I’m going to suggest treating this as it’s own fallacy. Anyway…

The Palliative Rejoinder occurs when someone denies the charge that they have taken an objectionable position by calling attention to statements they have made which appear to contradict the position in question. This might be thought to answer the charge, but only if one assumes a rigorous consistency on the part of the individual producing this argument. Strictly speaking, the question in such instances would be whether or not they have articulated the position in question, not whether or not they hold other beliefs contrary to that position. So, the response may call attention to a less objectionable feature of the speaker’s views, but it doesn’t resolve the more substantive question about whether or not he has committed himself to an objectionable position in the first place.

Example 1: An individual has argued that homosexuality is unnatural and sinful, and he has consistently argued against granting a range of civil rights protections to those of homosexual orientation. Faced with the charge that he is hostile (perhaps even hateful) to those of homosexual orientation, he proceeds to explain that the Bible tells him to hate the sin and love the sinner.

The distinction between hating a sin and hating a sinner is simply another theme in the individual’s total world view. If the individual in this example is to successfully defend himself from the criticism in question, he must show that his opposition to homosexuality does not rise to the level of hostility. Only then could he show that the distinction is at all meaningful as applied to his own position on the subject. His willingness to adopt that principle does not in itself demonstrate that the individual in question is not otherwise engaged in hostile behavior.

Example 2: An individual has been highly critical of the Iraq war in a number of public venues. Charged with the concern that public opposition to war has negative morale effects on troops, he proceeds to explain that he supports the troops though not the war.

Assuming this accurately describes the attitude of the individual in question, it still does not answer a concern about the actual impact of protest on troop morale. This argument could unfold in so many different ways, but as described, the war-critic’s response would be quite irrelevant.

Example 3: A college student has missed well over half her classes before midterms, and she has yet to hand well over half of her assignments in each of her classes. Told that she does not appear to be taken class seriously, she replies that she thinks her education is very important.

It may very well be that the student can say in all sincerity that she values education when she considers the topic in the abstract, but this does not demonstrate that her conduct is consistent with those words. Absent a clear explanation as to her previous failure to do the work (and likely a plan for correcting the matter), the reassurance she offers will be of little value.

The Negs of Net-Logic

Spend enough time on the internet and you will notice that its jargon includes a few terms about reasoning and argumentation. Most of these are short-hand criticisms for certain kinds of argumentative practice, which makes these terms a lot like fallacies. They are labels used to communicate a stock basis for rejection of an argument. There are, however, a few important differences between these terms and conventional fallacy lists. The vocabulary of net-logic is as likely to focus on the practical effects of argumentative tactics as it is to shed light on problems of logical support. Sometimes these issues compliment one another, and sometimes they simply don’t.

While this kind of practical focus may be problematic when applied to questions about the soundness of an argument, it is worthy of consideration in its own right. So, a few of these terms may help to shed light on real problems of argumentation and reasoning. Others might be used as instruments of abuse in their own right, effectively providing people with a ready means of dismissing thoughtful arguments and insulting those who produce them. On the whole, these terms seem to provide less insight as to the difference between their legitimate use and their abuse than the labels for conventional fallacies.So, there use is just a little bit trickier.

The following list is offered as food for thought. Some of these terms may be more useful than others, but most should definitely be taken with a grain of salt.

Concern Troll: A concern troll is typically thought to be an individual who pretends to support a given position (e.g. feminism) while seeking to express a specific qualm they may have with that position (e.g. the notion that some feminists may be unduly sensitive to the verbal behavior of men). In reality, so the accusation goes, the concern troll is actually opposed to the position in question, and the concern is much more central to the critics agenda than he lets on. Efforts to address the troll thus prove fruitless, and over the course of the conversation it will become more and more clear that he has misrepresented his overall position.

For example, I have encountered a few individuals on various message boards who claimed to want help answering a specific argument by an avowed racist they met on some other forum. In each of these cases, the individual I encountered claimed to need help formulating an effective answer to the argument from the racist 3rd party. Given plausible answers, however, the individual in question replied by saying that he had already tried that approach. He then related the response he received from the racist third party in detail, and asked for help answering that new reply. This pattern repeated for as long as it took myself and others to realize we were in fact the third party was a contrivance.

Of course the particular contrivance of a third party is hardly necessary to the agenda of a concern troll. He may just as easily take responsibility for the concern while pretending to minimize its significance in his overall thinking. Many feminists report a number of similar stories from men claiming to be sympathetic to their cause while continually pressing them on a single point.

One problem with use of the ‘concern troll’ as a criticism is that it may well be directed at someone who really does have a sincere concern about a position which they would otherwise happy to support. Ambivalence is a fact of human nature and most major social agendas come with at least a few problematic angles. Furthermore, argumentation often does have a polarizing effect, and so someone with a relatively minor disagreement may find that disagreement taking on ever greater significance over the course of a debate. To others, this could well be taken as a sign of insincerity and/or misplaced priorities. The option to dismiss someone as a concern troll makes it easier to ignore substantive issues even as it also enables people to call out others for deceitful argumentative practice. Recourse to the term may thus facilitate an unwillingness to consider legitimate concerns as well as those of disingenuous people.

