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Friday, March 1, 2019

Bad Arguments #2 - playing the player, not the ball

It starts very young, in the playground.
‘Chelsea are better than Man United.’
‘Man United are better than Chelsea.’
‘Chelsea are better than Man United.’
‘Man United are better than Chelsea.’
These two young people are both using Bad Argument #1 - simple assertion, covered in our earlier post. But let’s see what happens now.

‘You only support Man United because you’re stupid.’
‘People who support Chelsea are a load of stuck-up Londoners.’
They’ve now moved on to a new Bad Argument, our Bad Argument #2. It has a Latin name: the ad hominem - literally, to the man (the person). Or, to put it another way, and to use a metaphor appropriate to the preceding discussion, playing the player, not the ball.

The ad hominem is used when you attack the person making the argument (‘you’), or a person or people associated with the argument (‘stuck-up Londoners’), instead of the argument itself (which team is better, Man United or Chelsea). In football, if you play the player not the ball, you give away a free kick; in debating, if you attack the person not the argument, you give away speaker points.

Obvious, you might say. I don’t do that. I don’t go into debates calling the people on the other side stupid / ugly / boring / saying they’ve got no friends, or even saying they’re talking rubbish because they come from a rubbish school. But there are more subtle forms of the ad hominem that are still flawed, but are all too commonly used. Let’s look at some examples, and how to rebut them.

1. The ‘check your privilege’ argument

A: ’The proposal that 50% of places on science courses at university should be reserved for women is wrong because it would be unjust to exclude men who have better grades than women simply because of their gender.’

B: ’Point of information. As a man, you can have no understanding of the difficulties women face in making a career in science, the unjust discrimination they have suffered for so many years, and you have no right to talk about injustice.’

It may be true that women have suffered discrimination in science-related employment for many years; it may be true that they still do. This could be a strong argument for the need to introduce quotas to address this injustice. The fact, however, that the person making the argument against quotas is a man has nothing to do with the argument. You cannot say to anyone ‘you cannot make that argument’; you can only say, ‘that argument is a bad argument because …’

So how should A rebut this?

There’s a bad way:

A: ‘Women who say that just want to get an unfair advantage when it comes to university applications.’

This is the equivalent of kicking back at someone who has kicked you. It will end up with both of you being sent off.

And there’s a good way:

A:’I don’t dispute the injustice that women have suffered, and still do suffer, from discrimination. It is real and it is wrong and it should be tackled. However, introducing a different kind of injustice through the use of quotas is not the way to deal with this problem.’

Here, like a footballer stepping out of the way of the flying boot and regaining possession of the ball, A moves away from the personal attack and gets straight back on to the main point of the argument.

2. The ‘they don’t get it’ argument

 A: ‘Parliament should vote to block a no deal Brexit because it would be a disaster for the British economy.’

B: ‘Point of information. MPs are overwhelmingly white, male and privately educated. How can they possibly know what is best for ordinary people?’

This looks less like the ad hominem because B is not attacking the speaker. She is, however, attacking people associated with the argument, not the argument itself.

Bad rebuttal:

A: ’It’s a good job they’re privately educated. It means they’ve got more sense than all those idiots who voted for Brexit.’

Kicking back, attacking a different group of people.

Good rebuttal:

A: ‘That is a very fair point about the unrepresentative nature of Parliament. However, this debate is not about how MPs are selected. It is about Brexit. And the reason Parliament should vote to prevent a no-deal Brexit is …’

Gently but firmly moving the debate back on to the argument.

3. The ‘you can’t tell me that’ argument

A: ‘Making the use of homophobic language illegal would be counter-productive because it would turn bigots into martyrs.’

B: ‘Point of information. As a gay person, I have suffered homophobic bullying. You have no right to tell me that the law should not protect me from this.’

This is a harder one to deal with, partly because it often comes with a very emotional personal story.  It can feel like any form of rebuttal is a personal attack. That shouldn’t blind you to the fact that it is itself a personal attack. It is saying to the first speaker: because you haven’t experienced what I’ve experienced, you are worth less than me.

Here’s how to rebut it without letting things get personal:

A: ‘I’m very sorry to hear that you’ve suffered that kind of bullying. It is totally wrong and indefensible. I want to see an end to that kind of bullying. That’s why I’m against the proposed measure, which will only make homophobic bullying worse because …’

Again, gently but firmly leading us back to the argument.

So, to sum up:

1. Don’t attack the person making the argument.
2. Don’t attack people associated with the argument.
3. Always attack the argument.
4. If the other side do 1 or 2, don’t attack back, but instead lead the debate gently but firmly back to the argument.

In other words … keep your eye on the ball

1 comment:

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