A few years ago, two of my younger siblings were helping in the kitchen when my little brother decided to take my little sister’s snack. When asked why he would do such a thing, he looked at my mom and explained, as though it should have been obvious, that he took her snack because she did not know how to say “tree” in sign language.
To the best of our knowledge none of the conversation immediately prior had anything to do with little brother’s knowledge of sign language, or little sister’s lack thereof. In fact, his reasoning had nothing to do with any of what had just transpired between them, and yet, in his four-year-old mind, it seemed to be a foolproof argument.
The arguments that kids use to explain their actions can be humorous, or simply bizarre. The troubling thing is that bad arguments are hardly unique to small children. They are everywhere and can be surprisingly persuasive.
Sixteenth-century scholar Richard Hooker saw this problem unfold in his time over a question of governance for the Church of England. In his work, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Hooker explains the kinds of arguments made by his contemporaries in this debate, while shedding light on why bad arguments manage to persuade large numbers of people. These include:
1. The Power of Virtue-Signaling
Virtue-signaling, the use of rhetoric to indicate one’s own virtue and moral standing, is a powerful and subtle means of persuasion. Hooker notes that his opponents:
[A]re always attacking…with great zeal and indignation, which usually gives an impression of integrity, zeal, and holiness, since people tend to think that such men would never be so offended by sin unless they were quite good themselves.
Putting on a front of being extremely offended gives the impression of being virtuous. A person must be very moral (or very “woke”) if they are going to be deeply offended by views that differ from their own. This ad-hominem style attack works because it is a subtle way of controlling how people see you, as well as how they see your opponents.
2. Broad Generalizations and Over-Simplifications
In addition to virtue-signaling, Hooker notes that broad generalizations and over-simplifications are commonly used to persuade people. Typically, these generalizations identify a single source for an entire set of societal ills. Nuances are neither catchy nor exciting, even if it is more honest to acknowledge that a problem is complex and probably not attributable to a single cause. Hooker writes,
So just as they became known for their virtue by their relentless criticism of the authorities, so also they become known for their brilliance since they claim to have uncovered the cause of all the world’s ills.
This leads to tactic number three…
3. Establishing False Dichotomies
Once you have established that everything wrong with the world stems directly from your political opponents’ platform, the natural next step is to persuade them that the only possible alternative is your solution. Hooker observes,
[H]aving captured men’s imaginations, they put forward their own… as the only possible solution to all these problems, and sing its praises to the sky. Just like sick men, those who are unhappy with the status quo will imagine that anything they hear praised is the answer to all their ailments, but that most of all which they have least tried.
The less aware people are of alternatives, the more willing they are to try even the most problematic solutions.
4. The Allure of Confirmation Bias
[They are] especially eager to listen to whoever is of their party, take every opportunity to have secret meetings with them, to be directed and counselled by them in all important matters….
People like to listen to those who agree with them. This is a natural tendency, but if you are always surrounded with people who take your view of things, it is much easier to be persuaded by arguments that are untrue or don’t take all the facts into consideration.
These tactics sound rather familiar, don’t they? It seems that bad arguments are nothing new and it’s all too easy to be taken in by them. Understanding how and why they work can help us to carefully evaluate the arguments that we hear and make on a daily basis.
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