Can Straw Men Get Pregnant?

Introduction: Republican Candidate, Lavern Spicer posted this on twitter on July 15th, 2022. She is running for election to the U.S. House of Representatives. If successful, she will represent Distict 24 in Florida.

Key Facts: This comment is most likely offered in response to Congressional testimony by Berkeley Professor, Kiara Bridges. During a hearing on abortion access, Senator Josh Hawley asked Professor Bridges to clarify her unwillingness to simply say ‘women’ when referring to persons with the capacity to get pregnant. Bridges raised 2 concerns in response to this question: the fact that some women cannot get pregnant, and the fact that under some circumstances trans-men and other non-binary people can. Her comments have since become a popular target of criticism by right wing politicians and pundits.

Text: “Hey libs! MY HUSBAND IS ALL MAN and has never been able to get pregnant.

Any idea why?”


Comments: There has definitely been a lot of piling on when it comes to the exchange between Hawley and Bridges. A lot of conservative politicians and pundits have been using it to illustrate the absurdity of left wing (liberal and progressive) ideas about gender. Mostly, these argument do not engage the views of either Bridges or any actual thinking in liberal or progressive circles.

Statements: The full argument contains at least two missing assertions and one rhetorical question.

The rhetorical question has been rewritten here as statement 3.

The missing assertions are represented as statements 4 and 5. Statement 5 seems to be here main conclusion. Why? Because this tweet was not made in direct reply to Bridges or any of Bridges’ supporters. It is a general message sent out to the public at large. So, it seems unlikely that she is trying to engage any specific targets on any specific points. Her goal is to mock the opposition. Statement 4 is then necessary to represent her working understanding of that opposition. It can be represented in general terms (as statement 4a) or in terms specific to Bridges’ own testimony (statement 4b). Either way, the statement is likely to seem foolish to her intended audience.

[A] Hey libs!


[2] [He] has never been able to get pregnant.

[3] [Men cannot get pregnant.]

[4a] [Liberals think men can get pregnant.]

[4b] [Liberals think cis-gender men can get pregnant.]

[5] [Liberals do not understand gender.]

Diagram: I take statement 3 to be a conclusion drawn by abduction from statements 1 and 2. Statement is then added for contrast in order to draw the conclusion that liberals do not understand gender.

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Abduction, Contextualization, Equivocation, Micro-Reasoning, Miscontextualization, Rhetorical Question, Semantics, Straw Man, Unstated Assertions, Voicing.

Abduction: As Spicer explicitly suggests that statement 3 is the explanation for statement 2, it seems best to treat the first inference as abduction. The argument seems plausible enough, but a bit depends on the meaning of ‘men.’ If the term is taken to include trans men, then it false and the explanation is too broad for the phenomenon in question. If it is taken to refer to cis-gender men only, then it is true, (At least I am unaware of any information that would contradict it) but this moves the problems in the argument into the inferences.

Contextualization: One of the interesting features of this argument is the way that it frames the nature of the conversation at hand. In it, Spicer addresses those she means to criticize directly. She refers to them as liberal, but of course her arguments are aimed at addressing comments by Professor Bridges, who is unlikely to identify herself as a liberal. Neither can it be taken for granted that liberals fully agree with Spicer. So, there are some real questions about Spicer’s sense of the discussion at hand.

Equivocation: insofar as Lavern Spicer is relying the biological impossibility of her husband’s pregnancy to discredit Dr. Bridges she is equivocating, because Bridges was not talking about cis-gender men (as she, Bridges, would put it). Bridges was talking about trans men. That Bridges uses the same term for both (Spicer probably wouldn’t) types of people does not diminish the error in equating one for the other. Spicer is using the notion that cis-gender men cannot give birth to discredit Bridges for acknowledging that trans men can. This is deceitful.

If Spicer were to address the issue directly, she would simply say that she and Bridges differ in the way they wish to talk about gender. Instead, she casts this as disagreement over a factual matter. She is not alone in this tactic.

Micro-Reasoning: This is an extraordinarily brief argument. As such, it’s author does not get the chance to clarify any of the points she is making. Still, it seems unlikely that its defects are simply the product of brevity. This tweet was meant to distort the issues.

