A Truthity Gaffitation?

Introduction: On October 13, 2022, Minnesota Representative Angie Craig debated Tyler Kistner as part of her bid for re-election. During the course of this debate, she said; “I will never stop standing up for Big Pharma and standing against my constituents!” This was likely a mistake, but was this a mere misstatement or an instance of saying the quiet part out loud, so to speak? Breitbart News produced the argument in question in an effort to convince its readers that Craig’s comments were in fact a telling moment in which she revealed her true agenda

Key Facts:

Text: These paragraphs can be found in the middle of the article in question.

“In fact, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) noted that Craig’s slip of the tongue shows the truth, which is that she always stands with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

“Angie Craig accidentally admitted the truth: she always stands with Pelosi and against the interests of Minnesota families,” said NRCC spokesman Mike Berg.

The congresswoman has voted with the Speaker 100 percent of the time in the current Congress and 99 percent in the last Congress. Additionally, during President Joe Biden’s time in office, she has voted with him 100 percent of the time.”


Comments: It might be interesting to actually break down the statistical information on votes relating to the pharmaceutical industry in more detail, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

Statements: The argument includes a few complex statements which have broken up into their individual components. This in turn has left us with a couple instances of redundant statements. Some of this is reported speech, but the credibility of the source does not appear to be critical to the argument, so the source citation is treated here as a contextualization cue [a]. While Statement 1 is clearly the conclusion of the argument, as stated, it seems clear that the real point is to suggest that Craig really believes what she says in this instance, so a final unstated conclusion [5] has been spelled out here.

[1a] In fact, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) noted that Craig’s slip of the tongue shows the truth,

[2a] [Angie Craig] always stands with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

[1b] “Angie Craig accidentally admitted the truth:

[2b] she always stands with Pelosi and

[3] [Angie Craig always stands] against the interests of Minnesota families,”

[a] said NRCC spokesman Mike Berg.

[4] The congresswoman has voted with the Speaker 100 percent of the time in the current Congress and 99 percent in the last Congress. Additionally, during President Joe Biden’s time in office, she has voted with him 100 percent of the time.

[5] [Angie Craig actively supports big pharma against the interests of her own constituents.]

[6] Nancy Pelosi consistently represents big pharma in Congress.

Diagram: The following seems to represent the reasoning of the argument, with statement 4 offering a statistical summary of Craig’s history of voting with Nancy Pelosi as evidence for a generalization that she always votes with Pelosi. This then is added to an unsupported side comment about how she stands against her constituents to argue for the notion that her statement was an accurate reflection of her actual politics, all of which is meant to show that she really does stand up for big pharma and against the interests of her own constituents.

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Ad Hominem, Contextualization, Indexicality, Interactional Eclipse, Meta-Reasoning, Misstatement, Red Herring, Tell, Semantics, Statistical Reasoning, Unsupported Claims.

Ad Hominem: Insofar as this argument takes Craig’s summary statement as an indication of her real stance on big pharma, it provides an excuse to ignore the rest of her commentary on the topic at hand. In effect, this an ad hominem (circumstantial), in which an accusation about Craig’s real interest in the subject is used to dismiss the rest of her arguments on the subject.

Contextualization: Insofar as this argument turns on a question about the intent of a speaker (Craig), it is explicitly focused on context-specific information.

Indexicality: The Breitbart article rests a great of its case on the notion that Craig’s statement reflects a pattern actually present in her voting behavior. In effect, they are telling us that her voting pattern matches the significance of the statement in question, making it a truthful claim rather than a mere misstatement. They are thus treating her statement as a kind of indexical icon reflecting her actual politics. Whether or not voting in concert with Nancy Pelosi really constitutes a pattern of support for big pharma is another question, but the folks at Breitbart clearly think it does.

Interactional Eclipse: The real work of this article probably has less to do with the effort to convince people that Craig meant what she said than the effort to reinforce the framing of the issue. While readers may or may not come away thinking that Craig really means to support big pharma, the presupposition that Nancy Pelosi is uniquely supportive of big pharma is provided as an absolute given for this argument. In effect, the author is replacing questions about actual votes on actual issues related to medicine, which were the substance of Craig’s own arguments on the topic, with a simple rubric in which any association with Nancy Pelosi is taken to be evidence of support for big pharma. This impression is not contingent on accepting the conclusion of the argument, and it will have far more lasting impact than anything at stake in this particular argument. The long-term game for the author’s of this argument may have less to do with Craig or the election in question than the effort to poison the well for Democratic leadership. Likely, the normal value of an argument, as am effort to prove the truth of its conclusion is neither the practical goal nor the practical effect of this particular argument.

Meta-Reasoning: Insofar as this is an argument about an argument, the one made by Craig, this is an example of meta-reasoning, specifically it is an argument in which a statement completely out of line with the rest of her comments on the topic at hand may be taken as her real stance on the issue while setting aside anything else she has to say about the subject.

Misstatement: Given the argument Angie Craig was making before uttering the statement in question, it seems quite obvious that she misstated the point she meant to make. Whether this was an honest mistake or something akin to a liar’s tell or even a Freudian slip would seem to be the point of the argument Breitbart makes. Absent any good reason to believe this statement reflected her real views, however, it seems best to think of this as merely a misstatement and nothing more.

Red Herring: The notion that association with Nancy Pelosi constitutes support for Big Pharma is a red herring. The Breitbart piece makes no effort to establish its relevance. Still, Pelosi has taken donations from big pharmaceutical companies and one can find many articles from both the left and right taking her to task for their influence on her politics. Just how much this differs from Mitch McConnell and countless other Congressmen on both sides of the aisle is another question, but the issue here is not whether or not Pelosi handles the issue well; it is whether or not Craig does. An abstract comparison of Craig’s voting behavior to that of Pelosi works only if Pelosi is uniquely supportive, and really only if Craig can be shown to have been similarly supportive in key votes wherein the interests of big pharma actually diverge from those of the public. But of course anyone prepared to make such a case would hardly need to reference Pelosi in order to do so; they could just attack Craig’s votes directly.

Another red herring in this argument arises when you consider the fact that Craig’s record of voting with Nancy Pelosi includes votes on a vast range of different topics, many of which have nothing to do with big pharma. Breitbart’s use in this argument effectively converts a record of unrelated votes into evidence of support for big pharma. This is quite deceptive.

Finally, the very notion that one should take Craig’s statement as indicative of her stance on the issue while ignoring her comments about actual legislation (including her criticism of Kistner) constitutes another red herring. It is an effort to treat a mistaken wording as the answer to a substantive problem.

Semantics: What counts as “big pharma” remains largely unspecified throughout this entire discussion. Craig herself does not address that, nor do her detractors. It’s tempting to think of the phrase as a free-floating signifier in this debate insofar as all interested parties seem to be against it without necessarily needed any specific reason to do so, or even any significant sense of what it is that they are supposed to be against.

Another issue buried in the question about what is or isn’t big pharma would be a question about whether or not all things that benefit big pharma are necessarily bad for the American people. Craig seems to take it as a forgone conclusion that opposition to big pharma is a good thing, and her detractors sloppy statistical arguments carry forward that same assumption. This side-steps any questions about the value of any particular view and the possibility that while the interests of big pharmaceutical companies may sometimes diverge from those of the public, they may also sometimes coincide. Treating the issue as an abstract case of being for or against big pharma thus obscures legitimate questions about the pros and cons of particular votes.

Statistical Reasoning: The Breitbart article tells us that Craig votes with Nancy Pelosi 100% of the time. In support of this, it links its readers to a post on Pro-Publica summarizing Craig’s votes in comparison to Pelosi’s for the years 21-22. The article does not break down the votes by topic. A point of clarification on the page reads as follows: “Correction (Nov. 15, 2019): This page originally included all votes on passage of a bill under the ‘Major Votes’ category. It now only includes votes designated as major by ProPublica.” The article concludes that the two voted in agreement 100% of the time.

A few significant questions could be raised about the statistical comparison, some of which have been mentioned elsewhere. If the difference between the results for ‘major bills’ and the total voting record I am unaware of it. How many of these bills are actually representative if issues affecting big pharma is another question. Whether or not any of them presented any significant difference between the interests of big pharma and those of the American people (or even those in Craig’s district) is yet another question altogether. And of course, none of this addresses the legislative process and any efforts made by either party to shape the legislation in question in support of or opposition to big pharma. The statistical argument made in Breitbart thus elides a number of important questions about the actual politics at issue.

