Marjorie Taylor Greene Almost Has a Thought About the Vegas Shooter

Introduction: Marjorie Taylor Greene is a a U.S. Representative for Georgia District 14. She is also a known advocate of several conspiracy theories, and an advocate of Second Amendment rights. At some point in time, she posted this video explaining her views on a mass shooting that occurred in Las Vegas. (Note: This appears to be a re-post by someone else; I still haven’t tracked down the original.) At some point, she also published this article republished by the Way Back Machine, in which she provides more detail (though not much more in the way of evidence) on her views about the subject.

Key Facts: The shooting in question occurred on October 1st, 2017. It was carried out by Stephen Paddock. He fired over a thousand rounds of ammunition into a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, killing 60 people and wounding 867 others before killing himself. (I’m just going by Wiki here.) Although some sources have made assertions about the subject, at present, police have drawn no substantial conclusions about his motives for the shooting.

Text: Here is the full text of the video clip. Obviously, some of the text below is not part of the actual argument.

“Hey Friends, I’ve got a question for you. How do you get avid gun owners and people that support the Second Amendment to give up their guns and go along with anti-gun legislation? How do you do that? Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is very likely to be conservative, very likely to vote Republican, very likely to be Trump supporters, very likely to be pro-Second Amendment, and very likely to own guns. You make them scared, you make them victims, and you change their mindset, and then possibly you can pass anti-gun legislation. Is that what happened in Las Vegas? Is that why, um, the country music festival was targeted? Because those would be the people, that would be the ones that we would relate to? Are they trying to terrorize our mindset, and change our minds on the Second Amendment? Is that what’s going on here? I have a lot of questions about that. I don’t believe Steven Paddock was a lone wolf. I don’t believe that he pulled this off all by himself, and I know most of you don’t either. So, I am really wondering if there is a, there’s a bigger motive there, and does it have to do with the Second Amendment, because what’s the best way to control the people? You have to take away their guns. So, that’s just my question today. This is Marjorie Greene with American Truth Seekers.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: What makes this argument interesting is the constant hedging. Greene is doing her best to put forward ideas without taking responsibility for them. The end result is quite a study of rhetorical manipulation and general evasiveness.

Statements: I found it really hard to dissect the statements in this argument, mainly because Greene is waffling her way through it. It’s normal to rephrase a rhetorical question as a statement for argument analysis, but it isn’t normal to deal with an argument that is so thoroughly saturated with them (along with other forms of innuendo). It seems somewhat unfair to Greene to just pretend her questions are statements, but it’s also unduly generous to pretend they are just questions. She is riding the fence line on just how much she wants to assert, and that poses a problem for how to interpret her approach to this.

I wanted to preserve some elements of the contextualization strategies here as I do think they are critical to the argument.

I am designating some the contextual information Greene presents with capital letters in place of numbers. Note also, that a rather large portion of this argument consists of rhetorical questions. I have added square brackets to the periods I used to replace what would normally be question marks to indicate which statements were originally phrased as questions.

[A] Hey Friends, I’ve got a question for you.

[B1] How do you get avid gun owners and people that support the Second Amendment to give up their guns and go along with anti-gun legislation?

[B2] How do you do that?

[1] Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is very likely to be conservative.

[2] [Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is] very likely to vote Republican.

[3] [Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is] very likely to be Trump supporters.

[4] Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is] very likely to be pro-Second Amendment.

[5] [Maybe, you accomplish that by performing a mass shooting into a crowd that is] and very likely to own guns.

[6] You make them scared.

[7] you make them victims.

[8] you change their mindset.

[9] [if you do this,] then possibly you can pass anti-gun legislation.

[10] [That is] what happened in Las Vegas[.]

[11] [That is] why, um, the country music festival was targeted[.]

Because

[11] Those would be the people, that would be the ones that we would relate to[.]

[12] [They are] trying to terrorize our mindset, and change our minds on the Second Amendment[.]

[11 and 12] [That is] what’s going on here[.]

[C] I have a lot of questions about that.

[13] I don’t believe Steven Paddock was a lone wolf.

[14] I don’t believe that he pulled this off all by himself.

[15] I know most of you don’t either.

So

[D] I am really wondering if there is a

[16] there’s a bigger motive there.

[17] [It has] to do with the Second Amendment.

[18] because what’s the best way to control the people[.]

[19] You have to take away their guns.

[E] So, that’s just my question today.

[F] This is Marjorie Greene with American Truth Seekers.”

Diagram: This took a lot more judgement calls than I like making, but here is the diagram.

Green’s Argument

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes: Accusatory Question, Anaphoric Pronouns, Argument from Incredulity, Burden of Proof, Double Negation, Gish Gallop, Hedges, Innuendo, Passive Voice, Provincialism, Redundant Assertions, Rhetorical Question, Straw Man, Unsupported Assertion.