Miscontextualization: Spicer frames her argument here as one directed at liberals, but is it really liberals she is taking issue with? As a proponent of critical race theory (CRT) Professor Bridges would be much better describes as a progressive than a liberal. Critical race theorists consistently oppose liberal approaches to law and other subjects, often describing their work as directly challenging classic liberal politics (which would include both moderate liberals and political conservatives). Also, the lengths to which Bridges goes in shaping her language to accommodate non-binary people would alienate a lot of liberals who may be content to call a trans-man a ‘man’ (something many conservatives refuse to do), but they will not necessarily reshape their language in other contexts so as to align their usage with the best interests of the trans community. Bridges views in this instance, at least, fall far to the left of liberal politics, so Spicer’s framing of the issue is quite misplaced. The effect of this distortion is to create the impression that a larger portion of the non-conservative public is implicated in the position she attacks than is actually the case. She is attempting to erase the middle ground on this issue, even as she seeks to marginalize the any who might be sympathetic to Bridges comments.

Rhetorical Question: when Spicer asks if liberals can figure out why her husband cannot get pregnant, she is of course telling us that they cannot. Hence, her rhetorical question has been reworded as statement number 3.

Semantics: The heart of this argument is a dispute over the language used to express gender. While progressives generally include trans men within their use of terms like “men,” conservatives typically insist on restricting the term to biological (cis-gender) males. Liberals and libertarians vary more widely in their approach to the subject. Ultimately, this argument is an attempt to stigmatize those adopting more inclusive use of the label by portraying them as unable to grasp standard biological facts.

Unstated Assertions: One of the central problems posed by this argument is the question of how best to characterize the points Bridges implies without stating openly. I do think it fair to suggest her goal is a general swipe at her political opposition rather than a focused attack on Bridges (hence, statement 5 as the conclusion). This raises the question of what does Spicer think liberals think. We can construe that broadly in the form of statement 4a or narrowly in the form of statement 4b.

Setting aside the question of whether or not Spicer has correctly identified those who believe as Bridges does, statement 4 might be fairly said to be true, but that would shift the problems with this argument into the inferences (making it a question of equivocation and/or straw man). If we adopt statement 4b instead, then the statement itself is false. There is no indication that even Bridges believes that cis-gender men can get pregnant.

Straw Man: Insofar as Spicer is attacking (and any who might agree with her), this argument commits the straw man fallacy, because Bridges does not saw that cis-gender men can get pregnant.

Voicing: Many of the problems in this argument arise out of the relationship between Spicer and those she means to criticize. This is complicated by two things; the fact that she is responding to Professor Bridges without naming her directly and her choice of ‘liberals’ as the stated target of her criticism. She thus gives voice to a point of view with an indefinite original source? Do really liberals really think this way? Does Professor Bridges? The answer to both of these questions is ‘no,’ albeit for different reasons. All of these are problems entering the argument through the process of voicing those Spicer means to criticize.

Evaluation: The argument fails because it does not actually engage the views of anyone out there. It either fails because statement 4b is blatantly false, or because the inference requires equivocation to make it work in the case that we use statement 4a to flesh out the argument. This argument is unsound.

Final Thoughts: ultimately, this is an argument over the way people use language. Professor Bridges makes a point to speak of gender in a manner that maximizes awareness of transgendered identities. Many on the right wing of American politics are pushing back hard against this, insisting that words like ‘men’ and ‘women’ be used only for cis-gendered people and eliding entirely questions about intersexed people or anyone else who might think of themselves as non-binary. Liberals may seem caught in the middle, and libertarians seem to pick one approach of another. In any event, this is about vocabulary, and vocabulary is always a matter of choice. Progressives cannot force anyone else to adopt their language and conservatives cannot force anyone else to stick with more conventional usage. The closest either party can do is to malign the other side for making the wrong choices on the basis of certain value-based priorities. What arguments like this one attempt to do is resolve that quickly by dressing a practical choice up as a factual question. Spicer wants us to think ‘liberals’ are getting the facts wrong. She had to get several things wrong in order to do that.

Dinesh Does What He Does

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1+2+3+4 – > [5]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stupid Questions

We’ve all heard it said that there are no stupid questions. Most of us have probably said it a time or two in the course of our lives. That said, most of us have probably heard a question or two that really did strike us as stupid after all. Whether or not you’ve actually called out a stupid question by name is, well, …another question, but most of us, I reckon, have thought about a question or two with a certain trace of contempt.

It’s a dilemma. There is something in the nature of a question that leads us to want to say ‘hands off!’ Don’t criticize this! Be nice! There is also something in the nature of a question that leads us to want to put them back in the category of fair game.

…some of them anyway.