Gish Gallop: This rhetorical practice is named after the Creationist Duane Gish. It refers to a rhetorical technique in which the speaker/author produces so much erroneous reasoning that it becomes difficult for an opponent to know where to begin a refutation.  The original argument contains so many errors of fact and reasoning, and those errors carry so many complex connections that the effort to refute them simply becomes overwhelming.

As the direct reference to Gish indicates, this term has its origins in the specific frustrations of non-believers engaged in debate with Christian apologists. Usage of the term reflects this origin insofar as it is almost exclusively used by non-believers to denigrate the rhetoric of at least some believers.

Arguably, use the term itself yields a circular argument of sorts in which the erroneous nature of the reasoning in question is assumed rather than demonstrated through the accusation that it constitutes a Gish Gallop. That said, the phrase does point to an interesting problem, one which may not limited to the specific patterns of debate between creationists and their critics.

It is a common observation that it is far more difficult to explain an error than it is to produce it. Under normal circumstances, this is just a fact of life, or at least of critical thinking, and those interested in argumentation and debate must simply grin and bare it. It does create the possibility that a speaker may cynically generate a range of problematic claims and arguments in the knowledge that it is simply easier to produce them than it will be to refute them. Recourse to a term that calls people out for doing this may not facilitate direct refutation, but it may help to explain a desire to avoid further dialogue with an individual using such strategies.

The perception of overwhelming error may also be due to less nefarious causes. It seems reasonable to suppose that at least some instances in which one feels overwhelmed by the shear quantity of error in a stretch of reasoning may be due to radical differences in world view. If a critic starts with a broad range of assumptions differing radically from those of the author she hopes to critique, it may become difficult to select a good starting point for her criticisms. In such cases, the issue would not be cheap debate tactics so much as the practical difficulties of reasoning across radically different conceptual schemata. An honest disagreement on a whole bunch of points will be just as frustrating as the effort to dismantle the arguments of someone who has consciously inflated the number of points at issue.

One might differentiate honest cases of broad disagreement from the conscious use of a Gish Gallop by the degree to which its source will cooperate in efforts to narrow the debate and/or to identify the central basis for disagreement. Someone hoping to drown an opponent in a flood of dubious claims will not work to focus debate whereas someone actively trying to reason could be expected to actively look for ways to focus the discussion where possible.

Godwin’s Law: This principle is named for its author, Mike Godwin. It dates back to the early years of the internet. According to Godwin, he developed the principle as part of a deliberate effort to counteract the prevalence of Nazi analogies on the old Usenet. Realizing such analogies had become a very popular meme (in the sense described by Richard Dawkins), Godwin sought to produce a counter-meme he hoped would be effective in reducing the more reckless use of analogies. He called his counter-meme “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies.” Godwin stated the law as follows: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

Godwin typically describes his rule as a means of counteracting trivial comparisons between Nazis and aspects of contemporary life and politics. The rule thus suggests that Nazi analogies are the inevitable result of frustration in the face of disagreement. It thus discourages use of such analogies by rendering all of them suspect on the basis of Godwin’s somewhat light-hearted formulation.

The seemingly universal implications of the rule, as stated, have lead many to think of the law as a reason to reject any and all comparisons to Nazis. Some even take the law to entail something like a win/loss condition in a game. Anyone invokes a comparison to Nazis, so the thinking goes, has already lost the argument. Thus Godwin’s efforts to resistant flippant use of Nazi comparisons may have given rise to equally flippant responses which may be directed at even the most thoughtful basis for comparison. Godwin himself has suggested that some Nazi comparisons may play a constructive role in public dialogue. How one tells the difference between the sort of flippant comparison which Godwin’s Law was meant to deter and those which may be worth considering, the law itself doesn’t help us to answer.

Philosophy Dude-Bro: As a label for a person rather than a behavior, this term sticks out a bit, and it’s problematic in the extreme, but I think it’s worth a little consideration. The label is typically used to describe someone who wants to engage in philosophical debate at inappropriate times and places. More specifically, it’s someone who wants to hold a philosophical debate in a socially charged setting such as a protest (see this blog post for example for an extended rant about PDBs and Pro-life demonstrations). I would think it fair to use the term in reference to any situation in which an individual ignores important points about the socio-political context in which a discussion takes place while trying to engage others in intellectual debate.

For example, Were a politician to use race-baiting language in the process of discussing immigration, it would a PDB move to ignore that language while trying to use this as the jumping off-point for a thoughtful discussion of immigration policy.  Certainly there should be a time and a place for thoughtful discussion of immigration policy, or any other controversial issue, but the effort to start such conversations ought not to ignore significantly inflammatory rhetoric, or worse, to legitimize efforts to inflame a racist audience by providing it with an intellectual cover.

I should add that the gendered nature of the term is not an accident as those using it to criticize others are often feminists expressing irritation at men who wish to discuss issues of direct consequence to women in highly theoretical terms. In principle a woman could be the culprit (and a man could certainly be the one fielding the charge), but in practice, the term has generally been used by women to criticize the behavior of men.