Accusatory Question: Several of Greene’s questions effectively make an accusation for which she presents no evidence. By treating these as rhetorical question, as above, they are transformed into statements for which the evidence is questionable at best, but the rhetorical strategy is worth keeping track of in itself. Statements 10, 11, and 12 are the more obvious examples of this gambit.

Anaphoric Pronouns: A couple of sections of this argument turn on the use of anaphoric pronouns (i.e. pronouns that refer to a previously named entity. At least a couple of these are free-floating anaphors, i.e. pronouns used without a clearly established referent. We have a generalized “you’ in statements 1-9, for example, which seems to suggest that these are tactics anyone could use to manipulate others, but she is probably suggesting that someone in government (or more likely, an abstract government entity) is actually doing this. The ‘they’ in statement 12 would refer to the participants in some unspecified conspiracy, but once again Greene avoids telling us who it is that she is talking about. The “You” in statement 15 would of course refer to Greene’s friends (as mentioned in A), which in this case probably means something more like her fans and/or those who agree with her on this and similar topics. “Them” in statements 6-8 clearly refers to the conservative crowd referenced in statements 1-5.

On a side note: The demonstrative ‘that’ in “[11 and 12] [That is] what’s going on here[.]” is a bit ambiguous. I take it to refer to events as described in both statements 11 and 12, though it could refer to either one individually.

Argument from Incredulity: Statements 13 and 14 both present refusal to believe a proposition (the notion that Paddock acted alone) as evidence for its opposite. This is the argument from incredulity. As, Greene is actually suggesting a lot more specific than that he had help, this raises other problems as well (straw man concerns and burdens of proof).

Burden of Proof: Taylor uses double negation to assert a few unspecified assertions about possible conspiracies (e.g. statements 13 and 14). In effect, saying that paddock did not act alone is what she offers in place of a clear theory as to who helped him and what evidence she has for this. Significantly, this is one of the few areas where Greene does not disguise her assertions as question, but she still gives herself cover by hiding a specific assertion in the negation of its opposite. Arguably, it would be on her to spell out the assertion she means to make and provide evidence for it. Instead she merely uses the argument from incredulity to deny the negation of her unspecified accusations.

Double Negation: As mentioned above (in Burden of proof), Greene denies that Paddock acted alone in order to suggest that he had help. This helps her evade the need to make specific assertions as to what help he had, but to the point at hand, her argument turns on double negation.

Gish Gallop: For a short clip, Majorie Taylor Greene does incude an awful lot of objectionable material in here. I think it would be fair to call this a Gish Gallop.

Hedges: Greene uses words like “Maybe” (statements 1-5) and “possibly” (in statement 9) to avoid committing to her assertions. She tells us that she is “wondering” about this. Like her use of rhetorical questions and her use of double negation, these hedges enables her to evade responsibility for anything she gets wrong. If her accusations are clearly disproven, then she may of course say that she was only raising the possibility. In effect, she is using this language to avoid taking responsibility for the argument she is making.

Innuendo: This isn’t the most technical term, but all this adds up to an argument that works by innuendo. Greene implies a great deal more than she asserts.

Passive Voice: One of the advantages of passive voice is that you can use it without a ‘by-clause’, thus avoiding the need to specify who is actually carrying out the action in question. You see this in statement 11, talking about why the country music festival “was targeted” without saying by whom. Clearly, Greene does not mean Paddock alone, but she never tells us who else might be involved. Along with all the other hedges, her use of passive voice here enables her to skip that piece of information.

Provincialism: Greene’s statement 16 could be viewed as a appeal to provincialism. (Alternatively, it could be an appeal to popularity – i.e. the Bandwagon fallacy – but if I had to make a call, I would say that it’s bandwagon.) She appears to be trying to generate the impression that people in her own circles would certainly share her views on this topic.

Redundant Assertions: There are a few redundant assertions here, some such as statements 11 and 12 which appear to be repeated with different wording, and some (statements 1-5) which occur which several different propositions within one whole statement are spelled out individually. None of this is a problem with Greene’s reasoning, but it could trip up someone doing an argument analysis (fingers crossed).

Rhetorical Questions: As noted repeatedly above, Greene uses a lot of rhetorical questions. Statements 9-12 in the list above were actually phrased as questions. She begins with a question, repeated twice, and ends by saying that she is raising questions. Somewhere in the middle, Greene suggests that she is actually raising questions. It seems best to treat this as acknowledging some level of doubt, but Greene is in effect making an argument here. She is suggesting that the scenarios (or something like them) she raises are actually the case. Combined with her use of double-negation to affirm some unspecified scenario other than the prospect that Paddock acted alone, her use of rhetorical questions adds up to an argument in favor of some unspecific conspiracy theory.

In any event, the questions mentioned above have been rewritten as statements here.

