7 Tips to Avoid Making a Fool of Yourself Over Politics (and Other Things)

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‘Tis the season when Facebook posts fly in a partisan frenzy, when attack ads saturate the airwaves, when campaign signs blossom in yards like oxalis. And it’s a good bet that at some time before the year is over, you will have locked horns with someone over matters political. If you don’t want to say something that you will regret later, or that will cause hard feelings, or that will make you sound very stupid (whether you realize it or not), here are some pointers that you’d do well to keep in mind:

1. Don’t talk in soundbites

In any election cycle (and indeed at other times) you’ll hear people say that the country needs a “change of direction”. Well, driving it off a cliff would certainly qualify. Is that what they have in mind?

“Crooked Hillary”? “Idiot Trump”? How about saying exactly what it is you don’t like about them, and being factual rather than repeating hearsay. (More about that in a moment.)

I just heard a political extremist I won’t name – well, okay, it was Mike Huckabee – comment about how President Obama has “apologized for America”. That’s an allegation that has been made many, many times by many many people, but it’s never been true even once. Wouldn’t it be a much more productive dialogue if people shunned such expressions and discussed what really happened?

Next time you engage someone in a discussion about politics, then just as an experiment if nothing else, try avoiding the use of any of those common catch-phrases you’ve heard on cable TV. It may be a challenge; it may even be impossible. But the effort will be worth it. Using clichés and soundbites only shows that you know how to be a mimic.

2. Give up being a missionary

Unless you really like asking for trouble, don’t bother trying to convert other people to your infallible beliefs. They all have infallible beliefs of their own, and chances are they’re even trying to convert you. The sooner you accept this, the better.

3. Don’t take it – or give it – personally

Americans have a distinct tendency to fuse themselves inextricably to their convictions. As a result, if you criticize someone’s beliefs in any way, they’re likely to take it as a slap in the face. To be sure, it’s also common for people to actually express dissent in ad hominem terms: “you’re an idiot” rather than “I see a problem with that argument”.

You’d be well advised to avoid either trap. And if someone hurls an insult at you, you’d be well advised not to respond at all. Learn to turn the other cheek – the one with the deaf ear attached.

4. Ask, don’t argue

When we hear someone utter something that clashes with our infallible beliefs, our instinct is usually to contradict, challenge, argue. Which just leads to more argument. Rinse, lather, repeat. It would be much more constructive to ask them questions that will get to the bottom of why they believe what they do.

Example: “If you believe that government is useless, does that mean you’re okay with slavery being legal? How would we make it illegal without government intervention? How would we make anything illegal – what would keep people from stealing your property, burning down your house or killing you if they have no one to penalize them? Ah, but what if they have bigger guns than you? So if we eliminated government, everyone would magically adopt biblical principles to live by? Who would decide which interpretations of whose Bible to adopt? How would it be enforced, and by whom? Do you not realize that theocracy is also a form of government?”

Socrates was one of the wisest men who ever lived. And a great part of that wisdom lay in his phenomenal skill in asking questions – questions that would nudge people into seeing the flaws in their own convictions. We can’t all be as good at it as he was, but we don’t have to be. It rarely takes more than 3 or 4 questions to produce a reductio ad absurdum. That is, assuming the other person’s position really is flawed. If not, you might actually learn something. Either way, you win – which is something you’ll never do arguing.

5. Go to the (original) source

You’ve surely seen plenty of the wacky rumors and accusations making the rounds: Obama is a Kenyan Muslim Nazi who wants to take away your guns; Bush was complicit in 9-11; the Clintons have had people killed; the U.N. controls the national parks; vaccines cause autism; Benghazi and emails. It doesn’t matter how many times these things get shot to hell, they keep coming back like Arnold in The Terminator. But unlike him, they’re made of very flimsy stuff.

I used the example of Obama’s alleged “apology tour” above because it serves more than one purpose. So here it is again. In this Age of Google, it would not be terribly hard for most people to dig up what the president really did say. But instead, people are content to just play telephone, cutting and pasting the same memes passed on by someone else from someone else from someone else.