Tell: The notion that someone could tell the truth, by accident so to speak, is often rooted in the notion that there may be some underlying psychological reason for the misstatement in question. Whether treating it as a kind Freudian slip or a liar’s tell (or that of a poker player), it is common to suppose that some deep-seated tension is leading to the unintended expression. Breitbart does not present an explicit claim to that effect, though some of the online commenters have. Their own strategy seems to have been to convince readers that the claim is true regardless of Craig’s reasons for saying it.

Unsupported Claims: The notion that Nancy Pelosi can be treated as a stand-in for big pharma remains entirely without support in this argument. Even if one grants that she supports big pharma, it would be reasonable to ask whether or not her support for the industry distinguished her from other members of Congress, include that if the Republican Party, or for that matter the candidate, Tyler Kistner. Absent evidence to that effect, the decision to treat Pelosi as a proxy for big pharma remains arbitrary. It is likely the argument rests on little more than a general sense of contempt that can be expected from Republican voters whenever Pelosi’s name comes up.

Evaluation: At the end of the day, this is little more than a red herring offered in support of a red herring. Craig misspoke and the Republican Party wants us to believe her gaff matters more than her explicit arguments on the topic. Toward that end, they remind us that she votes like Pelosi. this is irrelevancy piled on top of irrelevancy.

Final thoughts: I spent way too much time on this.

Sometimes you Argue the Bear

Introduction: My wife sent me this yesterday morning. She was down in Anchorage, but she wanted me to know about the bear, which reminds me that I really need to get active 911 on my own phone.

Key Facts: We get a few bear sightings a year in and around town here in Barrow.

Wildlife normally keeps an eye on bears near town, makes an effort to keep them out of town, and, when necessary puts down bears it deems a threat to the community.

‘Quyanaq’ means ‘thank you’ in Iñupiaq, the local indigenous language.

Text: “Please use extreme caution as a polar bear was spotted earlier this morning in the Browerville and Cakeeater area. Please be aware of your surroundings when outside. Wildlife was notified and has responded. If you spot a polar bear, please call the NSB Police Department at XXX XXX-XXXX to report the sighting. Quyanaq.”


Comments: This is kind of an interesting example of practical reasoning.

Statements: Much of the text above would not really constitute reasoning, so it can be left out. The argument is as follows:

[1] Please use extreme caution.

[a] as

[2] a polar bear was spotted earlier this morning in the Browerville and Cakeeater area.

[3] Please be aware of your surroundings when outside.

Diagram: It’s a simple serial argument. 2 ->1 -> 3.

We get one inference indicator [a], but no further explicit reasoning markers in the text. Statement 3 can be read as a more specific version of statement one, hence it seems to be the final conclusion of the argument.

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Hyperbole, Interactional Eclipse.

Hyperbole: The phrase “extreme caution” might seem a little excessive in light of the actual precautions to be taken when bears are present in and around town. Folks might refrain from walking the beach and/or look around a bit more when going outside, but that is probably about it. In fact, this does appear to be what the notice is meant to engender. This is caution; it’s probably not ‘extreme’ caution.

If this is hyperbole, however, it’s pretty harmless. Those new to the area might stress over its implications, but those who have been here awhile will easily read the suggestion in light of moderate precautions.

Interactional Eclipse: Although the notice is meant to engender caution, and it contains an argument urging caution upon people, it is as likely to bring people out with cameras looking for the bear as it is to trigger any extra caution. So, the content of the argument may to be some degree overwhelmed by the social realities of life on Instagram.

Evaluation: The argument itself strikes me as sound. I don’t know about the sighting, but I have no reason to doubt it, and hyperbole aside, both the genral call for caution and the specific suggestions about awareness are warranted by the sighting.

Final Thoughts: I took my camera out for a quick drive, but I didn’t see any bear. …dammit!

Kettle Questions

The other day I was talking to a student, when I encountered a familiar pattern of conduct; a series of loosely related questions asked in rapid succession without any attention paid to the answers. I’ve certainly seen this before, and I’ve learned to regard it as something of a power play, or at least a kind of venting. Often, I figure the student is trying to overwhelm me with questions rather than get any actual answers. Alternatively, they are expressing frustration at their own sense of being overwhelmed, perhaps seeking to share that sense of frustration with the person they blame for it.

When facing such a barrage of questions, my first goal is to slow the conversation down and insist that the student listen to the answer to one question and show that they understand it before moving onto the next. Sometimes this means saving the discussion until after class so as to remove the stress of taking up class time in the presence of other students. Then I work my way through the questions one at a time, taking as much time as necessary to ensure the student gets the answer to each question before moving onto the next. This usually works, but it works partly because I have the leverage to dictate the pace of the conversation.

When I say that this works, I mean, that it works in the sense that I can put actual information back at the center of the conversation, and assuming the student is cooperating, I can then work my way through each piece of information one at a time. This works for me. Whether or not this works for the student depends on their own ultimate goals. Assuming they really want to continue with the class, this strategy effectively forces them to focus on the information rather than indulging their sense of frustration. If on the other hand, their goal is to rage-quit or pick a fight, this will most likely force their hand early; they will exit the conversation and then typically exit the course.

So, why am I rattling on about this? Because I don’t think this is a problem unique to teaching. Sometimes people ask questions for reasons that have nothing to do with soliciting information. Sometimes this is done through individual questions asked in tricky ways, and sometimes it’s done by asking a series of questions in a maximally disruptive manner. Of course, it helps if the person questioned is responsible for providing answers in some sense (a fact which keeps them planted in the line of fire, so to speak), but there are lots of roles that could set someone up for this; a public spokesman for any organization, someone engaged in official disputes of any kind, any boss addressing subordinates about a policy, or for that matter; any subordinate being questioned about their own (mis-)conduct. You can’t just arbitrarily subject people to the 3rd degree, but there are a broad range of contexts which could put a person in a position where they are expected to field your questions. In such instances, people will sometimes take advantage of the opportunity to weaponize those questions.

It’s a bit like kettle logic (hence, the coinage) insofar as each question asked might be perfectly reasonable in its own right, but coupled with other questions asked in the same conversation and taken in context, the questions effectively deter any serious effort to answer them.

What are the features of kettle questions?

  • They are usually asked in rapid succession, but not in a manner that facilitates efforts to group them up or take them in succession. This is more likely to occur in a verbal conversation than a written exchange. If the person asking the questions doesn’t provide time to answer each and/or if the one asked doesn’t have the chance to write each question down, the rapid-fire delivery makes it less likely that the person asked will be able to answer each question effectively.
  • Often a new question will be asked while someone is trying to answer the previous question. This prevents completion of the answers, and frustrates the person trying to answer them.
  • The order of the questions is incongruous. It isn’t that a second question is necessary to answer the first (that would make it a reasonable question); the second question actually changes the subject to some degree, forcing the person asked to shift their own attention in order to answer the new question. If she cooperates and tries to answer the second question, the fact that she didn’t finish the first answer then creates an opportunity to come back to it at the leisure of the questioner, perhaps creating a new shift in focus away from efforts to answer question number two, …or 3, or 4, or 13.

Here is a made up example:

Person A: How do you get to the class webpage?

Person B: Well you, go to the school page and you look on the left side for a button that says…

Person A: I don’t know the word count for the essays. How long do my essays have to be?

Person B: You can find this on the syllabus, but the answer is…

Person A: I still don’t have a college email. How do I get one?

Person B: You do have a college email. Your college email is the one you used to send me a message yesterday.

Person A: Okay, so how do I get on the class web-page?

Person B: Well…

Person A: And when is the assignment due?

A Silent Pass?

Introduction: This quote appears expresses theme commonly appearing in progressive rhetoric of late, namely, the notion that phrases like “not all white people” are disingenuous and unnecessary responses to statements critical of whites. Similar arguments are made in other contexts of social justice advocacy and debate (e.g. sexism with “not all men.”)

