Bulverism

This is one of those hyperspecific fallacies that we may not even need a distinct name for, because we can address all the issues that arise with it by means of other fallacies. You can think of Bulverism as an example of circular reasoning or you can think of it as an example of the ad hominem. What makes Bulverism unique is the special way it seems to combine these two more common fallacies into a single mistake.

The genetic fallacy is also in there somewhere.

Bulverism occurs when someone assumes that another person is wrong and sets about explaining why they came to be wrong. It’s easy to mistake this for a reasonable argument, because they are actually explaining the error, but what they are explaining about the error is the personal history of the individual they believe is making it. What they are NOT explaining, is what makes it an error in the first place. That is simply assumed.

The word condescension sometimes comes up in discussions of Bulverism.

For example; when I say that I think The Searchers is a great film, my girlfriend (Moni) sometimes says; “Oh, you just have a crush on John Wayne.” This is Bulverism. Moni’s response certainly communicates her dismissal of my opinion. She might even be thought to have answered the question of why my views on the movie are wrong, but only if we interpret the ‘why’ in this instance as a request for an explanation of my error rather than a request for a justification of the criticism. In effect, Moni is explaining why she thinks I came to be be so foolish as to think this a great film. She is not telling me on what grounds she believes me to be in error. Rather than providing grounds to believe the film is poorly done or refuting my claims for believing it is well done, she simply questions my motives. This is Bulverism.

…and she’s wrong about that movie!

Dammit!

Anyway, the term ‘Bulverism’ was coined by C.S. Lewis who playfully suggested he would one day write a fictional story about a man (Ezekiel Bulver) who discovered at a young age there was no reason to prove anyone wrong when you could simply assume they were wrong and explain their error. Lewis’ point was that people should only go on to field such speculation if and only if they had already shown those they criticize to be in error. Whether or not it is reasonable to comment on other people’s motives once you have established an argument to the effect that they are wrong is of course open to question, but the sort of argument Lewis labels here is certainly fallacious in its own right.

Hatch Schmatch!

Introduction: On Thursday, March 25th, 2021, newly appointed Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, Marcia Fudge spoke at a White House press briefing. During this talk, a reporter asked her about some political races in Ohio. After initially declining to answer to answer a question about filling her old seat in the House of Representatives, she responded to a follow-up question about an upcoming Senate race for Ohio by discussing the Democrat’s prospects for winning the seat. Subsequently, reporters began asking questions about whether or not she had violated the Hatch Act in providing these answers.

This tweet is one of many in which apparent supporters of the Biden administration expressed varied levels of frustration over the criticism in view of the previous administration’s record of frequent violations without consequences.

Key Facts: As indicated in this article by CNN, there is some question about whether or not answering questions about Democratic prospects in upcoming elections violates the act inasmuch as it borders on actively using the office and the press conference to advance partisan messages.

As also indicated in the CNN article, members of the Trump administration frequently violated the hatch act without significant consequences. I think it fair to characterize many of these violations as flagrant.

Text: The top tweet in the image to the left is the argument in question. I left the second tweet in as it is an example of the sorts of questions Haley Sheley was responding to. Anyway, the argument is as follows:

“I’m old enough to remember Trump having a campaign rally on the White House lawn calling, his then campaign opponent, Joe Biden a socialist. So, I don’t wanna hear how Marcia Fudge MAY have violated the Hatch Act by answering a reporters question about the Ohio Senate race. GFTOH”

(Emphasis in original)

ANALYSIS

Comments: In case it isn’t obvious, “GFTOH” means “Get the fuck out of here!”

Statements: The argument is as follows:

[1] I’m old enough to remember Trump having a campaign rally on the White House lawn calling, his then campaign opponent, Joe Biden a socialist.

So

[2] I don’t wanna hear how Marcia Fudge MAY have violated the Hatch Act by answering a reporters question about the Ohio Senate race. GFTOH”

Diagram: The diagram is simple enough.

2 -> 1.

Discussion: This argument raises the following questions; False Equivalence, Micro-reasoning, Moral Reasoning, Qualification, Tu Quoque.

False Equivalence: As the argument certainly involves some questions about comparisons here, it might be tempting to ask questions about whether or not this is an example of false equivalence, but if there is a disparity in the actions compared in this instance, it is probably one that points the other direction, so to speak. As the author of this argument points out, correctly, I think, the Trump administration is guilty of far greater violations than the one which Fudge is accused of making.

Micro-Reasoning: This is a brief argument dealing with a complicated issue. It might well be that problems with the reasoning here stem partly from the limitations of micro-blogging.