You deserve better. Be sure before you share. If you can’t quote an original source, at least quote a source you’ve consistently found to be reliable. And that doesn’t mean just someone who’s consistently said what you want to hear.

Time-saving hint: after you’ve heard all about Obama apologizing for America, try Googling something like “Obama did not apologize for America”. A friend of mine once commented that whenever he read a book of a political nature, he’d then read one on the same topic from an opposing viewpoint. Not a bad habit.

6. Remember that the world is bigger than your yard

If you are out of a job, you may be under the impression that the economy is in the toilet. If you have been mugged, you may believe that crime is rocketing upward. (Neither, in fact, has been true for quite some time.) We all tend to view the world through our own lenses, but try not to go overboard. Try to evaluate policies, politicians and others by what they have to offer the whole country – or even the whole world – rather than by how well they conform to your worldview.

7. Leave Hitler out of it

In the early days of the Internet, attorney Mike Godwin half-humorously proposed an observation that he called Godwin’s Law, which basically states that any online discussion will eventually lead to a mention of Hitler, and when it does, the discussion should be considered over.

If that’s the case, many people these days terminate the debate before it even gets started. It’s become a Pavlovian response among many people to invoke Der Fuhrer every time they encounter a politician or policy they don’t like.

Hitler came into the world to be the ultimate evil, a last resort in rhetorical evaluation rather than a first impulse in divisive polemic. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of other hyperbolic references: the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon.

Write this down: NOBODY IS LIKE HITLER. (Although certainly there are people who behave like – and even are – fans of his.) And he’s been in the spotlight long enough. Let’s give him a rest.

 

Propaganda Prop # 8: False Equivalence

Imbalance concept. Black scales with red sphere and cube.

In a video making the rounds on the Internet not long ago,  an interviewer asks several science-minded individuals why they believe in evolution and not creationism, and coaxes them into saying that it is essentially because science is based on observable evidence, while religion is based on pure belief.  He then innocently observes that, hey, evolutionists discuss events that supposedly happened millions of years ago, and you can’t witness them since they were so far in the past; so why is that better than believing things you can’t see that supposedly happened thousands of years ago, or that happen on some spiritual plane of existence? By suggesting that putting faith in physical evidence is as arbitrary as putting faith in dogma,  he was slyly invoking false equivalence, the eighth in our series of propaganda tools.

A false equivalence, as the name suggests, is comparing or equating things that are not appropriately similar. (“The First Amendment applies to the Internet even though it hadn’t been invented when the Constitution was written; so the Second Amendment gives me the right to own an AK-47.”) This tactic is often labeled false analogy, which theoretically could be classified as something different: a false equivalence is saying that two related but dissimilar things are essentially the same, while a false analogy is saying that two unrelated things are comparable (“You cheat at solitaire, so you have no right to criticize me for being a racist.”). But in practice, the distinction is often so slight and so difficult to pinpoint that it’s really no false equivalence to just consider them interchangeable.

Quite often, the F.E. seems to be a valid analogy at first blush, but if you examine it more closely, you see that the subtle distinctions are actually quite substantial. It isn’t necessarily that the differences are more numerous than the similarities, but they are more significant. In the photo above, the two objects have certain things in common: e.g., they are both regular geometric solids, they are both shiny, they are both smooth, and they are both red. But clearly they are not the same.  One is a cube and one is a sphere. One is heavier than the other. It may be that they are different sizes, or made of different materials,  or that the cube is hollow. In any case, the differences literally outweigh the similarities.

Recently when discussing vegetarianism, I made an allusion to my 40 years of personal experience with the topic, and someone remarked that I might as well cite 40 years of faith healing or psychic work as proof that those activities are valid.  The point was that all of them involve anecdotal evidence; but the anecdotal evidence is being used in very different ways. And it’s a false equivalence for at least three reasons.