Why protect questions? I don’t think the issue is literally that there are no stupid questions. The problem has more to do with how you treat people than how one things about the intellectual merits of a query. Calling something ‘stupid’ isn’t usually all that helpful, to begin with. The real issue here is the likelihood that somebody asking a question is already putting herself in a vulnerable position. The fact that she is asking a question suggests that she is seeking new information, and so it seems particularly unhelpful to respond to such a request by mocking its source. She just said doesn’t know the answer, so why would you mock her? No matter how obvious the answer should be, mocking someone for asking a question seems pointlessly cruel, and very unhelpful. So, when someone is asking a question, it just seems like a good rule of thumb to give maximum charity to their question itself and to any impressions we may form about the person asking it.

There are of course exceptions to this.

It is worth remembering, for example, that sometimes people ask a question, not because they don’t know the answer themselves, but because they have other reasons for wanting you to be the one who actually produces the answer. It is often said of lawyers, for example, that they like to know in advance the answers to any question they ask a witness at trial. One might think of them as using the witness to help them tell a story rather than soliciting new information. We can of course find comparable examples outside a courtroom. In such cases, all our assumptions about the nature of a question and what it says about the person asking it go right out the window. In such instances, we may still wish to refrain from calling a question ‘stupid’, but that no longer has to do with any special kindness to the one asking it.

All of which brings us to an uncomfortable point; whether or not one ever wishes to tell someone their question is a stupid one, one ought to remember that questions are not entirely above suspicion. A poorly framed question can send anyone thinking about it down the wrong path, and some questions can be highly deceitful or at least terribly wrong-headed. Other questions come loaded with so much interactional significance that the information exchange requested pales in comparison to the social dynamics at issue. Either way, questions can pose a whole host of concerns other than just the need to figure out an answer to them. The problem with such questions is rarely that the answer should be obvious. In that sense, the ‘no stupid questions’ principle still holds. Nevertheless, some questions can be highly problematic.

What follows is a list of the types of questions one might want to twice before answering.

Is the list incomplete, you may ask?

Good question!


Complex Questions: Perhaps the most commonly known pitfall in problematic questions would have to be the complex question fallacy (sometimes known as a ‘leading question’ or even a ‘trick question’). A complex question is phrased in such a way as to presuppose an assumption which is itself problematic. To answer the question is to grant the assumption. The classic example of a complex question fallacy is the question; “Have you stopped beating your wife?” A ‘yes’ answer affirms that you used to beat her. A ‘no’ answer means you still are beating her. Either way, answering the question puts you in a bad light, and (assuming you don’t beat a wife, which you may or may not have), your best hope to steer clear of the trap is to deny the terms outright and refuse to answer the question as it has been asked.

The trick to handling a complex question is recognizing it in the first place (and hopefully you will do that BEFORE you have answered it). Once you see it for what it is, it is best to call out the assumption that was embedded in the original question and state your objections to that assumption. This is the reason you are not answering the question.

Don’t be surprised if people sometimes try to taunt you into answering the question after all. It is particularly common in some online interactions to find people will just keep telling you that you still haven’t answered the question or that they are still waiting for it. The goal here is to suggest that your refusal to answer the question is a failure of some sort, the implication being that you either do not know the answer or you are embarrassed to admit the real answer out loud. Of course, sometimes people really do duck an honest question, but a complex question is not an honest question, and it does not deserve an answer. So, you are better off sticking to your guns.

Of course, not every complex question is a direct personal attack as in the example above, but whatever the assumption that is embedded in the question, granting it means something. Usually, that meaning if far more important than the specific answer you may give to the question. Even when the question is theoretical, it really is best to avoid answering a complex question.

Rhetorical Questions: A rhetorical question is a really a statement put in the form of a question. Usually, this is done for rhetorical effect. Let us say, I tell you that student had called me at 2am in the morning to ask whether or not they had an assignment due the next day. I then follow this by saying; “Is that a time to be calling me about homework?” If I do this, I am not really asking if that’s a good time to call; I am saying that it definitely isn’t. My question is rhetorical, and most likely you would understand this, but what if you didn’t? Were you to answer my question by saying; “sure,” and then going about explaining your answer, I am probably going to get frustrating and put you on my do not call list right along with the student.

The trouble with answering a rhetorical question isn’t as sharp as it is with a Complex Question. You don’t end up admitting to something terrible. Instead, you will may find yourself encountering significant resistance to the answer (or even outright hostility as a result of that answer) The person who asks such a question actually assumes the answer is obvious, and if you try to suggest otherwise you are raising an issue they themselves regard as closed. If your answer doesn’t match theirs, then you are in for a long haul.

