Dinesh Does What He Does

Introduction: On the 6th of May, Dinesh D’Souza posted this on twitter.

Key Facts: On January 6th, 2021 Congress met for the purpose of verifying the certified votes of the 2021 Presidential election. Joe Biden had received the majority of certified votes, making him the presumed President elect, though Donald Trump had challenged the election in a number of court cases as well a variety of popular fora. He consistently lost the court challenges before election officials and courts, but successfully developed a significant following of his own base unwilling to accept the legitimacy of the election.

On January 6th, Congressmen from several states challenged the legitimacy of votes reported from their own states Outside, as they were expected to do, thus triggering a debate within Congress. Donald Trump spoke to a rally of his own supporters which he had encouraged to come to Washington DC on the day in question. Following his own speech, Trump supporters stormed the Congressional buildings and shut down Congress. five people were killed and process of confirming the votes was delayed for a time. This is a rather dry description of events, but it must be stressed that the riots included a number of disturbing events, and the rhetoric of Trump and his supporters leading up to the event contained many elements suggesting violence intent all along. Some have suggested that this riot would be better described as an insurrection, an attempted coup, or even domestic terrorism. At least some of the participants do appear to have come prepared to engage in acts which would normally be described as domestic terrorism. In the wake of all this, many have argued that Trump incited the riot himself, and that this is grounds for impeachment.

Dinesh D’Souza is a far right wing political commentator. He plead guilty to a felony charge of making illegal campaign contributions during the 2012 political campaigns. His conviction was pardoned by Donald Trump in 2018.

Text: “Does this look like an insurrection? A riot? A coup attempt? If it doesn’t walk like a duck or talk like a duck then it probably isn’t a duck.”


Comments: Dinesh D’Souza is far more influential than he ought to be, so he merits attention for reasons unrelated to the quality of his thought.

Statements: This argument requires us to rewrite a rehtorical question as 3 different statements (Sttements 1-3) and supply a missing conclusion (statement 5).

[1] [This does not] look like an insurrection.

[2] [This does not look like] A riot.

[3] [This does not look like a] coup attempt.

[4] If it doesn’t walk like a duck or talk like a duck then it probably isn’t a duck.

[5] [The events of January 6th were not an insurrection, a riot, or a coup attempt.]

Diagram: There are a few ways, you could represent this, but the easiest thing to do here I think is just treat statements 1-3 as the minor premise(s) in a mixed hypothetical argument and 4 as supplying the major premise. We could translate the ‘duck’ metaphor into the language specific to this event, which would create an extra step or two in the reasoning, but that seems unnecessary. This argument is modus ponens with 3 minors instead of one, and also a qualifier (‘probably’). Also, the negatives in the antecedent are a little weird. …Okay, it’s an unusual MP, but hopefully you can see the form.

1+2+3+4 – > [5]

Discussion: This argument presents the following issues: argument from ignorance, cherry-picking, micro-reasoning, missing assertions, modus ponens, qualification, red herring, rhetorical questions.

Ad Ignorantiam: One way of explaining the problem with this argument would be to focus on the misuse of evidence here. D’Souza is calling our attention to the apparently mild nature of the image in the picture. Because this image doesn’t look like a riot, he wants us to conclude that this was not a riot, but that ignores the many other reasons we have to think of this as a riot.

Cherry Picking: While this image may seem fairly unthreatening (although it certainly does document crimes, one of them being theft), this ignores the many images and videos of the incident which depict actual violence quite clearly. D’Souza has chosen a convenient sample which supports his own conclusions while ignoring others.

Micro-Reasoning: As with any other tweet, this argument has a small amount of space to develop the point. Whether or not D’Souza could produce a better argument with more space is another question, but the medium certainly does constrain the possibilities here.

Missing Assertions: D’souza does not spell out his main point in explicit terms, so this argument contains a missing conclusion.

Modus Ponens: This argument has elements of Modus Ponens to it, at least if you ignore the qualifier.

Qualification: D’souza includes the word probably in his major premise, which would seem to transform this largely deductive argument into an instance of inductive reasoning.

Red Herring: Another way of getting at the problem with this argument would be to say that it is simply a red herring. The fact that a couple people don’t seem to be engaging in violent acts at one moment in the events simply does not address questions about violence in others or even the intent of those who planned it. Of course, the ‘argument from ignorance’ and ‘cherry picking’ may give us a better sense of the diversion tactic D’Souza is using, but the bottom line is that this argument is inviting us to focus on a red herring.

Rhetorical Questions: The quest sentence is not really a question of course. D’Souza is implying that the picture does not at all look like an insurrection, a riot, or a coup. He puts his point here in the form of a question for rhetorical effect. Frankly, I don’t think it helps much as the statement does not look true, even as an assertion of probability. It would be worse if D’Souza left this as a categorical statement, but this little qualifier just doesn’t help.

Evaluation: The argument fails by virtue of the irrelevance of the assumptions in question. This is clearly a red herring and an appeal to ignorance; that it takes the form of a modus ponens doesn’t change this. Most likely, the biggest way to address the issue would be to simply deny the truth of premise 4, both in the abstract and as regards this specific subject matter. Just because you can find a relatively peaceful image occurring in the midst of a riot doesn’t mean it isn’t a riot. The consequent does not follow from the antecedent in this statement. not categorically and not probably.

Final Thoughts: If it appears that I have not shown much respect for Dinesh D’Souza, the author of this argument, that is not an accident. Please accept my apologies for the lapse in decorum.

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