“Forgive me, Father, for I have trolled. My last confession was right before I saw that stupid post on Facebook. You know the one: the one where that idiot said something really dumb. Well anyway, since that time, I have spent way too much time on social media telling people that they were wrong. I stayed up too late, neglected my other responsibilities, burned with the rage of 1000 white hot fiery suns for mine enemies, let total or near strangers disrupt my inner peace, and used arguments so terrible that they wouldn’t convince a hungry German shepherd to eat bacon. For these and all my sins, I am heartily sorry.”
“A good confession, my child. For your penance, say two Hail Mary’s and read this dank blog post.”
Does anyone else feel like social media has become a lot more contentious recently? Maybe it was the election. Maybe it’s all the recent natural disasters. Maybe it’s our reality TV star president. Maybe it was that dang blue and black dress (don’t you dare say it was white and gold or I will block you SO fast.)
In any case, it’s troubling. It’s caused many of us to trim our friends list, unfollow people who really grind our gears, limit our social media time, or abandon social sites all together. I respect those decisions (in fact I have certain limits I set for myself) but I also know that social media can be great for exchanging ideas and hearing points of view you’ve never considered.
I recently watched the TED talk of Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church, who details how Twitter helped her to realize the flaws of the ideology she was raised with. If you haven’t watched it, stop reading this and go watch it. It’s brilliant. And around the 9:30 mark, she lays out 4 rules for productive engagement on social media which, if we all followed them, would go a long way towards making the social media jungle a little friendlier. Her last rule is “Make the argument.” This got me thinking about all of the frequent, terrible arguments I see used by people of all stripes and viewpoints. So in an effort to make better arguments and use better reasoning, I’ve put together a far from exhaustive list of some of the most commonly used fallacies. I started off with seven because it would be congruent with the deadly sins, but then I thought of eight and I couldn’t figure out a way to eliminate one. Guess I’m not Aquinas. (Whatevs. YOBO.)
Trigger Warning! I have intentionally culled examples of these sins from both left and right. No ideology is spared. You might get flipping mad. Hopefully it will just make you examine your own arguments and why you believe them. You snowflakes ready? Cuz here we go!
False double standard
I’m starting with this one because it is SUPER prevalent. There are entire Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts (not to mention TV shows—I’m looking at YOU, Trevor Noah & Tomi Lahren) dedicated to exactly this sort of thing. It looks like this:
This is a form of the straw man fallacy, which constructs the most absurd possible articulation of the other sides’ argument and argues with that, rather than engaging the actual argument. Specifically, the false double standard fallacy picks two ideas it doesn’t like, puts them next to each other, and pretends that the same person said them. It is particularly dangerous because it lumps anyone who disagrees with you into the same ridiculous stereotype of the other side. It doesn’t convince anyone because the people on the other side don’t recognize it as their argument (because it’s not: it’s your dumbest version of their argument.) Even if you have heard both of these opinions from real people, that doesn’t actually represent a double standard unless the same person said both. If it was two different people, then it represents two different standards. If a member of a group says something that is inconsistent with something someone else in the group said, you can’t pretend the same person said them or that everyone in that group believes both of those things. This type of argument thrives on and encourages “us vs. them” polarization which is why it is so insidious.
Disclaimer: As I go through these fallacies, I may actually be using some strawman type descriptions. I realize that these fallacies and some of my examples are oversimplifications of often much more nuanced, complex arguments, but for the sake of clear examples, I’m going to simplify them some.
Hate of Policy = Hate of People
This is the same technique you used against your parents when they wouldn’t let you go see that movie that literally EVERYONE else’s parents let them see: “Why are you ruining my life! You must hate me!” It’s a guilt trip and emotional manipulation. On the left, this technique is commonly used in discussions about same-sex marriage, calling anyone who has concerns about changing the legal definition of marriage bigoted, hateful, or homophobic and in discussions about abortion, claiming those opposed to ending life in the womb of a “war on women.”. The right is guilty of this when saying that those who oppose a certain military action (or protest racism during the National Anthem #OhYesIwentThere) must not support the troops or have pride in our country. It’s an easy way to demonize the people who disagree with you and ignore what they are actually saying. Speaking of which, there’s the good ol’
As old as argument itself, the ad hominem (literally “against the man”) is when you just attack the person rather than actually engage the argument. You’ve probably seen this one enough to not really need examples but I’ll give you a famous ones: “Nasty woman” and “deplorables.” Both right and left are guilty of ad hominem arguments when they say “well how many illegal immigrants/unwanted children have you taken in?” going after the credibility of the arguer rather than the argument.