The trick is to realize when a question is rhetorical.

The challenge to handling a rhetorical question is a lot like that of dealing with a suppressed premise in an argument. Because the implied answer to a rhetorical question was originally thought to be obvious, any subsequent discussion may involve extra stress.

Once you know that you are dealing with a rhetorical question, you have a couple options for addressing it. If you agree with the implied answer, then so be it. Nod your head and grunt affirmation. The conversation will then move on. If you don’t agree, then you should realize your answer will likely be the opening round of an argument, and that argument is a little more likely than normal to be with someone who doesn’t want to listen. One strategy that may help is to suggest that the other person explain their own reasons for thinking as they do, thus spelling out the point they have already made for you. At that point, you will be in a better position to consider their views and respond accordingly. Also, the person you are talking to may feel better about the susequent discussion after having expressed themselves more fully before hearing your objections. Either way, you will understand each other better once the original speaker’s thoughts on the matter have been expressed more directly.

Suggestive Questions: Sometimes the point of a question is really to make a suggestion. “Are you gonna check the expiration date on that milk?” or “Do you want to run a spell-check on this post?” might be good examples. “Are you going to check the oil in the car?” would be another. Putting these suggestions in the form of a question might be meant to leave an out for the person being asked, but in some cases, you could literally translate the question into a statement, a request, or even a command.

In most cases, suggestive questions are no big deal. The phrasing of a suggestion in the form of a question may serve to soften the tone of the suggestion, or it may be clever, or it may be the tip of the passive-aggressive iceberg. Either way, you can usually deal with these questions without too much drama. There is at least one type of suggestive question that can pose real problems, however, the accusatory question.

It should also be pointed out that suggestive questions come very close to being rhetorical questions. In many cases, they may be quite synonymous, but in most instances, a suggestive question will leave the person asked an out, so to speak. They can say ‘no,’ but the point of the question was to urge a ‘yes’ to the suggestion.

Accusatory Questions: Sometimes a question is asked for the sole purpose of poisoning the well. This is usually done for the benefit of an audience. When facing such questions, your own answer is quite beside the point. The only reason you were asked is because the person asking the question wants to suggest something that will prove personally embarrassing to you. Examples?

“Is it true that you are a sexual deviant?”

“Are you a socialist?”

“an atheist?”

“Isn’t it true you are only doing this because you are mad about _____?”

Hopefully, you get the idea. Of course, any one of these questions could be asked honestly of some people in some contexts, and depending on the audience or the community in which they operate, the answers may not even be all that troublesome. In other cases, the questions are asked in order to malign someone’s character and demean them in front of others. Depending on the audience, the question alone may be sufficient to give them a negative view of the person asked.

Things just get worse from there!

As the point behind such questions is really to make an accusation, any answer given is likely to be unhelpful. You may be given the courtesy of a chance to deny it, but doing so may actually just strengthen the impression that you are guilty, and in the court of public opinion, answering an accusation may effectively keep a harmful narrative in the news cycle. There isn’t really a clear and obvious way of handling such questions, but it is important to realize when you are facing them. The other person isn’t really asking you anything; they are making an accusation. One tactic you might consider using is to insist that the other person put their own cards on the table and present any evidence they may have in support of the accusation. If you can show that they don’t have any reason to ask the question to begin with, then there is a chance any audience will see the question as the cheap shot that it was. That will get you further than providing an honest answer to a dishonest question.

Diversionary Questions: Sometimes a question is asked for the purpose of changing the subject. Diversionary questions can be subtle, or they can be blatant, but either way the point is to shift the conversation to something the questioner would rather talk about than the topic at hand. They can also be used to slow down a discussion and bring a speaker back to a point already covered. Alternatively, they can be used to speed up a discussion and push a speaker to address advanced points before they have covered the most basic pieces of information necessary to handle those advanced topics. Diversionary questions can also just change the subject altogether.

The person asking diversionary questions may believe them to be relevant or they may be very deliberately trying to pull you off topic because they would rather talk about something else. Either way, the trick to handling a diversionary question is to recognize that it will effectively change the topic and refuse to go along with it. Whether or not your refusal is phrased politely may depend a little bit on just how politely the diversionary question was worded and/or the degree to which the questioner insists on pressing their question. It can sometimes work to say that you would like to answer the question later, but first you wish to finish discussing the current topic. A reasonable person will likely accept this. An unreasonable person may press. Mileage varies!