Moral Reasoning: As this argument is about misconduct, it does raise questions about the nature of moral principles, but these questions are complicated by the legal and political context of the principles at stake. It would be fair to suggest that the Hatch Act imposes moral responsibilities on government officials. On the other hand, these obligations are complicated by the viability of the political system. There are legitimate questions about whether or not one is still obligated to follow a law that has been virtually ignored for 4 years. Likewise, there are questions about whether or not such an obligation can be reasonably imposed on one political party alone.

Qualification: As noted above one of the points this author makes in her tweet is established by the all-caps to emphasize the term “MAY.” In effect, she is reminding us that it is by no means clear that Secretary Fudge actually did break this law by answering a question raised by a professional journalist in the context of a press conference. In effect, “may” qualifies the claim in question by reminding us that it is simply a possibility, not an established fact.

Tu Quoque: As an argument dismissing a criticism of one person by pointing out that her political opponents are guilty of the same misconduct, this seems like a classic case of a tu quoque fallacy, but there are a few things that might argue against this judgement.

First and foremost, this is not an argument directed against the Trump administration itself. It is directed at the news media for raising the question in the first place. The argument is thus less of a ‘you too’ than a ‘him too.’ So, the issue might not be so much a question of evening the score, so to speak, than one about what kind of standard has been applied here.

Many have questioned whether or not journalists are applying a double-standard here, but many journalists certainly did question Trump officials regarding violations of the Hatch Act. Any concerns about he lack of consequences for these violations probably lie with the political process rather than a clear bias on the part of the news media.

Secondly, this is not your run-of-the-mill he-did-it-too argument or situation. In this instance, the violations of the previous administration were frequent and flagrant. Under the Trump administration, the Hatch Act fell into virtual disuse as officials willfully defied the act without significant consequences. Questions about whether or not it is acceptable to uphold the principle of a law, as applied to one party, so soon after the other has all but nullified that law in practice are not exactly equivalent to the normal point of this fallacy. It is not simply a question of whether or not someone else did it too; the point here is that this application suggests a very serious double-standard.

The point of the Hatch Act is to curtail partisanship in government service, and there are real questions about whether or not the act still serves that purpose. If it applies only to the actions of Democratic officials, then arguably, the Hatch Act serves only to exacerbate the very partisanship is is meant to combat.

Third, any comparison between the actions of the Trump administration and those of Secretary Fudge would surely suggest her own actions are on a scale far short of her predecessors. Once again, the problem here is one of an extreme double-standard.

Even in light of these three considerations, I’m inclined to think this remains a tu quoque fallacy, however, partly because of the particular conclusion drawn in this instance. It is literally a refusal to consider the question. While, there are legitimate questions about what the Hatch Act means in the wake of four years of willful disregard, direct refusal to consider the issue entirely doesn’t raise those questions in a helpful manner. In the end, the reasoning is still problematic.

Evaluation: The argument is unsound because it commits the fallacy of tu quoque.

Truth of Premise 1: It is worth noting that the President himself is not covered by the Hatch Act, so his own statements about his political opponent during a campaign rally on the White House lawn would not violate the law. That said, the actions of staff in setting up the event certainly would.

Relevance of the inference: This really is a lot more complicated judgement call than usual, but I do think it fair to say this is a tu quoque fallacy.

Final Thoughts: At the end of the day, America is better off when public officials do in fact refrain from using their office to promote partisan politics. Secretary Fudge’s comments are probably not a serious violation of this principle, but they do touch upon ‘dangerous territory,’ to borrow language from the CNN article. If there a serious questions about whether or not this law has been violated before, or even whether or not this law can be applied to both parties when relevant, these questions are probably not properly addressed by ignoring questions about Fudge’s behavior in this instance. It is highly unlikely that serious publishment would be warranted in this case, but the question itself seems reasonable, and that question is exactly what this argument denies outright.

Mike Lee’s Mulligan?

Introduction: On February 9th, 2021, the first day of the second Impeachment trial of Donald Trump, Republican Senator, Mike Lee of Utah, gave an interview on a show called “America’s Newsroom” at Fox News about his thoughts on the trial. He produced a few different arguments in favor of acquittal before one of the hosts for the show played him a clip of several Democratic politicians engaging in apparently reckless rhetoric and encouraging private citizens to confront Republican politicians over various matters. Asked if the Democratic Party wasn’t showing a double standard, Mike Lee’s response to that question is the argument we are looking at here.

Key Facts: Obviously, the events of January 6th are relevant to the topic of the impeachment in general.

Chuck Schumer’s remarks were made in March of 2020 regarding an abortion case then before the Supreme Court, prompting a rebuke from Chief Justice Roberts. Schumer later expressed regrets for the comments. No disciplinary actions were taken against him.