This one sounds something like this: “My issue is the #1 very most importantest issue and you are complicit in perpetuating it unless you care about it and talk about it as much as I do and agree with my methods for addressing it.” The left’s 1 issue is frequently racism. On the right, the 1 issue to rule them all is abortion. Some pro-lifers will even criticize other pro-lifers for caring about pro-life issues other than abortion because doing so supposedly dilutes and distracts from the anti-abortion message. I’ve been in discussions on racism where someone has chimed in, “I wish people cared this much about abortion” and I’ve been in a discussion on abortion where someone has claimed that we need to get back to the “real” issues plaguing America, like racism. This fallacy distracts from the argument at hand has the effect of dividing people by placing two important issues in opposition to each other, when in fact they don’t represent competing values and may actually have a lot of intersectionality.
Equivocation of terms
This is one of my favesies. Don’t have a good counter-argument? Never fear! Just confuse the terms that your opponent is using. For example, if your opponent provides scientific evidence of climate change, just say “the climate is always changing.” Or if your opponent cites scientific proof that human life begins at conception, just point out that sperm and skin cells are also alive and human. See how easy that is? You take a specific, well defined claim and defuse it by using your opponent’s terms in a really nebulous way.
What’s wrong with this approach? It never really addresses the argument you are presented with. Of course the climate is always changing but that isn’t at all what climate activists mean when discussing the dangers of manmade climate change. Of course a human sperm cell is alive, but that’s not the sort of life pro-lifers mean when they say that a new, unique human being’s life begins at conception. This fallacy takes strong, specific claims and confuses them by obscuring the terminology.
Assuming bad intentions
You see this used commonly on both sides of the abortion debate. Why does the right oppose abortion? Because they hate sex and want to control women (says the left). Why does Planned Parenthood support abortion? Because they are in it for the money (says the right).
While it may be true that some pro-lifers hate sex and want to control women and some Planned Parenthood execs are in it only for the money, this argument is based on an assumption about people’s motives (and you know what happens when you assume J). It ignores that there are good, well-intentioned people on both sides of most debates and amounts to little more than character assassination.
Mistaking Concern for Condemnation
This is kind of a combination of the strawman fallacy, assuming bad intent, and the “hate of policy/people” fallacy: it assumes that when an opponent raises a concern over a topic, they actually are secretly working to achieve something much more extreme. The right tends to use this whenever the left brings up gun control. The argument is along the lines of “they want to take our guns!” The left pulls the same trick when the right resists funding birth control, claiming instead that the right wants to “ban” birth control altogether. As far as I know, no major American politician has proposed a ban on guns or birth control, but those accusations are made every time either issue comes up.
Blaming other people when you offend them vs. The Emotional Argument
These two are different sides of the same coin. Both are to be avoided. Both are employed by the left and the right. If you tell someone on the right that their argument is offensive, you may be accused of “political correctness” and being a “snowflake.” If you tell someone on the left their argument is offensive, you may be accused of “tone policing” or “respectability politics.” Both are ways of saying, “because I’m right, it’s ok to be a jerk.” This tactic is especially prevalent in discussions about race where a person of color may be accused of “race-baiting” if they get offended and a white person may be accused of “fragility.”
And of course, on the flip side, we shouldn’t allow emotion as a trump card in debate. Emotional arguments can be effective (which is why propaganda works so well), but if they are devoid of reason, they are dishonest and harmful. As the left likes to say about climate change and the right likes to say about transgender issues, “the facts don’t care about your feelings.”
But as Christians, we should care about each other’s feelings. We should also care about making compelling and solidly grounded arguments. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We are all children of God. Hopefully, by avoiding these mistakes, we can have more productive discussions that help us to change our perspective from “us vs. them” to “all of us vs. the problem.”
What are your thoughts? Did I miss any fallacies that both left and right are guilty of?
Mike Tenney has spent the past 15 years speaking, teaching, and leading
worship and retreats for youth and young adults of various backgrounds and faiths. Mike has been a featured musician and speaker for many events including Catholic Undergrounds, Life Teen XLT's, Theology on Taps, Christ in the City, the Couples for Christ National Youth Conference, and many regional and diocesan events. He teaches Theology at St. Vincent Pallotti High School and directs the Modern Worship Band at St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel, MD. He is also the director of liturgical music for Encounter the Gospel of Life Service Camp. You can find more about Mike and his ministry including online talks at www.MikeTenneyMusic.com and follow him @pkMikeyT.