Start-from-Scratch Questions: One of the hardest things to deal with in the context of intellectual discussion is one which asks a speaker ready to address a complex subject to address one or more really basic points in dealing with that subject. You can only cover so much ground in a single discussion. So, if you are starting with the most basic building blocks of a topic, then you may not get to the complicated stuff at all. People focused on complex problems may also find it difficult to shift gears and think about basics when that wasn’t what they were prepared to do in that particular conversation. So, asking a start-from-scratch question in the context of a discussion where the answers might normally be assumed can effectly throw a speaker off her game. This may be an accident or it may actually be the point of the question. What to do about it depends a lot on how one assesses the situation.

If the person asking you to start from scratch appears to be sincerely, then the best course of action may be to shift gears and go ahead and discuss the basics. You may not get to the more complex information you had hoped to talk about, but if the person you are talking to needs more basic information, then you are better off covering that anyway. Now if that person is outnumbered by a group reading to get into the thick of complex issue, then you may have to balance their needs and interests against those of the larger conversation. Either way, so long as the question was asked in all sincerity, it should be possible to manage the conversation.

The real problem here is that sometimes people ask start-from-scratch questions, not because they really want to know the basics, but because they mean to make you work for every single piece of information you wish to claim. Socrates did this, and he became a hero to philosophy (though he doesn’t seem to have impressed the Athenian community of his own era). Internet trolls also do this. Most of us just find them irritating. The tactic is akin to sealioning and/or rhetorical questions, but the main point here is that when someone actually knows a topic well asks very basic questions, they are likely preparing to call into question answers we like to take for granted. This can be a great intellectual exercise if everyone is game for the challenge. It can also be a form interpersonal aggression clearly intended to aggravate others and/or to prevent people from forming meaningful conclusions to serious questions.

What to do about a start-from-scratch question? It’s your call. Considerations include the following questions:

Do you think the question is asked in sincerity? Are they really in need of basic instruction? Alternatively, do they openly acknowledge their own intentions for asking such a question?

What are your own obligations to answer questions? Is this your job or are you free to decline the task at hand? How patient are you? How likely is the questioner to try our patience or to listen to your answers?

Unanswerable Questions: Some questions simply cannot be answered. No, this isn’t usually because they are extra profound. It is far more likely that the question is in some sense incoherent. These usually fall into two categories; questions that employ contradictory terms, and those employ vague terms. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” would be a good example of the first. So would; “What color is the sound of a horn?” (though my old philosophy professor insisted the answer to this was obviously ‘blue’.) The second sort of question would include such gems as “is the United States of America exceptional?” or “Are you a spiritual person?”

Questions of the first sort are a bit like complex questions. They cannot really be answered in their own terms. One has only to explain what the problem is. One hand cannot clap by itself. It must at least be clapping up against something or it is not clapping at all. We either need to know what that other thing is, or we should probably just skip the question.

Questions of the second sort can be addressed by trying to define the terms in such a manner as to make a clear answer possible, but people asking such questions are often invested in the enigma of vagaries to begin with. Each effort to spell out what one means by ‘higher power’ or ‘exceptional’ is likely to leave the person asking them unsatisfied with the subsequent answer. In some cases, it might be better to just skip these questions to.

Assignment Questions: Sometimes the problem with a question is not in the question itself; it is in our own inability to provide a serious answer at the time and place in which it is asked. People typically answer them in one of three ways; by answering anyway, by asking for more time to study, or by flat out refusing to answer the question after all.

Those answering anyway may try to finesse the issue by using vague terms or even diversionary tactics, or they may just take a guess based on whatever information they have available. They might acknowledge their lack of confidence openly or they might try to bluff their way through it. Either way, the decision to answer anyway involves the risk of getting the answer wrong, and possibly looking very foolish in the process of doing so.

Asking for time to study-up on the answer to a question may or may not go over well, depending on the expectations of those asking the questions and or any audience present. It’s also worth considering whether or not the time it takes to study up on the answer to a question will be well spent in doing so. In professional contexts, one might be expected to do the work in question and get back to people, but if the discussion is unmotivated by any clear practical interests, then one may be better off admitting that he is not in a position to answer and that additional time is not likely to change this fact. On the other hand, sometimes a good question can send us to google or to a library and the end-result can be be provided later. When this is possible, most reasonable people will accept it.

The hard part to such questions is often admitting to oneself at least that you don’t know to begin with.