Maxine Waters comments were made in June of 2018 in response to the zero tolerance policies of Donald Trump. She received criticism for these comments from both Democrats (including Pelosi and Schumer) and Republicans (though more of the latter). No official disciplinary actions were taken against her.

Cory Booker’s Remarks were made in July 2018 at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness. (They occur at around the 25 minute mark in the video clip.) Note that Booker’s remarks are not in response to any specific outrage, nor are they focused on any particular enemies; he wants his audience to confront congressmen about homelessness. Senator Rand Paul’s wife later called Booker out for encouraging behavior that led to harassment of her family and an attack on her husband.

For Donald Trump, the actions in question relate to the events of January 6th. He had been calling protesters to converge on Washington on the day in which Congress would count the electoral votes for the 2020 election. As Congress counted the votes, Trump called on those participating to converge on Congress (whether or not he urged peaceful or violent protest is open to debate). What followed was certainly violent. Protesters stormed Congress and shut down proceedings for some time. Seven people were killed, and many others were injured. At least some of the participants appeared to be prepared for violence at the outset, and may or may not have coordinated with officials in Washington to gain access to Congress and evens search for Congressional leadership (as well as Vice President, Mike Pence).

This leaves out a lot of important details, and much of what happened is still in dispute. For the present, that will have to do as far as my account here.

Text: I’m going to present a significant portion of the clip here, but the argument to be analyzed is the quote at the end from Mike Lee.

One of the hosts of America’s Newsroom, Dana Perino wrapped up a previous line of discussion and then prefaced a series of clips with the following comment: “I do want to ask you about this, the Republicans are gonna try and point out that there is a double standard. Take a listen to this.”

Chuck Schumer: “I wanna tell you, Gorsuch. I wanna tell you, Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price.”

Maxine Waters: “If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them, and you tell them, they are not welcome.”

Cory Booker: “Please, don’t just come here today and then go home, go to the hill today. Get up, and please, get up in the face of some Congress-people.”

The segment comes back to Perino who adds: “Democrats are saying, of course, that that is different. How do you see it?”

Mike Lee: “Yeah, look, it’s not different. these are outgrowths of the same natural impulse that exist from time to time among anyone in this business, and in many other businesses. Look, everyone makes mistakes, everyone’s entitled to a mulligan, once in awhile. and I would hope, I would expect that each of those individuals would take a mulligan on each of those statements, because in each instance, they’re making it deeply personal; they’re ceasing to make it about policy, and instead they are talking about getting up in people’s faces and making individuals feel perfectly uncomfortable, and that’s not helpful. I think the best way to handle this is to talk about issues rather than individual personalities.”

(Some conversational repair has been omitted.)

ANALYSIS

Comments: I am struggling a bit here with the proper language to describe this. In some cases, I feel like I have gone too far in attempting a neutral (or neutral-ish) descripton of key facts. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be too hard to gather what my own take on this is. I think Trump is damned guilty, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. Nevertheless, I am trying to write this with an eye toward the possibilities at least that the issues in question are currently up for debate.

Liteally!

Statements: I’ve broken the argument up into the following statements. I supplied one implied conclusion, phrasing one version in terms of the figurative speech lee uses and one in terms approximating his likely literal intention.

[1] It’s not different.

[2] These are outgrowths of the same natural impulse that exist from time to time among anyone in this business.

[3][These are outgrowths of the same natural impulse that exist from time to time] in many other businesses.

[4] Everyone makes mistakes.

[5] Everyone’s entitled to a mulligan, once in awhile.

[6] I would hope, I would expect that each of those individuals would take a mulligan on each of those statements.

[a] because

[7] In each instance, they’re making it deeply personal.

[8] They’re ceasing to make it about policy.

[9] Instead they are talking about getting up in people’s faces and making individuals feel perfectly uncomfortable.

[10] That’s not helpful.

[11] I think the best way to handle this is to talk about issues rather than individual personalities.

[12a] [Trump should get a Mulligan.]

[12b] [Donald Trump’s actions leading up to the events of January 6th should not result in an impeachment conviction.]

Diagram: The biggest question I had about the diagram was how to fill in a couple some of the relevant information Lee doesn’t quite state himself. I thought the missing conclusion was fairly obvious, but I struggled with whether or not to spell out an assumption about just what the nature of Trump’s alleged transgressions really were. Senator Lee never actually says anything about the nature of Trump’s conduct, or possible transgressions, at least not in this segment. This leaves a gaping whole in the argument. Without more guidance as to just how Lee sees Trump’s own actions, I thought it best to refrain from attempting to phrase it for him.