Straw Man Argument: I’m not real sure about this one, but there is at least one sense in which Greene’s argument could be seen as resting on a straw man. Al though it appears that the police treat Paddock as a lone actor, the notion that his actions are not the result of a conspiracy to take away guns from American citizens simply does not rest on the notion that Paddock acted alone. Any number of scenarios involving additional parties would fall far short of the conspiracy Greene is suggesting.

Unsupported Assertion: Greene makes a unsupported assertions in this argument. She provides no evidence, for example, for her assertion that Paddock did not act alone (statements 13 and 14). She also suggests (in the form of rhetorical questions in 10, 11, and 12) that the country music festival was targeted for purposes of undermining gun-owners rights. Phrasing these as questions helps to diffuse the expectation that evidence should follow, and one does. Statements 16 and 17 are also unsupported. All of these assertions are just as controversial as the conclusion of her argument, and at least as questionable as to their truth values. It isn’t simply that these are starting premises; the problem in each of these cases is that the notions Greene puts forth fly in the face of the currently common take on this event, and she makes these assertions without offering any evidence in support of them.

Voicing: In statements 13 and 14, Greene is effectively voicing the stance of her presumed opposition. She does so for the purpose of refuting them, of course, but it’s worth keeping in mind that she is conjuring a definite sense of her political opposition for the moment. That opposition is of course present by implication not only in the dialogue over what happened in this shooting, but also in the story itself, as the presumed source of the conspiracy she wants us to believe was behind the attack. In rejecting their views, she is of course also rejecting the politics of the conspiracy. Given her assumptions about the conspiracy, calling it out and rejecting the views of those who deny the conspiracy is performatively fighting against the conspiracy, even against the shooter insofar as she hopes to defeat his presumed goals. She doesn’t hit this theme that hard, but the implication is probably part of the appeal of her position, and part of what makes it so hard to reason with people like Greene.

Evaluation: Hm…

1-5 -> 9: Statements 1-5 each rely on an intuitive sense that an attack on gun owning conservatives might cause them to change their minds on the Second Amendment. I do wonder what social psychologists might say on the subject (particularly as regards dissonance reduction theory), but these statements seem plausible, and I think they do add up a general sense that such an event could (hypothetically) help someone who wants to restrict the rights of gun owners which is the point of statement 9. Push comes, to shove, this sub-theme strikes me as a marginally sound argument.

6-8 -> 9: This is just a more abstract argument about psychological impact. It’s vague, at best. There is a certain intuitive appeal, but its’ not clear how all this works. I don’t find this sub-theme convincing, though my concerns are mild at worst. It just isn’t clear that people would respond to such a traumatic event by changing heir views on gun ownership and gun rights. It is at least as likely that they will respond by adopting conspiracy theories and using those theories to double-down on their defense of gun ownership.

This really isn’t where the real problems in Greene’s argument reside, but if I have to make a call, I’d say this one is unsound.

11 -> 10. Statement 10 is a proposition about what actually happened. Statement 11 is a statement about the affiliation of people targeted. the one does not add up to the other. This is unsound because the inference itself is weak at best.

13+14 -> 10. This one is unsound because 13 and 14 are unsupported. Also, the prospect that Paddock may have had help from someone does not add up to evidence for the kind of conspiracy she is asserting. This argument fails on both the truth value of its premises and the logic of inference. Unsound. Really unsound.

15 -> 10. This is an appeal to provincialism fallacy. Unsound.

16=19 -> 10: Each of the assumptions of this argument is unsupported and unlikely to be true. Hence, the argument is unsound.

9+10 -> 12. If we assume 9 and 10 are true, then 12 logically follows. The problem is of course the fact that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that statement 10 is true. The argument is unsound, which is putting it mildly.

Overall: This argument is about as bad as they get.

Final thoughts: This is how conspiracy theory works in terms of rhetoric and reasoning. It is a great study in the means by which a demagogue (or a wannabe demagogue) makes accusations without taking responsibility for them.

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 may bear more responsibility than the other for producing evidence in favor of its position. This principle 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 for and against belief.

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 that the two have equivalent value. 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. That argument seems plausible, but it rests on 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 (or at least some versions of negation) itself is inherently ambiguous. In some cases, such as predicate term negation, the conditions under which the truth of a negative claim could be established 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 itself (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 that a statement is true, one must accept as meaningful all of its terms and affirm the state of affairs they describe. In contrast, one may reject a proposition on the basis of other concerns.

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. I would normally be expected to put mown reasons for saying this on the table. 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 without providing any reason to believe he had done so in the first place. (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 others, 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 troublesome as those about whether or not God exists, who She is, or what sort of church She wants 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 suggest that advancing them may not help you communicate effectively with any particular person.

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 (appeal to ignorance): These arguments explicitly turn 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 (begging the question): 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.