Thunder-stealing Questions: Sometimes people ask a question knowing full-well what the answer is and/or that the answer will be forthcoming if they just wait a moment. In at least some cases, the point of asking the question is really to steal the initiative for addressing the issue from the person being asked. Case in point, upon hearing a teacher announce a new essay assignment, and knowing very well that the teacher is likely to announce a deadline and a minimum word count, one student may ask; “When is this due?” Another asks; “How long does this one have to be?” Students may be doing so as part of a genuine effort to get an answer or even because they are overly-eager to get started thinking about ir, but they can also do so as a means of transforming the power dynamic in the classroom. Changing the instructions into an interrogation of sorts can undermine the authority of the teacher and create the impression that the students are driving the conversation.

Conversely, I once a saw a faculty member go through a proposal from administration, asking a series of accusatory question (“How are you going to deal with this?” and “What about___?” The administrator had answers to each question, but each answer effectively came across in a defensive tone. I finally realized my colleague was actually staying a paragraph or two ahead of the administrator as she went through the document, effectively asking questions the answers to which we had already been provided and would have discussed in a few minutes anyway. The point of asking these questions was to dominate the discussion and create the impression the admin hadn’t thought about these things and addressed them only after being pressed on the matter.

What do you do about this kind of question? Quite frankly, the best answer may be nothing. You just answer them and move on. Anyone aware of the dynamics in question will likely know what is going on anyway, and many of these power games are only as important as you let them be. The biggest problem posed by such questions can be the fact that they involve an interruption, so if you get a lot of them, it can be difficult to keep up, and/or they can disrupt the order at which you meant to move through the issues. If that is a problem, or if it seems like the damage to one’s credibility is getting serious, it may be worth it to claim the floor, so to speak, and ask people to withhold their questions until after one is done with an initial presentation.

Of course, this leaves open the question of what to do about isolated thunder-stealers; “are you going to get me flowers for my birthday?” may effectively weaken the power of the gesture, but that isn’t a question of handling an audience; it’s a question of handling a relationship.

Um, good luck!

A Hopi Comments on American Music

Introduction: This story appears in the book, Native American Testimony by Peter Nabokov. It is attributed to Fred Coyote of the Wailaki people. Wailaki and Hopi are two different Native American peoples. This is nevertheless a story about an exchange between a Hopi elder and an anthropologist.

Key Facts: Hopi dwell in a relatively dry region of northern Arizona. As with a lot of indigenous peoples, they have seen their share of anthropologists intent on learning about their ways. The story thus begins with a perfectly plausible exchange between an anthropologist and a Hopi elder about Hopi music and its relationship to the environment. A final twist in the story reveals a completely different point.

Text: Peter Nabokov, Ed., Native American Testimony, Revised Edition. 1978. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. It can be found on page 392-393. Note that the section quoted below begins after several paragraphs of narrative in which the anthropologist in question keeps asking a Hopi elder to explain various songs only to find each time that the song is about water.

And so it went all afternoon. And every time the old man would sing a song, the ‘anthro’ would say, ‘What’s that about?’ And the old man would explain it. It’s about something or other – a river, rain, water.

And the anthropologist was getting a little short tempered. He said, ‘Is water all you people sing about down here?’

And this old man said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘For thousands of years in this country we’ve learned to live here. Because our need for this water is so great to our families and to our people, to our nations most of our songs are about our greatest need.’ And he said, ‘I listen to a lot of American music. Seems like most American music is about love.’ He said, ‘Is that why? Is that because you don’t have very much?’


Comments: Anthropologists take a lot of grief, much of it deserved. Still, the reaction of anthropologist in this story seems counter-intuitive. Hell, I think lots of anthros would be happy to find such a clear and consistent pattern in their notes. Still, he makes a good stand-in for the many non-native voices that have had bad things to say about Native American practices.

Statements: For purposes of this analysis, I have omitted much of the narrative framing and focused on the arguments attributed to the Hopi elder. I’ve taken the liberty of summarizing the first few sentences (and much of the larger text that was omitted here) in terms of one simple assertion (statement 1). I believe this is a fair estimation of the point behind these comments lead up to. I have also taken the liberty of rewriting the final question as a statement (number 7).

[1] Hopi songs are virtually all about water.

[2] For thousands of years in this country we’ve learned to live here

[3] [The reason for the theme in question is] Because our need for this water is so great to our families and to our people.

[4] to our nations most of our songs are about our greatest need

[5] I listen to a lot of American music

[6] Seems like most American music is about love.

[7] [Americans need love.]


