Monday, August 3, 2015


I have just discovered that there is a word for the characteristic rhetorical move of our time, that is, assuming that your opponent is wrong and proceeding to ask why he advocates such an obviously wrong opinion. E.g., Donald Trump is obviously a clown, so anyone who supports him must be a racist fool. Gay marriage is obviously a great idea, so anyone who opposes it is a homophobe. Regulating Wall Street is obviously necessary, so politicians who disagree must be on the take. Or, perhaps, the deal with Iran is so obviously a good thing that people who oppose it must be belligerent idiots.

C.S. Lewis called this Bulverism.


G. Verloren said...

Did you purposefully pick those three examples? Because while the line of rational thought connecting A to B in each one isn't exactly sound, in each case the conclusions being drawn aren't terribly far off the reality - even if they're being arrived at through separate reasoning than that which is given.

Trump is pretty demonstrably racist, and while it is conceivable that some people might support him for other reasons completely unrelated to that, it's pretty safe to assume the kinds of people most likely to champion Trump are racist themselves. It's not a given of course, and it cannot be assumed with absolute logical certainty that just because someone supports Trump they must be racist - but let's just say that the odds appear to be strongly in favor of that particular correlation.

Making assumptions about someone's views and writing off their arguments wholesale in this way may not be terribly rational, but there are cases where it does save a heck of a lot of time. And in some situations, surely that's acceptable and worthwhile?

Take climate change denialists - surely their claims have been so thoroughly and universally debunked as to render them instantly dismissable without having to engage in yet another farcical "debate" against them? It may technically be a logical fallacy to say that -anyone- who denies climate change must -necessarily- be crazy, but practically isn't it true?

There is an entire series of logical implications in the statement that are meant to be treated as givens, beyond the simple A therefor B structure of what is actually being said. When we say a climate change denialist is crazy, we're unspokenly referring to the absolutely overwhelming preponderous of evidence which goes directly against their tenets, levying all of that argumentative weight against them without having to spell it all out in detail.

So when people say that Trump supporters "must" be racists, they don't mean it literally and absolutely - they mean it generally and in reference to a whole separate chain of logic that goes unspoken, with its own intermediary assumptions and conclusions. People just don't want to take the time to explain that chain of reasoning, because it ought to be pretty firmly established already and not require being rehashed again and again.

John said...

I suppose what I object to about what I see as Bulverism is not the shortcut, which as you say is often useful. It is skipping the basic step of trying to understand why people believe things you don't. It is simply untrue that nobody but the corrupt supports financial capitalism, or that there are no good arguments for it. It is untrue that only the oil companies and their allies supported the invasion of Iraq, and only from financial motives. It is untrue that only belligerent idiots oppose the Iran deal; I picked this example because it has so much appeal to me, and I am sure some of what I have written sounds like that to opponents of the deal.

I believe that it is essential, in a democracy, to take one's opponents seriously, to understand them, and to seek common ground with them. Sometimes you may consider an issue and end up thinking that this really is only a lot of irrational anger riled up by Fox News, viz., Benghazi. Or believing that Fast and Furious was an attempt by Obama to justify harsh gun laws. But on many issues from taxes to bombing Iran there are arguments for the Republican position, and also deep emotional/ideological reasons why those policies are appealing. Writing them off as stupid is neither wise nor effective.

AndrewSshi said...

But at some point it becomes tiresome trying to find out why people believe a whole parcel of not-true things. Why do my fellow Americans of the Republican persuasion believe that at least a third of their countrymen are hell bent on making America a Muslim-ruled Shari'a state? Why do they believe that climatology, the life sciences, and macroeconomics are a sinister hoax? Why do many of my fellow Christians believe that mass transit and sidewalks are part of a Satanic conspiracy?

I know that when I sit down and try to get an explanation about these things, what I usually get is a lot of post-hoc justifications for a set of beliefs that it's pretty clear they got by plugging into the various aspects of the right media and insulating themselves from anything that contradicts that worldview (or directly from the pulpit). And at this point I've more or less given up on trying to really understand this sort of a memeplex. There's only so much you can argue in good faith with someone who simply will not be convinced that the natural sciences are reliable.

Unknown said...

I would agree with John in the sense that I'm not in much sympathy with dismissing one's opponents as insincere, corrupt, or simply deluded by propaganda. I imagine, for example, that the 15% who support war in every case (mentioned in another post this morning) probably really, sincerely, believe that, have a worldview to justify it, and so forth. But on the other hand, even if I know what that worldview is, acknowledge it, and can even put it in my own words, I don't think that would give me any common ground with them. If I get what I want on, say, Iran, they're just not going to get what they want. Nor would I have much common ground with those (presumably a much smaller percentage, but a real one nonetheless), who want the US to be completely pacifist. Sometimes, there's just nothing to say or do about a disagreement but disagree--and, in the area of policy, try to get your way.

John said...

Yes, the result of carefully considering your opponent's point of view may simply be a clearer picture of the impasse. But sometimes it is enlightening, and sometimes it is possible to find compromises that work for everyone.