Key Facts: The meme itself appears to be a quote from @chloemadaleine. I found a twitter account matching the name in question, but it is protected. So, I do not know of any particular details regarding the context in which this statement might have been made. As the meme is circulating about the net these days, it does occur to me that many will experience the argument with no more contextual than I have myself at this point.

Text: “If you’re white and not racist, you will not give a fuck about black people calling white people racist now. Because you know that what you’re saying does not apply to you. If you’re offended, you’re racist. It’s simple.”


Comments: The quote above arises out of a problem in the rhetoric of modern progressivism, namely an effort to address concerns about larger, systemic, patterns of social injustice (in this case racism) while retaining rhetoric that still calls out specific people for specific forms of behavior. The notion that some people are racist and some people aren’t hearkens back to more conventional definitions of racism, treating it as a toxic personal orientation whereas the tendency to produce sweeping generalizations is driven largely by an interest in racism as a larger social force which by definition functions to benefit white people. Either definition of racism works just fine on its own, but contemporary social justice advocates (at least in popular circles) tend to invoke the individualized model as accusation even as they insist on larger systemic models when defining what does or doesn’t count as racism. There may be scholars who handle this with more consistency, but the rhetoric of social justice seems caught between its own paradigm and those it disavows without quite leaving behind.

Critics of contemporary social justice advocates typically have a much easier time of it, often insisting on personal models of racism as the only ones that count, thus rendering discrimination against white people pretty much the same as discrimination against persons of color. This too distorts a lot of important issues.

Statements: I am treating item ‘b’ as adding emphasis rather than as a substantive part of the argument. It was tempting to think of a missing assumption in the form of a biconditional statement to the effect that such statements are objectionable/offensive to white people if and only if the white people in question are racist, but this doesn’t seem necessary. The actual text from the meme itself is sufficient to make sense of the argument.

[1] If you’re white and not racist, you will not give a fuck about black people calling white people racist now.

[a] Because

[2] [If you’re white and not racist] you know that what they’re saying does not apply to you.

[3] If you’re offended, you’re racist.

[b] It’s simple.”

Diagram: Unfortunately, the text only gives us one inference indicator [a] which tells us that statement 2 is a reason for something (surely, statement 1). Statement 3 is thrown in without any guidance as it to its relationship to the rest. So, we end up with several possible diagrams. We can start with an inference from 2 to1. Statement 3 is then either irrelevant commentary (diagram I), a second reason to accept statement 1 (diagram II), or a conclusion drawn from statement 1 (diagram III). Alternatively, statement 3 is a separate inference from statement 2 (diagram IV).

I’m inclined to think diagrams 3 and 4 are the most plausible, leaving us with either her last point as her main point or two separate conclusions, one suggesting that non-racists should not be threatened by statements about white racism and one suggesting that anyone who is threatened is guilty as charged, so to speak. Statement 3 packs a Hell of a punch, making it unwise to treat as irrelevant and also unlikely that the line was meant as a mere reason to think of something else. It either shares the stage wit the author’s first point as a final conclusion in its own right, or it was the whole point all along.

Discussion: This topic raises the following issues; Ad Hominem, False Alternatives, Interactional Eclipse, Masked Man Fallacy, Micro-Reasoning, Motte and Baily Doctrines, Bo True Scotsman Fallacy, Satire, Thought Policing, Transposition.

Ad Hominem: The suggestion that any whites who object to generalized statements about white racism must therefore themselves be racists is a classic ad hominem. It effectively refutes any concerns they might offer on the basis of a direct personal attack. Whether this is best thought of as a simple ad hominem (abusive) or the more complex ad hominem (circumstantial) is another question. As it does effectively comment on the motives and biases that whites bring to the issue, it is probably best to consider it a circumstantial.

False Alternatives: Insofar as this argument asks us to distinguish between white people who are racists and those who are not, this argument presents us with false alternatives. In fact, it does so on terms which should not arise at all in account taking the possibility of systemic racism seriously. Simply put, if racism is a feature if society as a whole, then the issue is not who is or is not racist; it is whether or not their specific words and deeds are contributing to racism in any way. It should go without saying under such a view that anyone could fall into racist patterns of thinking and talking. We can even suggest that white people might be more prone to this than others, or at least that we may plug into these patterns in particular ways. What we cannot do with any consistency is divide people (white or otherwise) into a simple binary set of those who are racist and those who are not.

Interactional Eclipse: Insofar as the argument accuses any white person objecting to statements about white racism of being racist in their own right, its interactional significance is rather high. It effectively sends a signal to white people that they should think twice before expressing disagreement. Drawing this line in the sand, so to speak, may well prove more significant than any of the intellectual merits of the argument.

Masked Man Fallacy: One of the more interesting angles to this argument lies in the way it uses definition by extension to answer problems arising from definition by intention. Many of the problems alluded to here arise when statements about white racism appear to implicate whites as a universal class. This can be done explicitly (by saying “all whites” or something to that effect) or by implication (e.g. “white people are like…), which suggests a universal implication without explicitly asserting the quantifier. Either way, a good portion of the objections here come directly from concerns about the possible unfairness or inaccuracy of such categorical assertions. The argument then asks those concerned about such problems to think of themselves as the exception and hence to drop their objections. The problem with this approach lies in the fact that the objections arise precisely because such statements do not admit of exceptions. In effect, the argument answers a question about the intentional meaning of an assertion (everyone?) by virtue of an unspoken extensional consideration (well, not me!).

It should also be said that some white people might object to categorical assertions about white people without necessarily thinking of themselves as the exceptions.

Micro-Reasoning: This was likely a tweet to begin with, and the argument is certainly short. There is only so much precision that can be expected of reasoning presented with such brevity.

Motte and Baily Doctrines: I think it’s fair to see this argument as an attempt to shift between motte and baily (perhaps to defend the bailey from the motte). If we imagine a qualified statement (e.g. ‘some white people do x’) as the motte and a categorical assertion along the same lines (e.g. ‘white people do x’ or even ‘all white people do x’) as the bailey, this argument appears to be a case of someone trying to defend the bailey from the confines of the motte. In effect, the author is saying that there is no need to assert the existence of exceptions because you can just imagine yourself as one of them.

No True Scotsman Fallacy: Normally this fallacy is applied in an effort to defend a positive generalization, but you could see this argument as an invitation for people to imagine themselves as the obvious exception to a negative generalization. You may fit in this awful category, but you’re not REALLY one of them. You get a pass! And since you get a pass, there will be no need to question the generalization, which I won’t be rethinking, because anyone who doesn’t fit the narrative also gets that free pass and we are all good, right?

This too is the NTS fallacy.

Satire: I’ve been dumping on this argument pretty hard, but there is at least one way of thinking about it that might redeem the argument a bit, as a sort of satirical ladder which must be pulled up after one has climbed it. It is as if the author is entertaining the prospect of an exception, only to suggest that that is in itself absurd. What if I really do try to imagine myself as a non-racist? Sure, I’m liberal. Sure, I have black friends (and other clichés). Sure, I disavow racism, and try hard not to discriminate, but can I really say that I am completely free of racist thoughts and deeds? What about that one thing I said last year that I’m still kicking myself about? And then there was that one time, …I mean, I didn’t mean to, but… The point here is that while we can distinguish between people whose personal orientation is more or less consciously racist, we probably cannot point to a person whose thoughts and deeds do not reflect racist assumptions under any circumstances. This is at least one of the implications of systemic racism.

By this approach, the point of the argument would be to let the would-be exception struggle with their own self-awareness a bit, and in the end hopefully conclude they are not so free of racism after all. In effect, the argument starts off by letting people try to make a distinction between racist and non-racist white people only to realize the distinction is untenable.

Whether or not this is what the original author had in mind, I cannot say. I do think that much of the rhetoric for which this kind of argument could be offered as a defense is far more personal and far less subtle than would be consistent with this approach. Simply put, when someone is called racist, the implication is virtually always about their own personal orientation and even moral characteristics. Such accusations are not (normally) about abstract connections to large-scale patterns of social inequity.

Thought Policing: Insofar as the argument effectively stigmatizes any dissenting views, this does suggest a degree of thought policing. That will work better in some contexts than others, but then again it also appears more in some contexts than others.

Transposition: In diagram 2, the inference from 3 to 1 would work by transposition. This is also true of the inference from 1 to 3 in diagram 3. Suffice to say that those inferences are deductively valid.