Final Note: Of all the terms in this already sketchy list, this may be the sketchiest.

It could well be charged that my effort to include the term in a general discussion of reasoning and error is already an example of PDB behavior. Perhaps, I should leave the term to those with more specific political interests. …in which case, I’d say that’s a fair cop. Guilty as charged.

Another problem here takes us back to the notion that this is a label for a person rather than a specific description of a behavior or a feature of argumentative discourse. There is definitely an element of ad hominem in this label insofar as it invites us to think of people in terms of stereotypes, and it uses those stereotypes to dismiss their contributions to a discussion or event. This too strikes me as a legitimate concern. And of course there will be some people who use labels like this to reject all manner of efforts to discuss their own politics, no matter the time or the place. All that said, I think the phrase does call attention to a problematic sort of behavior.

Poe’s Law: This adage dates back to discussion on the Creationism & Science discussions at Christian Forums in 2005. It’s author was Nathan Poe, a skeptic and a regular participant at Christian Forums who made the following remark: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is uttrerly (sic) impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake for the genuine article.” Originally made in passing, the comment has since then become an artifact of internet discussions.  Its application has been broadened first to include Fundamentalist Christians and then extremists of most any sort.

In its most general sense Poe’s Law refers simply to the very real possibility that what one person may regard as an obvious parody will be indistinguishable from an actual position taken by somebody somewhere. Certain groups may be more likely than others to produce the kind of stance which is indistinguishable from conscious parody, but the problem is hardly unique to any one world view.

rule 34Rule 34: There are a number of minor variations of this rule (which comes from Peter Morley-Souter). Perhaps the most popular version simply states; “If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.” The rule refers to the existence of parody porn covering a broad range of subjects (most notably, Calvin and Hobbes). Rule 34 suggests the possibility that someone somewhere may produce pornographic material using reasoning and argumentation as its subject matter.

The possibility of argument-parody-porn probably doesn’t help us much in the study of logic and critical thinking, but a slightly more interesting prospect is worth considering, namely the possibility that some people may produce arguments for prurient reasons. This would likely occur in cases wherein argumentation borders on pure mockery, and in particular to instances in which the mockery itself sheds no real light on the issue in question. Examples might include images of Barack Obama dressed as a Muslim and/or those in which George W. Bush have been skewed to make him look more like a chimpanzee. Such mockery is often mixed in with more serious criticism, but it certainly adds nothing of substance to any serious consideration of the issues.One could perhaps dismiss such gimmicks as unsound reasoning, but it’s worth considering the possibility that some who produce them may in fact be engaged in a project having little to do with actual reasoning. This may not quite be porn, but it’s damned close. It should of course go without saying that this kind of political-porn could easily take the form of actual pornography.

Schrodinger’s Asshole (alt. Shrodinger’s Douchebag): This phrase refers to the practice of making wildly outrageous claims and deciding whether or not one is serious about them based on the response he gets afterwards. Faced with serious and/or compelling criticism, an individual employing this tactic may well claim later that she was just joking the whole time (perhaps adding that her critics need to lighten up). If on the other hand, no-one produces a serious criticism, she may stick to her argument (perhaps even taking the silence as a tacit form of agreement). Her reasoning thus occupies a state somewhat like the superposition of Schrodinger’s cat; it may or may not be taken seriously in its initial form. The question will only be answered over the course of future discussion and at the convenience of its original author.

So, how does one know if the source of a given argument is playing at Schrodinger’s Asshole? In some cases, the answer may lie in the personal history of the individual in question. Does she often plead humor after producing an apparently serious argument? Does she return to the serious argument after playing the just kidding card? Such behavior could over time provide reason to doubt the sincerity of its author. In some cases, one may see hedges built into an argument so as to provide its author with a plausible out in the event that she gets serious criticism for producing it. In effect, the initial argument itself contain mixed signals as to the seriousness with which it is intended.

Tone Policing (alt. Tone Argument): This phrase typically refers to criticism focusing on the emotional display (the tone) of an individual rather than the substance of her position. Tone policing thus becomes a kind of red herring fallacy in which the points offered by a given speaker (or more rarely, an author) may be dismissed on the basis of concerns that she is rude, arrogant, or otherwise difficult get along with.

In recent years, tone policing has been strongly associated with efforts to dismiss minorities, feminists, or those belong to the lesbian and gay community. Tone policing thus represents a common strategy for dismissing the unprivileged, one which focuses on the righteous anger that such individuals may feel at their own mistreatment by those with more social capital. This isn’t to suggest that tone policing is exclusively a function of privileged folks, and to some degree this concern may reflect very specific trends in contemporary status politics, but it seems fair to suggest tone policing may be unusually effective at silencing the voices of those in unusually vulnerable positions.

It would probably be a mistake to reject all criticism focusing on the affect display of a speaker. There may well be legitimate concerns about the social consequences of an aggressive communicative style. What seems unequivocally unacceptable here though is the substitution of such concerns for any consideration of the points made by the individual target of a tone argument. If a critic speaks exclusively or primarily to the tone of a speaker while ignoring substantive arguments, the end result is a criticism which does little to advance anyone’s understanding of the issues in question.