Analogy: This is a good example of analogical reasoning The Hopi elder in this story begins with an explanation for the musical themes of his own people and then infers a similar explanation for the American public in general.

Explanation: The word ‘because’ in this argument could trip people up, particularly if they have recently been circling inference indicators in order to help them learn the difference between reasons and conclusions. In this instance, the ‘because’ isn’t really using the statement that follows to prove anything. It is suggesting that the rest of statement 3 is the cause of statement 1. Of course this text still presents us with an argument, but that argument involves a claim about the best explanation for the  central observations made by the anthropologist. Sorting the explanation from the rest of the argument is crucial to getting the argument right.

Redundant Assertions: Statement 1 is a very simplified version of the main point behind much of the text in the actual story.  The narrator, the anthropologist, and the Hopi elder all affirm the truth of the claim (though the anthropologist does so through a rhetorical question). Statement 1 thus expresses the point in each of the following claims:

{1a} “It’s about something or other – a river, rain, water.”

[1b] “Is water all you people sing about down here?”

[1c] “Yes.”

Rhetorical Questions: The question: “He said, ‘Is that why? Is that because you don’t have very much?'” is rhetorical. It has been rewritten as statement 7.

Voicing: At face value, this isn’t even an argument. It’s a story. The argument is plot a development that unfolds within the story itself. The author nevertheless uses the story to voice an argument about mainstream American culture. In effect, the argument of the elder is the argument of the narrator.

Diagram: This is the diagram as I see it.

argI reckon statements 1 and 2 combine to prove 3, effectively telling us that a need for water is the reason for the prominent musical theme. Statement 3 is then used as an anecdote illustrating the truth of 4. Statement 4 is then used as the major premise, taken in conjunction with 6 (a new observation about Americans in general) to prove statement 7.


I figure statement 5 is an effort to provide evidence for statement 7.

This isn’t the cleanest argument structure you could find, but I’m pretty confident about most of it. The inference from 3 to 4 is the shakiest part of the diagram. It’s a big jump, and we could probably imagine a few different ways to look at the relationship between those statements. Still, people often derive a general principle from a single example. They may have unstated reasons for doing so, but this type of inference isn’t all that unusual.

Evaluation: I don’t see fallacies in this argument, and I don’t see deductive validity.  Most of the inferences here provide a little evidence for the conclusion, but they might be considered more suggestive than definitive. The result is a bunch of judgement calls.

1+2 -> 3. The notion that need for water is the best explanation for the musical theme emphasizing it is certainly plausible. We could explore other explanations, and knowing how to weigh them would raise questions not really covered in the argument. Is the argument enough? Hard to say, so I would consider this inference ‘moderate’.

3 -> 4. This is a Hell of a jump. The inference is ‘weak’ at best.

5 -> 6. This would be a kind of argument from authority. It’s a light version of authority, but the speaker is essentially using his personal experience to back the truth of his observation about American music. The strength of the inference thus rests on his authority to report that experience accurately.

Of course, listeners might find that statement 6 resonates with their own experience in listening to American music in which case they might not need an argument.

Either way, the inference is ‘weak’ to ‘moderate’.

4+6 -> 7. Once again the inference is reasonable, but we could probably find other explanations for the prominent theme in American music. What really accounts for the prominence of ‘love’ themes in American music is a tough question, though the Hopi elder certainly makes a plausible case. I would consider this inference ‘weak’ to ‘moderate’.

Final Thoughts: It does occur to me that this whole thing could seem rather petty to some readers. Why is the Hopi elder taking a dig at Americans in general? But of course explicit contrasts between the merits of mainstream American culture and that of Native Americans are very much a part of the history of Indian-white relations. That’s why it appears in Nabokov’s book. Whether or not this particular story is true, we can certainly find numerous instances in which non-natives have taken it upon themselves to comment on the short-comings of Native American culture, and unfortunately numerous cases in which such views informed actual policies with harmful effects.  The dig taken at mainstream American culture should probably be understood in this regard. It is as much an effort to counter-balance aggression from outsiders as it is a direct criticism of American culture.


Elizabeth Peratrovich Takes on the Douglas Inn

ElizabethPeratrovichIntroduction: This is the first two paragraphs of a letter from civil rights activist, Elizabeth Peratrovich to then-Governor of Alaska, Earnest Gruening, the full text of which is available at In it, she addresses one of several instances of discrimination against Alaska Natives. In this case, it is a private business, but as Elizabeth notes in the passage presented below such discrimination was also present in state policies.