Evaluation: Obviously, I do not consider this argument sound. Whatever the diagram, the main problem is the implausibility of the central notion that one might object if and only if she is racist. There are a few different ways to imagine this connection, but none of them really work, So, statement 2 doesn’t work as a starting premise for any version of this argument.

Final Thoughts: There is another problem at the root of all those associated with this argument. It’s choice people make in their rhetoric, and that choice involves a real trade-off in terms of the impact one makes on a conversation. Simply put, qualified statements don’t have anywhere near the impact that generalizations (even implied generalizations) can generate. Once people can imagine themselves as one of the good guys, it becomes all to easy to do just that and a nation full of people who know damned well there is a problem can’t seem to find anyone actually responsible for doing anything about it. Also, it doesn’t help that qualified statements are often quantified in vague ways. Changing “all whites are racist” to “some whites are racist” or even “many whites are racist” weakens the claim without actually adding much in the way of precision. Under these circumstances, the temptation to go with a generalization is certainly strong. Leaving out quantifiers altogether (e.g. ‘whites are racist’) still gives an author the strength of a generalization while reserving the possibility of admitting exemptions when pressed about it. So, this kind of quasi-universal language seems to have become a common solution to the problem.

Not surprisingly, a range of would-be allies and folks who fancy themselves as non-racist or even anti-racist are uncomfortable hearing statements that implicate them in racist thought and practice. Hence, the “not all…” rejoinders. Naturally, such responses weaken the impact of the claims in question and often serve to derail the conversation altogether as people haggle over the possibility that some white folks might not be so bad. Strong advocates of social justice thus have an interest in silencing these rejoinders, some of which might be thought of as sealioning or engaging in philosophy dude-bro behavior. Hence, we get arguments like the one presented here.

The problem is that the problem is real, just as the original problem is real.

Pardon me: The problem (with this argument and others like it) is that the problem (of exceptions to sweeping generalizations) is real, just as the original problem (racism) is real.

People have to decide which of these matters more to them and what they want to do about it. This argument reflects a clear choice of priorities; but it also reflects an attempt to force the issue in some very problematic ways.

When “They” is One or Two or Maybe Legion

Introduction: This argument can be found on a Youtube presentation by James Lindsay entitled, “Stealing the Motte: Critical Social Justice and the Principle of Charity.” It is one of many arguments he directs against what he calls “critical social justice theory.” It is part of a larger series of audio-clips published under the title of “New Discourses.” This is the parent-site for the publication.

Key Facts: I believe Lindsay is referring to the this paper, published in Hipatia Press. It’s title doesn’t entirely match his own description, but it’s close enough that I do believe this is the one he has in mind.

Text: This is a small portion of text taken from the transcript provided by Youtube. He goes on to elaborate on the details of the article and on his own reasons for referring to social justice as a virus.

I want to focus on the claim that social justice critics refer to their own movement as a virus, treating that as the conclusion of his argument for purposes of this argument.

“I’ve both written and 16:50 spoken in fact about how critical social 16:53 justice is like a virus on our liberal 16:55 societies and I have to do that again 16:56 here because it’s just the best metaphor 17:00 for understanding it but before 17:02 reminding you of that I have to remind 17:06 you also that I’m not characterizing 17:08 them as viruses I’m not making a case 17:11 about them that they don’t make about 17:13 themselves they call themselves viruses 17:16 as well and compare the theory to it 17:19 anyway in activism and so I’m not in any 17:22 way trying to untie him unfairly here as 17:25 I’ve noted before in 2016 to feminist 17:29 scholars Bram foz and Michael Carter 17:31 published an academic paper in a 17:32 relatively small academic journal and it 17:35 carried the title women’s studies as a 17:36 virus institutional feminism effect in 17:39 the projection of danger in that paper 17:42 Falls and Carter make the point that 17:44 women’s studies should see itself 17:45 through the metaphor of the virus 17:49 comparing the discipline if you will in 17:51 favorable terms to other plagues like 17:54 Ebola and HIV and unless you think I 17:57 exaggerate I can quote 17:58 them on this…”


Comments: Yes, I found it while reading up on Motte and Bailey doctrines.

Statements: Using the claim critical social justice activists refer to themselves as the conclusion of the argument means we leave a lot of this passage out of the argument (hence the unnumbered statements below). Were we to address the accuracy of Lindsay’s treatment of the article in question, we would need to add a great deal more to the analysis. What I have included here is sufficient to address the relevance of this one article to Lindsay’s generalizations about social justice activism.

I also cleaned up a few things the transcript appears to have gotten wrong. In any event, I believe the argument is as follows.


I’ve both written and spoken in fact about how critical social justice is like a virus on our liberal societies and I have to do that again here because it’s just the best metaphor for understanding it but before reminding you of that I have to remind you also that I’m not characterizing them as viruses I’m not making a case about them that they don’t make about themselves.

[1] they call themselves viruses as well and compare the theory to it anyway in (or possibly ‘and’) activism

and so I’m not in any way trying to characterize them unfairly here. as I’ve noted before

[2] in 2016 two feminist scholars Breanne Fahs and Michael Karger published an academic paper in a relatively small academic journal.


[3] it carried the title “Women’s Studies as a Virus; Institutional Feminism, affect, and the Projection of Danger”

[4] In that paper Fahs and Carter make the point that women’s studies should see itself through the metaphor of the virus,comparing the discipline if you will in favorable terms to other plagues like Ebola and HIV…”

Diagram: If statement 2 here draws our attention to an article in which two feminists refer to women’s studies as a virus, statements 3 and 4 elaborate on the significance of the paper. These combine together to form the claim that social justice theorists refer to themselves and their own movement as a virus (statement 1). This is then taken as evidence that Lindsay is not characterizing social justice advocates unfairly when he himself describes their movement as a virus, but that is a part of the larger argument which I do not purport to analyze here.

2+3+4 -> 1

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes: Ad Hominem, Anaphora, Anecdotal Reasoning, Authority, Cherry Picking, Hasty Generalization, Poisoning the Well, Principle of Charity.

Ad Hominem: Whatever the reasons Fahs and Karger have for describing feminism as a virus, Lindsay’s own goal is convince his audience that anyone associated with critical social justice theory is a terrible person engaged in terrible things. It is a sustained attack on a broad range of scholarship. Lindsay does not make an effort to show that social justice critics are wrong, so much as that they are dangerous and positively evil. To suggest that his approach to the subject constitutes an ad hominem-circumstantial is putting it mildly.

Anaphora: One of the distinctive features of this presentation is the undisciplined use of anaphoric reference. Lindsay’s use of ‘they’ and ‘them’ throughout the audio enables him to skip a lot of interesting questions about why he is really talking about at any given time. In this passage, the shift from two specific authors publishing a single paper in a “relatively small academic journal” to the claim that social justice theorists as a whole characterize their work as a virus leans rather heavily on Lindsays use of ‘they’ and ‘them.’ In this case, the shift from his evidence to his conclusion entails a jump from feminism to critical social justice theory and a jump from a sample of two to the whole of critical theory. Using this language enables Lindsay to presuppose the relevance of his evidence to his conclusion without stating its terms explicitly.

Anecdotal Reasoning: Insofar as Lindsay is providing a story about a single paper in support of a sweeping generalization about a broad range of scholarship, this constitutes a good example of anecdotal reasoning.

Authority: One of the more charitable ways of interpreting this argument would be to treat it as an authority-based argument. I say it’s charitable, because the alternative is to suggest that a same of two authors is sufficient to speak for the entirely of scholars identifying themselves as critical theorists, which invites the Hasty Generalization comments below. If on the other hand, Lindsay wishes to suggest that Fahs and Karger have authority to speak on a nature of this trend because they are part of it, that is at least a little more interesting. Still, there is little reason to believe these two scholars have the authority to define the entirety of social justice scholarship. Even their own article falls well short of such a claim, being focused on women’s studies.

Cherry Picking: The selection of a single article employing language comparable to Lindsay’s own smacks of cherry picking.

Hasty Generalization: A sample of one article and two feminists simply is not enough evidence to demonstrate, as Lindsay claims that this is how critical social justice advocates describe themselves. Its not even close.