I added some phrasing to this diagram suggesting a loose paraphrase for each of the major themes of the argument.

Discussion: This argument includes the following topics: Analogy, Double Negation, False Equivalence, Interactional Eclipse, Missing Assertions, Red Herring, Tu Quoque.

Analogy: What really stands out in this segment is an argument from analogy, namely the claim that Trump’s actions are comparable to those of a golfer in need of a mulligan (i.e. a second chance). This raises questions about just how fitting the analogy really is. Whether or not Trump’s actions (or those of the Democrats mentioned in the video) could be viewed as the moral equivalent of a botched shot in a game. More to the point, the question at issue would be whether or not his actions could be considered worthy of a second chance (given without penalties, and perhaps without an expression of contrition). A mulligan requires neither punitive actions imposed by others nor an expression of regret, nor a change of heart, so to speak, but such things are commonly expected of those who have committed moral transgressions. To the degree that Trump’s actions might be thought to have moral significance, this argues against the notion that giving him a second chance under the circumstances would be equivalent to granting someone a mulligan in golf.

A second analogy underlies the first, this being the comparison between Donald Trump’s actions leading up to the events of January 6th and those of the Democrats featured in the video. Even if the notion of a mulligan is not really applicable to Trump’s own actions, the comparison between his actions and those of the Democrats featured in this segment is the real point of the argument. Lee’s description of their actions underscores the notion that what was wrong with their actions is the degree to which they made politics personal rather that focused on issues. It seems likely that he meant to suggest that Trump’s actions were comparable.

Possible points of disanalogy? At least 2 of the Democrats (Schumer and Waters) in question were condemned by leaders within their own party, and one of them (Schumer) did express regret for his actions. The third (Booker) was not suggesting that people attack anyone personally, but rather that they take action to call the issue they cared about to Congress people instead of just attending the function at which he spoke. One could perhaps argue that Schumer and/or Waters ought to have faced some sort of disciplinary actions, especially if Trump is to face impeachment over his. Against this, one must weigh the prospect that Trump’s own actions amounted to an effort to incite a riot or even a general insurrection against the United States Government in a concerted effort to overturn the results of an election. One must also consider that lives were lost in this effort, and that Trump as well as many of the participants in the actual riot expressed clear intent to engage in actual violence (even lethal violence) at the outset of the events of January 6th. Somewhere in here, we must also consider the significance of unfounded accusations about the validity of the election and a massive effort to promote dubious arguments to the general public in advance of the calls for protest on January 6th. I know of no comparable case to be made in regard to any of the Democratic examples featured in this video.

This does not mean that the actions of all 3 Democrats featured above is beyond reproach; but it does undermine Lee’s efforts to cast them as essentially the same problem posed by Trump’s role in the events of January 6th.

To say that the analogy is strained would be putting it mildly.

Double Negation: Statement number one; “It’s not different” is of course equivalent to saying the behavior is the same.

False Equivalence: As noted above (in Analogy), there are good reasons to believe the Democratic behavior above is not equivalent to that of Donald Trump, which would make this an example of false equivalence. Arguably, this is the main thrust of Lee’s argument, an effort to convince the public that what Trump did was no more than what each of these Democrats did.

Interactional Eclipse: As a Senator, Mike Lee, is officially on the jury for this impeachment trial. He is also, a player in the events of the 6th. What his role was on that day is up for debate, but the point is that he is himself implicated in the debate over impeachment. His likely stance on this matter is thus something of a foregone conclusion, and his arguments may thus be taken with a grain of salt. As with the rest of the impeachment, there is a very real sense in which we know what the major parties are likely to do, and their stated reasons for doing so may have little to do with the reasons for their actual decisions on the matter. This is not entirely unusual with argumentation, but it is at least a little more of a problem in a highly political trial. (By political here, I mean that the actual vote to convict or acquit will be made by political actors without the benefit of normal trials for either civil governing criminal evidence.)

At least one feature of Lee’s argument is directly effected by the politics of the situation. He never makes a case for the exact equivalence of Trump’s actions to those of the Democrats. To do so, he would have to say what he thought Trump might have done wrong, but as an active ally (and possible co-conspirator) of Trump, he is not going to do that. The argument would be more coherent if he did, but the social context in which the argument takes place makes this a bad strategy.

Missing Assertions: The final conclusion of Lee’s argument is unstated. He is obviously suggesting that Donald Trump too should be allowed to take a mulligan, so to speak. I have framed the final conclusion of the argument (statement 12) in terms of both the metaphor itself (12a) and in in terms of its substantive political significance (12b).