Note: The Photo comes via the National Women’s History Museum.

Key Facts: The letter is dated, December 30th, 1941, effectively placing it in the earliest days of World War II. Alaska was not yet a state; it was a Federal Territory. Elizabeth Peratrovich was a Tlingit woman. Her people are native to Southeast Alaska which ironically puts them in the Northwest Coast culture area as anthropologists would describe it.  Peratrovich would go on to champion the Anti Discriminatory Act of 1945, a piece of Alaska state legislation preceding the U.S. civil rights act by nearly 20 years.


Dear Mr. Gruening,

My attention has been called to a business establishment in Douglas, namely, “Douglas Inn,” which has a sign on the door which reads, “No Natives Allowed.”

In view of the present emergency, when unity is being stressed, don’t you think that it is very Un-American? We have always contended that we are entitled to every benefit that is accorded our so-called White Brothers. We pay the required taxes, taxes in some instances that we feel are unjust, such as the School tax. Our Native people pay the School tax each year to educate the White children, yet they try to exclude our children from these schools.


Comments: This is by no means the most impressive work left behind by Elizabeth Peratrovich, but it is relatively accessible to argument analysis. Given sufficient flexibility to pursue an open discussion, it might make for an interesting jumping off point into some historical discussion about discrimination and the Alaskan civil rights movement.

I should also say that sometimes argument analysis does a poor job of assessing the significance of elements in a text. Elizabeth’s comments on discrimination in the schools are essentially offered as part of the reasoning for changing a private business practice. In effect, she is also calling attention to government policies, and that has an impact beyond its support for the conclusion of the argument.

Statements: Relevant pieces of the argument have been reproduced below. Note that two sentences have been split into more than one statement and the resulting fragments have been rewritten slightly to fix up the resulting grammar. Also, I broke the first sentence up into three separate claims. As always rewritten sections have been presented in square brackets, as has a missing assertion supplied below (statement 10).

[1] [The nation is experiencing an emergency.]

[2] [The national emergency calls for a unified effort to resolve it.]

[3] [Discriminating against other Americans at this time is Un-American.]

[4] We have always contended that we are entitled to every benefit that is accorded our so-called White Brothers.

[5] We pay the required taxes[.]

[6] [We Alaska Natives feel that these in some instances these taxes are unjust.]

[7] [The School tax is an example of such an unjust law.]

[8] Our Native people pay the School tax each year to educate the White children[.]

[9] [Yet, white people] try to exclude our children from these schools.

[10] [It is unfair to tax people for services they are excluded from using.]

Discussion: This argument raises the issues of Missing Assertions , Paraphrasing, and Rhetorical Questions.

Missing Assertions: I have added a missing assumption to the effect that it is unfair to tax Alaska Natives for schools they cannot attend (statement 10). This is added to 7+8, thus providing the major premise that generates 7 from those two assumptions.

Paraphrasing: In addition to the rewriting the rhetorical question (see below), the first sentence, actually contains 3 separate claims, which I have written above as statements 1-3.

Rhetorical Questions: The first sentence is a classic rhetorical question. That sentence has been broken up into three components, the third of which originally took the form of a question It has been rewritten as a statement.

Diagram: Elizabeth gets to her main point (i.e. the conclusion) at the end of the first sentence. The first two clauses of that sentence provide a quick argument for the 3rd using the circumstance of war to appeal to patriotism. The rest of the passage begins a more detailed argument about the fairness of allowing discrimination against Alaska Natives in view of taxation. Statements 8 and 9 (as well as the missing assumption of statement 10) explain the unfairness of school taxing for the schools (statement 7). That is then used as an example showing that some of the taxes imposed on Alaska Natives are unjust (statement 6) which is then combined with a claim that they pay these taxes (statement 5) to argue that Alaska Natives are entitled to the same benefits as other Alaskans (statement 4). This is then used to argue once again for the general conclusion (statement 3).


Evaluation: Most of this is pretty straight forward, and I don’t see much need to pick it apart here. I’ll just have a couple random thoughts on various aspects of the argument:

1) Evaluating the truth of statement 2 could lead to some interesting questions about whether or not some values and loyalties might trump the need for unified effort in dealing with national emergencies (and in particular wars).

2) It might be worth unpacking Alaskan educational policies for the purposes of evaluating Elizabeth’s arguments on the taxation system and discrimination against Alaska Natives. At present, I just don’t know the history of those laws well enough to provide that analysis.

Final thoughts: Elizabeth Peratrovich kicks ass.