Interactional Eclipse: One big problem with describing any human beings or movement of human beings in terms of a virus is that any descriptive value this account might have is likely to be overshadowed by the pejorative implications. Fahs and Karger may have been happy to use an exciting narrative for feminism, but for his own part, Lindsay is even happier to use a metaphor that effectively dehumanizes Fahs and Karger, and if he has his way, everyone associated with social justice or critical theory. In effect, the insult here is is the point. The argument, for Linday, at any rate, is little more than a pretext for that insult.

Poisoning the Well: This entire Youtube presentation is an effort to convince Lindsay’s audience that social justice critics are out to destroy liberal society, and hence, they are unworthy of the principle of charity. To say that this is an exercise in poisoning the well is also putting it mildly.

Principle of Charity: I can think of two ways to interpret the use of a single article by two scholars within one sub-field associated with social justice to characterize all of the social justice movement. One way is to think of it as a representative sample, and the other is to think of it as an authority-based argument. Either way, the argument fails.

Evaluation: The argument fails because this one article simply isn’t sufficient to warrant a generalization about social justice critics as a whole.

Final Thoughts: This is of course part of a much larger argument. Independent of his claim that social justice theorists characterize themselves as a virus, Lindsay does offer his own reasons for thinking of critical social justice theory as a virus. Whether or not these are worthy of consideration is another question.

There is another angle here insofar we could try to unpack Lindsay’s phrasing. The term “critical social justice activism” fuses together quite a few different things. I don’t think he is wrong in suspecting that these things are related, but the effort to just fuse them all into one term is a little disconcerting, particularly when it is couple with clear efforts to poison the well for anyone associated with this amalgam. Whether or not Lindsay’s work is worth the effort is also another question.

Sarah Silverman Goes to Heaven

Introduction: This clip is part of a stand-up act from Sarah Silverman. her larger point in this segment appears to be that more established religions are as problematic as newer faiths often dismissed as cults. Within that larger argument, she produces a sub-argument against Christianity.

…Okay, Silverman doesn’t say ‘problematic’; she says ‘crazy.’

Key Facts: Sarah Silverman is well-established comedian. She has often specialized in shocking material, and she is frequently critical of religion.

Text: This text is taken directly from the transcript on the Youtube clip provided above.

“Christianity is super 00:26 old but it’s [ __ ] crazy I mean it’s 00:29 you’re born a sinner by being born you 00:34 are a sinner and you’re going to hell 00:38 but you can just apologize and then you 00:40 can go to heaven let me go if you’re a 00:44 murderer same thing it just apologized 00:48 and go to heaven you can be Hitler and 00:51 go to confession and say forgive me 00:53 Father I killed six million Jews and the 00:55 priest would just be like no problems 00:57 say ten Hail Marys and Hitler goes to 01:03 heaven Hitler goes to heaven is the name 01:09 of my band”


Comments: I commonly use this segment in a classroom exercise in which students are expected to pick a point of view they disagree with and explain why. This video is one of the options students may choose to criticize. My own ideas about this argument have thus been shaped by the thoughts of several dozen people who saw fit to take Silverman on, so to speak, in my classoom.

Statements: I have deleted some of the time stamps. Also, I’ve made some corrections. “Let me go” in the transcript should be “No big deal.” ‘It’ in statement 7 should be ‘it’s,’ and I omitted the past tense marker on apologized for this statement. I believe the rest is accurate. I’ve supplied a couple words necessary to render fragments into statement form, but mostly, I left the wording as originally presented in the text. I am leaving the very first comment out of the argument as it is more about the way that this sub-theme connects to Silverman’s larger comparison between established religions and new ones. The last comment is funny as Hell, but it’s not part of the argument.

Christianity is super old


[1] it’s crazy.

I mean

[2] you’re born a sinner

[2] by being born you are a sinner

[3] you’re going to hell


[4] you can just apologize and then you can go to heaven

[5] [It’s] no big deal.

[6] if you’re a murderer, [it’s] same thing

[7] it’s just apologize and go to heaven.

[8] you can be Hitler and go to confession and say forgive me Father I killed six million Jews and the priest would just be like no problems say ten Hail Marys and Hitler goes to heaven Hitler goes to heaven.

is the name of my band.

Diagram: This is the best way that i can think to represent the flow of logic in this argument.

The passage from statement 3 and 4 (you can just apologize and go to heaven) to statement 5 (it’s no big deal) is tricky. Statement 5 summarizes the significance of 4 i a way that let’s us know what the problem is as far as Silverman is concerned, but the schema (apologies fix everything!) is used in subsequent inferences. This creates a problem. If we see 5 as inferred from 4 and then move on to subsequent images without referring back to 4, then we lose the schema. If on the other hand we treat 5 a separate conclusion, then it seems to be unconnected to the rest of the argument, whereas it is clearly relevant to subsequent points. It is tempting to treat statement 5 as applying to multiple inferences, but that muddles the diagram a bit much. Another solution would be to treat statement 5 as part of the meaning of statement 4, a kind of elaboration. This is one of the problems with reasoning in real life. The question of what is being offered as evidence for what is not always clear in actual speech, so these diagrams can effectively misrepresent the reasoning involved by forcing a choice on a diagram which wasn’t actually clear in the presentation itself.

I think the solution here is found in statement 6 which asserts that murderers get the same treatment. The equivalence asserted in this passage strikes me as applying to the both statement 4 and 5, i.e. the schema and the way the insignificance of immorality under that formula.

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Interactional Eclipse, reductio ad absurdum, motte and bailey doctrine, satire, straw man.

Interactional Eclipse: There are several ways in which the reasoning of this argument is substantially overshadowed by the social interactions at stake. To begin with, the shock value of Silverman’s act overwhelms any sense of the reasoning at stake. Believers may often be too offended to attend to the argument at hand. On the other hand, non-believers may enjoy the schadenfreude too much to think too carefully about the argument. I’ve seen both reactions. This problem is of course compounded by the sense many Christians have that this behavior is simply unacceptable, either because it is too rude, or because it is blasphemous, or both. That response can be all you get, in which case, no account of Silverman’s reasoning will be forthcoming. Likewise, some critics of religion may celebrate the argument simply on account of its subversive message, independent of the reasoning in question. the bottom line, is that a significant number of people will ignore the logic of this argument while focusing on its emotional impact and the social implications of Silverman’s verbal behavior.

Motte and Bailey Doctrine: One interesting question here may relate to the question of whether or not there may be some Christians for whom this is in fact an accurate account, or even whether or not there may be some contexts in which Christians themselves produce an account of their belief that comes close to this. Simply put, Christians themselves may oversimplify their own beliefs in some contexts, bringing out more serious efforts to sort the moral significance of repentance only when pressed to do so. In this case, Silverman’s criticism would apply just fine to some versions of Christianity (those expressed in the Bailey, so to speak) while failing to address others belonging to the Motte.

Reductio ad Absurdum: This argument definitely fits the pattern of of a reductio ad absurdum. Silverman assumes for purposes of argument that an apology is what makes the difference between going to Heaven and going to Hell and infers from this the claim that Hitler could make it to heaven by simply apologizing for all he has done whereas others who have done little wrong in life would go to hell because they simply didn’t believe in God (and failed to apologize for their sins). Silverman, and many others would regard this as an unacceptably absurd approach to morality. The crucial question in this case is whether or not her sub-deduction succeeds, whether or she can really demonstrate that a simple apology gets Hitler into Heaven whereas the lack of it leads decent people to Hell.

Satire: It would be fair to suggest that Silverman’s presentation of Christianity here is satirical. Given this fact, some might suggest that it is a mistake to take her specific argument too seriously, but then how do we take it? There is no obvious reason to think that Silverman does not believe any given part o this argument, and there is no clear alternative to taking the argument as a serious effort to show us what is wrong with religion as she sees it. If Satire often accomplishes its goals by exaggerating tendencies in the object of its abuse, it also works sometimes by simply stripping away pretentious language and adopting alternative narratives which are just as plausible as the stories and language used by those less critical about that object of abuse. Arguably, that is what Silverman is trying to do here; to strip away a flattering narrative and show us what these beliefs mean without the reverent language in which they are normally presented. So, it seems to me that her argument stands or falls on terms pretty much the same as those iof any serious critic. Hell, this is a serious criticism, and it should be treated as such.