Red Herring: In one respect, we could address lee’s remarks as a simple red herring. He is responding to an indictment of Donald Trump by addressing questions about the behavior of someone else. This is clearly a diversion tactic.

Tu Quoque: The accusation that Democrats have themselves misbehaved in a manner to that of Donald Trump is in another respect an example of the tu quoque variation on the ad hominem fallacy. We might even say that 1, 2, or all 3 of these Democrats behaved wrongly. This does not mean that Trump did not do anything wrong. Neither does it demonstrate the he should not be convicted in an impeachment trial. If, perhaps all three of the Democrats in question are equally worthy of impeachment (which is doubtful), then this as easily proves they should have been impeached as it proves that Trump should not. Their guilt or innocence is not material to questions about Trump’s actions on and leading up to January 6th.

Evaluation: I’m just taking each of the major themes in turn.

2+3 -1: It isn’t clear just what impulse Lee is talking about Neither is it clear that any impulse explains Trump’s actions leading up to the events in question. Neither statement 2 nor 3 appear to be true, so this is unsound.

4+5 -> 1: It isn’t clear what it means to say that everyone deserves a mulligan. Some errors might be more worthy of a mulligan than others. Neither of the premises behind this argument distinguishes between acceptable errors and those that are simply unacceptable. This one too is unsound on account of its untrue premises.

7+8+9 ->10 It isn’t entirely clear that the premises here are meant to prove 10; they may all be just elaborations of the same point. In each case, this seems like a fairly reasonable way of describing the problem with the Democrats statements featured in the video (Booker’s speech might be an exception). In any event, I find the claims plausible and the conclusion does follow reasonably. This part of the larger argument seems fine to me. Sound.

10+11->6: Again, I think this is a fairly reasonable argument about the significance of the Democrat statements in the video, and perhaps even about politics in general. One might find it frustrating to see Mike Lee advocating a principle he (and Trump) do not necessarily follow themselves, but that is not a reason to reject his conclusion here. (To do so would be to engage in the tu quoque fallacy.) Sound.

1+6 -12: The real problem here is the truth value of statement 1. Lee’s psychological commentary on motivations and generalizations about everyone needing a mulligan do nothing to establish any serious position on Donald Trump’s role in the events of January 6th. So, Lee does nothing, NOTHING, to show that the behavior of the Democrats is comparable to that of Trump.

The lack of a clear statement about what Trump did wrong is perhaps to be expected. After all, why would he make even the beginnings of a case against Trump’s actions or his character at the start of a trial in which he clearly hopes will end in acquittal? Nevertheless, it leaves the entire comparison without one of its key components. We know only what happened in the Democrat examples, not how the significance of those examples compares with anything Trump did.

As I have indicated in various places (mainly Analogy) here, there is little reason to believe that Trump’s actions could reasonably be described as equivalent to those of the democrats in question. Simply put, calling for rude and verbally aggressive behavior is not equivalent to inciting a insurrection that got 7 people killed, and countless others injured, to say noting of the attack on our nation’s government. This is essentially what Trump is accused of doing. We an debate whether or not he is guilty, but if he is guilty of doing that, it probably isn’t the kind of thing that gets anybody a mulligan.

Literal or metaphorical.

We could spell out a missing assumption addressing the significance of Trump’s actions in support of statement 1, but it would just be a false assumption and so we would still end up with no reason to accept statement 1 as true.

This inference is unsound because statement 1 is untrue.

Overall: Unsound. The arguments leading to statement 1 do not address Trump’s actual conduct, and evidence suggests that his conduct is not comparable to that the the Democrats in the video. Neither is his conduct sufficiently trivial to warrant the analogy Senator Lee is using.

Final Thoughts: No, Donald Trump does not deserve a Mulligan.

Michael Moore’s Thoughts on Snipers

Introduction: On January 18th, Michael Moore posted a tweet widely regarded as a comment on Chris Kyle and on the movie Sniper depicting Kyle’s service in the military. Given Moore’s status as a left wing activist and critic of the Iraq War, it should come as no surprise that he would object to a film that seems to portray Kyle as a hero. Moore seems to suggest that Kyle is nothing of the kind, eve going so far as to imply that Kyle is in fact a coward.

Key Facts: It’s worth noting that much of Hollywood’s portrayal of snipers would fit more in line with Moore’s comments in this instance. Snipers usually make their way into a film as a menace to the heroes, or as complex characters with a deeply ambivalent sense of their own role in combat. It is only in more recent depictions that they have begun to occupy the relatively more straight-foreword role of heroes in films such as Blackhawk Down.

Text: Here is a screenshot of the tweet.

SlMMonSNfinal