First, as I perhaps should have made more clear, my “experience” is not limited to my own vegetarianism, but to my having read about, met and talked to, literally hundreds of other vegetarians, and to having done a great deal of research on the topic.  Second, it’s a comparison between the purely hypothetical and intangible — i.e., psychic powers and faith healing — and the tangible and demonstrable; diet definitely does have an effect on health, and there’s ample evidence that a vegetarian diet can have a positive effect. Third and most important, unlike the psychic and the faith healer, I’ve never cited my personal experience/research as “proof” of anything; on the contrary, I suggest that it’s reason to doubt conventional wisdom — i.e., that consuming meat is necessary for good health. (Which is to say that when you have a premise that doing thing A invariably produces result B, yet you have hundreds of random individuals who’ve been doing A for years with results consistently the opposite of B, it might be prudent to examine your premise a little more closely.)

It’s very easy to drift into those murky waters, because we all like to make comparisons — they help illustrate, clarify and amplify. But no two things are exactly alike; so it can be a bit tricky to determine where to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate analogy. Sometimes, then, the false equivalence is a sincere logical fallacy rather than an attempt to deceive. In many cases, however, the analogist steps blatantly over the line; even when not doing so deliberately, he/ she does so as part of an overall inclination to distort in order to attack or defend a particular position.

The interviewer in the video may or may not have been intentionally dissembling, but he definitely was operating under a false premise: namely, that religious authorities are at least as qualified to speak about science as are scientific authorities. This stems from the great fundamentalist fallacy that religious texts should be interpreted as literally as scientific texts. But in fact, religion and science are two totally different spheres of cognition — two different languages, if you will. Those who understand this can be both scientific and religious if they so choose. Those who don’t are likely either to condemn religion as being unscientific (its actually nonscientific) or condemn science as being “blasphemous”.

False equivalence is often invoked in discussions of religion. One popular motif is to maintain that the absence of faith is itself a sort of faith. A few years ago, there was even a movement among the Christian Right to have “secular humanism” officially declared a religion, so that it would be a violation of the principle of the separation of church and state to enact secularist policies such as prohibiting school-enforced prayer. Cute.

Of course, this was a political maneuver as much as a religious one, and you’ll certainly encounter plenty of false equivalence in discussions about politics and current events. Turn on the talking heads and before a quarter of an hour has elapsed,  chances are you will have heard at least one faulty comparison.

One of the most popular manifestations is the “both sides do it” narrative,  which sometimes manifests as the tu quoque — Latin for “you too”, a fancy way of saying that it takes one to know one.  As you might imagine, I get that one thrown at me quite a bit. (“You’re a propagandist yourself”. “You’re promoting your own causes.” “You’re using straw men and cherry picking while accusing other people of doing the same.” Etc, etc, etc. Which is a clear indication that someone either is distorting my words or is confused about the concept in question.)  Sometimes a tu quoque is a valid point; quite often, it’s just a knee-jerk attack from someone who feels that he/ she absolutely must attack, but really has nothing to say.

The “both sides do it” is my favorite specimen of false equivalence because it offers so many possible applications. Accordingly, I’ll be devoting a separate discussion to it in the near future.

No examination of false equivalence is complete without some mention of the very popular “reductio ad Hitlerum” — the tendency to summon up the specter of Der Fuhrer to stand beside anyone you don’t like.  If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard this one, I’d be as powerful as Hitler.

The fact is, nobody is really like Hitler. That’s what makes him such an effective illustration but such an ineffective and inappropriate benchmark. Sometimes someone may have something in common with Hitler in a very small way (you may know lots of short, dark-haired former painters who speak German), but never to the extent that fiery rhetoricians suggest. A Hitler analogy is almost always out of line.

That being said, we also should acknowledge that the over-sensitization to Hitler analogies has created its own problems. Sometimes you might hear an exchange like this:

Mr. Smith: You’re very firm in your beliefs, but that isn’t always a good thing. The Nazis were firm in their beliefs, too.

Mr. Jones: There you go, comparing us to Nazis and comparing me to Hitler.

Smith did no such thing, of course. He gave Hitler his proper treatment: as the ultimate extreme we all should avoid, and a powerful illustration of what excesses firmness of conviction can lead to. It is Jones who is making the false equivalence. This is a propagandaphile’s delight: a false equivalence about a false equivalence.