Straw Man: Because I include this video in one of my classes, I have had occasion to hear a couple dozen Christians respond to it. At some point or another, they invariably suggest that a simple apology is NOT an accurate description of what they actually believe. Whether this is about confession and contrition or being saved, they always emphasize the necessity of sincere regret accompanied by a substantial change of character and lifestyle. Silverman’s account would seem to suggest that even an insincere apology would get one in to Heaven. Discounting that, she certainly does not talk about the kind of transformation which is central to christian thinking on this subject. So, I do think it’s fair to suggest that Silverman is misrepresenting the beliefs in question.

Evaluation: The biggest problem with this argument falls squarely on statement 4 as a description of actual Christian thoughts about morality and the prospects for getting to Heaven or Hell.

I haven’t addressed the adequacy of this metaphysics. Many Christians might find this to be a childish caricature of their own beliefs. Silverman might respond by suggesting that some Christians (perhaps most) have expressed belief in just such a childish caricature, in which case, her argument may be fairly applied to them with a great deal more validity.

All of which is to say nothing of differences between Protestant and Catholic views on the subject.

The biggest problem lies in the question of whether or not it is fair to suggest that a mere apology is all that is at stake in Christian ideas about repentance. As stated above, I do think this is a straw man, as applied to the more serious thoughts of most Christians, but I do think there are some Christians for whom the criticism may be accurate, and even some contexts in which Christians in general may allow themselves to talk in ways comparable to those Silverman criticizes here.

Final Thoughts: As applied to most Christian thought, the argument is unsound because it amounts to a straw man fallacy. If there are Christians whose beliefs align with Silverman’s description, then frankly, I think the argument is sound.

Lauren Boeberts a Feinstein

Introduction: On the 14th of March, 2021, Representative Lauren Boebert, posted the tweet pictured here to the left, criticizing Senator Diane Feinstein for seeking a ban on AR-15s (among several other “assault weapons”) while employing armed security guards in her own defense.

Key Facts: Diane Feinstein was among 25 Senators who introduced a bill to ban AR-15s on March 12, 2021. This bill is most likely the reason for Boebert’s tweet. Although, I haven’t read anything specific about this, I expect it’s fair to say that she uses armed security guards in at least some contexts.

Lauren Boebert is an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment.

This may or may not be relevant, but Boebert actively supported the insurrection of January 6th in which right wing activists shut down Congress and sought Democratic Congressional staff for purposes as yet to be determined. Congress and the White House both face heightened security concerns in the wake of this attack.

In the weeks since the insurrection, Boebert has repeatedly criticized and openly resisted security measures at the Capital.

Text: The text is as follows.

“Dianne Feinstein wants to ban the AR-15 but I’m sure she doesn’t mind her security using guns to protect her. Any politician who calls on guns to be banned should insist their security is also disarmed.”


Comments: Were this a better argument, it might be worth getting into some of the details of the bill itself. As it stands, I don’t think Boebert herself means to do much more than whip up the anger of her constituents.

Statements: The first two statements below are supplied in the tweet above. The second two statements (3a and 3b) represent alternative versions of the conclusion Boebert may have been driving at. In this case, the difference between them is significant. As explained below, it seems like 3b is more likely the intended conclusion.

[1] Dianne Feinstein wants to ban the AR-15 but I’m sure she doesn’t mind her security using guns to protect her.

[2] Any politician who calls on guns to be banned should insist their security is also disarmed.

[3a] [The bill Feinstein and others proposed should be defeated.]

[3b] [Feinstein is a hypocrite.]

Diagram: There are two versions of this argument, each of which looks pretty much the same. For reasons explained in the discussion, it seems best to opt for the second version o this argument, the one using statement [3b] as its conclusion.

1+2 -> 3a.

1+2 -> 3b.

Discussion: This post raises the following themes: Ambiguity, False Equivalence, Interactional Eclipse, Missing Assertions, Principle of Charity, Tu QuoQue.

Ambiguity: One question we could ask here is what does it mean to ban something? Technical questions about how and when a law goes into effect, whether or not exceptions (such as for security details) will be made and on what basis can change a great deal. Will present gun owners be grandfathered in? A great deal is lost in translation when people just use the word ‘ban.’

False Equivalence: There are a couple layers of false equivalence in this argument.

The first is the equivalence between a ban on AR-15s (or even a larger range of “assault weapons” and a ban (or voluntary refusal to employ) on guns of any sort. Boebert makes the transition without comment, seeming to treat these two things as equivalent. they are not.

The second false equivalence is the difference between a ban on guns (or selected guns) and rules for the security details of public officials. Boebert may regard the difference as insignificant, but questions about security (and in particular, security for government officials) involve unique concerns, not entirely limited to those of personal gun use.

Interactional Eclipse: There is at least one respect in which this example raises concerns about social interaction not entirely contained within the argument itself. As Boebert has herself actively aided people in an attack on Congress, and as she has subsequently sought to undermine Congressional security, this argument fits into a larger pattern of direct threats to Democratic colleagues. The point here may have less to do with a reasoned argument about how personal security relates to national gun laws than an effort to disarm Boebert’s political enemies in the midst of a dangerous political environment. In effect, the strategic significance of this tweet may be more important than the argument itself.

Missing Assertions: Insofar as the conclusion must be supplied, this argument involves missing assertions. Because there are a couple different ways of thinking about the purpose of this post, it may even be an interesting example of missing assertions.

Principle of Charity: As Boebert does not draw any explicit conclusions from the two comments in this meme, we have to supply one for her. As indicated above, there are at least two possibilities, one focusing on the bill itself and one entirely focused on the allegation that Feinstein (and perhaps other Democrats) are being inconsistent in using armed security while restricting access to selected guns for the population as a whole.

The argument is less foolish if we assume that inconsistency is the point at hand, so the principle of charity would rule out an interpretation making this an instance of the tu quoque fallacy. ALso, Boebert makes no effort in this tweet to address the bill itself, just Feinstein’s inconsistency and that of other legislators who employ armed security. So, the text of the tweet itself is more consistent with a focus on the character and inconsistency of Feinstein and other Democrats.

Tu Quoque: It is tempting to think of this argument as an instance of the tu quoque fallacy, but that assumes that the point is to dismiss the bill on the grounds of the alleged inconsistency in Feinstein’s actions. It is by no means clear that this is the intent of the argument, and as mentioned above that seems unlikely. This is less of a tu quoque fallacy than an effort to support a conclusion which is itself about Feinstein’s character.

Evaluation: I am assuming that premise 1 is true. Premise two may seem intuitively obvious to Boebert and some of her supporters, but that is not clear to me. The source of the moral principle in this question would seem to be some need for consistency, but that just raises questions about the ambiguity of the key term as well as the second false equivalence mentioned above. Premise two seems likely untrue to me. As to the inference itself, it fails due to the first false equivalence, which is really quite astounding. The argument is unsound.

Final Thoughts: I expect, some serious arguments could be made against the bill that triggered this tween, arguments focusing on the nature of the guns in question and the likely deterrent effects, and so forth. I sincerely doubt that Boebert will be of much help in making such arguments.

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.)


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.


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.

Interactional Eclipse

This is a lousy phrase, and it’s my own concoction, so my bad, but for the moment anyway, I am sticking with it. For what its worth, I am drawing a distinction I got from the anthropologist, Michael Silverstein, in his work on linguistic ideology. I am using this phrase to describe a sort of problem that occurs in argumentation, but which is often omitted from the study of logic or critical thinking, or which is handled in those areas largely through naked prescription, and generally dealt with through minimal explicit commentary. The problem here is essentially the tendency for the world of social interaction to break into the worlds of reasoned discourse and infuse or replace objective considerations of evidence with elements of social posture.

Background: the concept here is that any ostensibly objective dialogue always takes the form of a social interaction. Whether you are writing, speaking or recording yourself (or -selves) for playback later, you are always also interacting with others. This remains true even if you are sitting alone in your room, responding to no-one in particular, and doing whatever it is you do with no particular audience in mind. If we look closely, we can always find echoes of other points of view in what you write or say and moments in which you anticipate other voices. We are always also interacting with others when we engage in reasoning. This is even more true when you really are involved in direct verbal or written exchanges with others.

