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.

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, use of these terms 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 critic’s 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 to a committed racist and 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 just keeping adding controversial claims to an ongoing argument whereas someone actively trying to reason could be expected to set aside trivial disagreements where possible and focus on central points of disagreement.

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 instances in which people compared each other to Nazis 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, one he hoped would be effective in reducing the more reckless use of the Nazi comparison. 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.”

In other words, if an argument continues long enough, someone is going to compare someone else to a Nazi.

Godwin typically describes his rule as a means of counteracting trivial comparisons between Nazis and aspects of contemporary life and politics. The rule 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 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 treating such efforts as a philosophical stance.

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. 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 responses 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.

The obvious point of this gambit is to avoid taking responsibility for the arguments one produces.

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 an individual. In some cases, one may find that disclaimers have been built into an argument so as to provide its author with a plausible out in the event that she gets serious criticism. In effect, the initial argument itself contain mixed signals as to the seriousness with which it is intended.

Sealioning: This refers to a passive-aggressive approach to discourse wherein an individual makes persistent requests for evidence, clarification, etc. to someone who is not interested in debate. Such an approach would normally seem to be the hallmark of reasoned discourse, but the key to this practice lies in the disingenuous nature of the questions. In effect, a sealion asks these questions, not for the purpose of gaining extra knowledge or even trying to understand the others’ position. He asks them in order to watch the other party spin his own wheels trying to come up with an answer. Answering someone using this tactic is largely a waste of time, but it is a waste of time easily confused with a serious attempt at reasoned discussion.

Apparently, the term has its origins in an amusing cartoon by David Malki.

a5b

As with most of the negs on this list, the problem with objections to sealioning is that they require a tricky judgement call. To know if someone is sealioning you have to know whether or not they are making an honest effort to understand a position, and dishonest or overly impatient accusations of sealioning are roughly as likely as the dishonesty of actual sealioning. So, how would one tell the difference? Often this is read by the response to answers received. If a questioner persistently misrepresents the answers they have been given, that is probably a bad sign. Other tips might include an unacknowledged prior positions or a persistent refusal to engage the information actually provided.

Shifting the Goalposts: This expression is commonly used to describe an effort to change the point of a dispute at the convenience of one or another party. This may be done so as to enable someone to claim they have proven a point which was much easier to demonstrate than the original topic of disagreement, or it may be done so as to claim a point has not been substantiated by insisting that some new and much tougher claim was the real point all along. Either way, the problem is that someone has changed the sense of what was to be proved in the first place surreptitiously in the course of the argument.

It’s worth bearing in mind people could change their mind about the scope of an issue; that is not the problem. The problem here lies in the unacknowledged shift of goals after having already agreed to a common sense of the issue in the first place.

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 belonging to the lesbian and gay community. Tone policing thus represents a common strategy for dismissing the under-privileged, 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-based criticism. 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.