Most conventional grammatical analysis, according to Silverstein, is an attempt to analyze the features of language which help us describe the world around us. I think it fair to place most of the conventions of basic logical analysis in this category. When we calculate the implications of categorical syllogisms to see if we are looking at a Modus Ponens, or a fallacy of Affirming the Consequent, for example, we are juggling the categories which help to describe the world around us. We are, as Silverstein might describe it, investigating the features of a denotational text. When using such techniques to analyze an actual syllogism, we are providing an account of what is said in the conversation in which that syllogism occurs. Whatever the features of that denotational text, however, Silvertein would remind us that the conversation in which it occurs also takes the form of a social interaction, and we could (and should) always consider the question of what is happening in that social interaction. We can always also ask what is the interactional text in that same conversation? In fact, as I recall, Silvertstein would probably tell us that a denotational text is really just one form of interactional text, one way of thinking about a social interaction in which people attend to the objective features of the world around them.

Just as we can ask what is said in a conversation, we can also ask what is done in that conversation? The tools of logical analysis help us to provide an account of what is said, and in effect to explore the effectiveness of a given argument in accomplishing a certain kind of task, but we can never take for granted the nature of the task that people mean to be doing when they produce an argument. The possibilities are always endless.

The Problem: I take it as a given that we can use conventional forms of logical analysis to create a meaningful account of the denotational texts in arguments. With a little help from a rule of thumb with social content here and there, we can provide a reasonably helpful account of the features of denotational text that help us sort arguments worthy of consideration from those that are not. Still, social interaction is always also going on in an argument, and there are moments in which the social interaction simply becomes too significant to ignore, even if you want to. This is what I mean by interactional eclipse; it is the moment in which elements of social interaction simply become too big to push into the background of argument analysis. When this occurs, we are forced to consider the social impact of the argument, either as part of the logic of the argument or as an important alternative significance to its probative value as an argument.

I reckon that this interactional eclipse happens in at least 2 very different ways; elements of reasoning wherein social interaction is explicitly part of the argument, and arguments in which something is happening in the social context which could distract from the reasoning in question and/or prove more important than that reasoning. To be clear, the first type of interactional eclipse is potentially legitimate. It shouldn’t even surprise us that this sort of thing happens. The second is a huge problem, both for those making and responding to arguments in regular life, and for those of us trying to understand what they mean from a scholarly interest.

I am somewhat ambivalent about treating both of these issues as instances of the same thing, but they have enough in common to merit some combined treatment. For the present, let me suggest referring to the first form of interactional eclipse as ‘constructive eclipse’ and the second as ‘distractive eclipse.’ The wording for the latter category assumes a normative interest in reasoning (as opposed to a focus on social interaction as a subject in itself), so there is a bit of a bias in the vocabulary, but what the Hell! The point is that second category of interactional eclipse pulls anyone interested in the logic of an argument off-track, or at least, it creates an effect which could prove far more significant than anything we might attend to in analyzing the logic of an argument.

Constructive Eclipse: Even in conventional logical analysis, there are considerations which are explicitly social in nature, which is to say, they address questions of behavior and social significance as much as they do logic and reasoning. This really shouldn’t surprise us, but it often does.

Here are some examples:

  • Negation itself. If I say “This pen is green,” anyone who agrees with that statement is effectively vouching for the meaningful nature of the statement and all of the terms within it even as they tell us that it does in fact describe a state of affairs in the real world as they see it. If on the other hand, I reject the statement, I might be doing so because I see that the pen is actually red (in effect affirming a state of affairs inconsistent with that described by the statement) or I might be taking issue with its meaning. Perhaps I take issue with the meaning of some key term or its application to the topic at hand. Maybe, ‘green’ is too vague for me or I’m not sure what pen has been referenced in the first place, (because there are actually 6 of the sitting over in the direction the speaker pointed while saying ‘this’). Sometimes, the basis for negation is clear and explicit in the denotational text of an argument, and sometimes it isn’t. When it isn’t, we typically resolve the matter (or let the reference continue without resolution) by relying on the the social context of the argument. This central ambiguity behind negation then lays the foundation for at least some of the other features of constructive eclipse.
  • Burdens of Proof: There are different ways of looking at burdens of proof, but at least one of them is a reference to social convention. Why do we expect a prosecutor to meet the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal trial? Because when we say of someone that they are ‘guilty,’ things happen to them. They may go to prison. They may pay a fine or in extreme cases, face the prospect of capital punishment. They will likely lose their rights to vote or bear arms, at least for a time, and the finding will affect their job prospects as well as social status, most likely for the rest of their lives. There are also evidential considerations to this kind of thing (some might suggest that it is simply unreasonable to expect people to prove their innocence). Still, at least one significant factor in all of this is the realization that a finding of ‘guilty’ has definite social consequences which lead some of us to say that it is better to err on the side of letting some guilty parties go free and unpunished than to risk the conviction of innocent people.
  • Arguments from Authority: Authority can take a number of different forms. We can, for example distinguish between coercive authority such as that of a judge or police officer and the expertise of a professor. Either way, arguments based on authority or countering the assertion of authority are explicitly ineractional. They build the case for or against accepting the conclusion of an argument on at least some consideration of social context.
  • Principle of Charity: The notion that we should respond to a given position in terms of its strongest possible variation is an explicitly pragmatic choice made partly to be nice and partly to ensure that our time is not wasted on frivolous mistakes instead of substantive considerations. It is also a question about how one relates to others when considering their input into a given topic of discussion. This too is an explicit rule of thumb which addresses the social context in which reasoning takes place.
  • Begging the Question: One of the interesting features of circular argumentation lies in the fact that when some tests are applied to a circular argument, this produces what looks like a deductively valid argument. So, why is a circular argument a fallacy instead of a damned good argument? Because it gives us no new reason to believe its conclusion. In effect, the failure is rhetorical, and hence explicitly a question about the relationship between the speaker and an intended audience. In effect, the problem here relies on a sense of the social interactions we expect out of a good argument.
  • Sundry Fallacies; A number of fallacies could be described as an attempt to substitute the generation of some social effect (e.g. eliciting pity) instead of producing a sound argument on the topic. We could in fact see this as an acceptable social choice even as we reject it for purposes of logical analysis. I’m going to avoid listing these insofar as the interactional element is largely conceived here in negative terms, and because the resulting list would be very long. What makes them a fallacy is that they produce the wrong type of interactional text. This is one way of looking at the failure of numerous informal fallacies, but for purposes of this discussion, I am only interested in issues with argumentation where the social interaction is more substantive than this.
  • Straw Man: Here the problem behind the fallacy consists of failure to counter the argument another individual has actually produced. This is both a problem of evidence and reasoning and a social failure. Many straw man arguments actually do prove some point of view is flawed; they just don’t prove the one put forward by another speific party is wrong. To draw this conclusion about an argument is to remind the speaker of the nature of the converation in question. So, a straw man argument is also a fallacy which addresses social obligations.
  • Other: This is clearly an incomplete list. The point here, is that a number of considerations in logical analysis and the study of argumentation actually do address the eplicit features of social interaction in which arguments take place.

Distractive Eclipse: Here, the issue is not that the social context in which an argument takes place has become an explicit feature of the reasoning used in making or or evaluating the argument. It is the possibility that sometimes an argument will contain features which generate social consequences in excess of their probative value. Whether or not the argument in question is sound is one question, but when distractive eclipse occurs, the interactional significance of the argument can effectively prove more important in the log run.

This may be a trivial example, but I remember once engaging in a conversation with someone who maintained that classical music was objectively better than any form of pop music such as Rock, Blues, or Country. We were both standing and facing each other in a classroom after a philosophy class. (Undergraduates! …nerds!) At some point, this person told me that we could define ‘music’ in any way we wanted, but that some definitions were more worthy of consideration than others. To illustrate his point, he said that he could define ‘music’ as jacking off while pantomiming the act of doing just that, standing as he was right there in front of me. I’m actually not sure how we got to that particular point, but I distinctly remember feeling discomfort at the suddenly explicit sexual the as well as the conduct occurring right in front of me. I also remember getting a definite sense that the discomfort was intentional; the person had chosen his example for its shock value. Now he had an argument, to be sure, but he was also taking social liberties, both in his choice of examples, and with his efforts to illustrate them for my benefit. In this particular case, the discussion continued on course, but his gambit did produce a distraction, one which made it momentarily more difficult to focus on the reasoning in question, and which also raised questions about the value of continuing the discussion with this particular individual.

I have encountered a significantly less trivial example of a similar tactic in a number of instances when discussing moral philosophy wherein someone decided to make a point with a hypothetical example in which they killed me (Cf. Phil Robertson’s Argument From Rape). In each of these instances the person in question was trying to make a point about the objective nature of moral principles or the lack thereof. In each instance, the point of the argument had something to do with the moral significance of murder. Framing the issue in terms of explicit questions about my own murder might be thought of as intended to impress upon me the full weight of the matter at hand, but it also served to facilitate a kind of dominance game. The question at issue was my own murder, not that of the person talking. In effect, they were asking me to consider a prospect in which they did me harm. One might expect that I or others subjected to this stratagem could and should stay focused on the argument at hand, but one might also suspect the tactic is designed to stress those to whom it is subjected, and even to act out schema in which the speaker clearly occupies a dominant role. This may play out in a purely hypothetical discussion, but it plays out just the same, thus infusing an otherwise objective consideration with a fictional story-line with hierarchy.

(Am I the only one who gets these arguments? Yeech!)

People will often slip subtle digs are insulting comments into the text of an otherwise serious argument. The ad hominem fallacy doesn’t necessarily address this problem, because the substance of the argument in question is not necessarily a function of such quips, but they can be a problem insofar as they get under the skin of participants and/or impose negative social consequences which have nothing to do with the substance of the argument in question. These sleights may be ignored, often at cost, or they may even take over the conversation, effectively reducing it to something other than reasonable debate.

Likewise, correcting someone’s spelling or grammar instead of focusing on the point they make, for example, will often communicate a degree of contempt for the other person. This may end a conversation, or it may serve to put the corrected individual in a defensive position, thus undermining any argument they wish to make.

Politicians provide another common example when they make unsubstantiated accusations against one another. Simply by answering such an accusation, a public figure may do more to harm to themselves than they would by ignoring it or even confessing to its truth. Such accusations will often do more harm to the accused than any objective consideration of the case for them would merit, and it simply doesn’t help to say of such arguments that they are invalid or unsound.

Another example of distractive eclipse can also occur when people misjudge (or deliberately misread) the genre-specific conventions of the discussion at hand. In polemic debate, for example, someone entering the conversation to explore the meaning of a term or to play devil’s advocate on some small sub-theme may do a great deal to blunt the force of an argument without actually coming out against it. Simply buybsetting aside an impassioned diatribe and replacing it with a fussy question about the scope of meaning for some key term an individual can do more to shut down an argument than anyone saying “I disagree,” This is one reason that concern trolling is a problem, not because people shouldn’t be prepared to think critically about a broad range of issues in relation to a given subject, but because they cannot be expected to do so explicitly on demand and in all contexts. A protest on a public street is not necessarily an invitation to philosophical discussion, and so people making points which might be worthy of serious consideration in other contexts will often be regarded as deceitful and/or malicious when doing so in contexts calling for less subtle forms of rhetoric.

Likewise, those engaging in partisan rhetoric in the midst of an exploratory discussion may trigger similar negative reactions. Their continued presence may also deter efforts at less partisan forms of reasoning, reducing an open-ended conversation to a conflict in which each party takes care not to compromise their vested interests.

Similarly diversionary tactics are often so much more than a simple ‘red herring’. They are often very deliberate efforts to change the subject of discussion, and ironically, the effort to challenge the merits of such diversions may actually help those who produce them to accomplish this very goal.

Is politician A accused of sexual impropriety? Well what about politician B? As an answer to the first problem this is absolutely irrelevant; as an effort to change the topic of public discussion, it can still be a very effective tactic. It is even more effective, if people proceed to argue against the accusations against politician B precisely because that takes the conversation further down the path of the diversion. In effect, the interactional significance of the strategy outstrips its significance as a serious argument.

From this standpoint alone, application of this label and the attendant verdict that the diversionary tactics in question in question rely on an unsound is often as much as logic has to offer, but that is small consolation when the subsequent discussion comes to focus entirely on the red herring. It is for this reason that politicians, lawyers, PR reps, and advertisers will often employ diversionary tactics when addressing serious problems with whatever or whomever they seek to advocate. The point is not so much to produce a fallacious argument against an accusation as it is to change the topic of discussion entirely. We might always say of such arguments that they are unsound, but that hardly begins to address the scope of the problem posed by such tactics. In effect, an argument like this yields one more example of an argument with an interactional significance far more important than the unsound reasoning it contains.


This is the most relevant text from the work of Michael Silverstein.

1979. “Language structure and linguistic ideology.” In The Elements: A Parasession on Linguistic Units and Levels (R. Cline, W. Hanks, and C. Hofbauer, eds.), 193-247. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

Every Man Should Know

Introduction: In 1980, the southern rock band, Blackfoot, released the album Tomcattin’ which included the song “Every Man Should Know (Queenie).” The song features a range of moral lessons, many of which come with implicit threats for those who transgress against them.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: These are the first 2 lines of the song.

“Don’t mess with my queenie.

Or I’ll mess with your nose.”


Comments: This is a pretty simple argument. It poses 2 interesting problems at best; the need to rewrite the second line, and the question of whether or not it an example of the fallacy “appeal to force.”

The word “queenie” might be taken to refer to a transgendered individual. In this case, that is probably not the intended meaning. Whether or not that would substantially change the meaning of the lyric is another question.

Statements: Read at face value, neither of the two lines in this argument are statements. Each may be rewritten so as to express a statement consistent with the gist of the argument. In the first line, this means change a command [1a]to an expression of moral obligation [1b]. In [1b] the slang ‘queenie” has also been changed to a more common term. In [2b], the second line has been changed into a conditional statement using the substance of line 1 as the antecedent and the threat in [2a] as its consequent.

[1a] Don’t mess with my queenie.

[1b] [One should not mess with my girlfriend.]

[2a] or I’ll mess with your nose.

[2b] [If you mess with my queenie,] I will mess with your nose.

Diagram: This one is pretty easy.

2 -> 1.

Discussion: Minor rewrites aside, the only interesting feature of this argument is the question of whether or not this constitutes an example of the fallacy “appeal to force (ad baculum).” The appeal to force also makes this argument an example of interactional eclipse.

Ad baculum: It’s easy to see an appeal to force in this argument. The second line is literally a threat. What isn’t as clear here is the question of whether or not this particular appeal to force is fallacious. It is not clear that there is any underlying factual question or moral principle which is evaded by means of the threat in the argument. In expressing the threat, the author of the song effectively creates the conditions which serve as a reason for accepting the conclusion of the argument. He does not merely describe them.

Does that settle it? No.

One additional question relates to the meaning of the first statement. As originally stated in the song [1a], there is no objective content to line 1. When rewritten, we get a claim about what one ought to do that could be considered true or false and at least some approaches to morality might attribute objective reality to the nature of that obligation. (Others might interpret what one ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do as purely a function of self-interest. Arguably, this could mean we shouldn’t rewrite the line that way in the first place, but the context of the song makes it clear that the author is suggesting there is some underlying moral principle at stake in this and the rest of the lessons urged in the song. (“To own a body you got to own a soul
So every man should know…”) It’s not exactly complex ethical philosophy, but the song does suggest the issue here is more than just a series of threats.

If the author means to suggest, as he appears to, that there really is a moral principle at stake in the notion that one ought not to mess with his queenie, then the threat itself does constitute an ad baculum fallacy.

Interactional Eclipse: As the argument includes a direct threat, it constitutes a good example of interactional eclipse. It’s a song of course, but it’s a song that evokes as much fear as it does moral reflection. The one tends to drown out the other.

Moral Reasoning: As questions about what to make of the initial command in this argument lead to questions about whether the author intends to suggest a moral imperative or simply appeal to the self-interest of those to who he mighty be singing (see above), this argument is an interesting example of moral reasoning.

Evaluation: Insofar as it uses the ad baculum fallacy, the stated reason provides no support for the conclusion of this argument. It is therefore unsound.

Final thoughts: I’m still not taking the song of my favorites playlist.