The King of Fallacies
A couple of weeks ago, as I was mulling over the results of the first Presidential debate, I was struck again by Donald Trump’s defense of name-calling. As everyone knows, he routinely tries to raise his own profile by calling other people names, such as “losers,” “dopes,” and “clowns.” At the debate, when Hillary Clinton reminded voters that Trump has called women “pigs, slobs and dogs,” Trump again defended himself, saying that Rosie O’Donnell had been “very vicious” to him and that “I think everybody would agree she deserves it, and nobody feels sorry for her.”
I have previously written about name-calling as a basic failure of human decency, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. But what no one seems to have noticed is that name-calling is also one of the simplest forms of logical fallacy: the ad hominem attack. Trump is particularly fond of the abusive ad hominem attack, which claims that a person’s position or argument is invalid because he or she is defective in some way. By calling his opponents an abusive name, it allows him to put them down without addressing the merits of their position.
Trump’s use of ad hominem caused me to wonder what other logical fallacies he might be using, so I pulled out my old Logic textbook from my TCU days. After a quick review, it was clear that ad hominem is just one of many logical fallacies Trump has used over the years. Here are just a few more:
Tu quoque: Tu quoque means, “you’re another.” This fallacy deflects criticism against yourself by accusing your opponent of being just as bad. Trump used it in the debate against Clinton when he was asked about his failure to release his tax returns. Rather than address the question, he responded with a tu quoque attack: “I’ll release my tax returns – against my lawyer’s wishes – when she releases her 33,000 emails that have been deleted.”
Ad populum. This argument bypasses relevant reasons for one’s positions by making base appeals to popular sentiment, such as fear and prejudice, anger and distrust. Trump’s comments about Mexicans in his arguments about immigration are a perfect example: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Ad baculum. This fallacy uses an appeal to the fear of force to cause the audience to accept a conclusion. Trump has repeatedly used veiled and not-so-veiled threats against his opponents. He has threatened to “open up the libel laws” and sue news organizations that have published negative articles about him. He hinted that Second Amendment supporters should shoot Hillary Clinton to prevent her from being elected and appointing Supreme Court justices. He implied that he would threaten Mexico with nuclear weapons to get them to pay for the wall he wants to build between Mexico and the United States. In response to a perceived attack on his wife, Melania, Trump threatened to “spill the beans” on Ted Cruz’ wife. Some might argue that these are simple threats rather than an ad baculum fallacy, but regardless, it’s pretty clear that threats, rather than logic, are a regular part of the Trump toolkit.
Sadly, Trump’s fallacies have now become a regular part of our public discourse, and those who follow his example excuse their behavior by proudly wearing the badge of being “politically incorrect.” But name-calling, appeals to fear and prejudice, threats, and other cheap tactics distract us from the serious issues we face. As the election approaches, I hope that the rest of us will rise above the temptation to resort to these methods. As the famous painter John Kane once noted, “the public interest is best served by the free exchange of ideas.” In today’s atmosphere of mud slinging, illogic, and hot air, that’s virtually impossible.
We live in interesting times. Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine has been described as a devout Catholic who is personally opposed to both abortion and the death penalty. In spite of this, his voting record in the Senate got a 100% approval rating from Planned Parenthood, and he has presided over 11 executions as governor of Virginia. As a frustrated Catholic in search of someone to vote for, Kaine’s record disappoints me. Some people, however, see him positively. One of my more liberal friends described his political performance as “a perfect example of the separation of church and state.”
My friend’s comment really got me thinking. The phrase “separation of church and state” originated with Thomas Jefferson, and has been invoked by the Supreme Court, but it does not appear in the Constitution itself. What the Constitution actually says is that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These two parts of our 1st Amendment freedoms are known as the “establishment clause” and the “free exercise clause.” In plain language, this means that the government cannot establish any official religion, nor can it prevent its citizens from freely exercising their faith. What “separation of church and state” means is subject to ongoing debate.
For the most part, people of faith have always understood that we can’t expect those who don’t share our beliefs to live by all of our precepts. But in the United States, much of what we consider right and wrong comes from our Judeo-Christian heritage. The question becomes, how much should moral values influence law and politics? Most laws concerning consensual sexual relationships between adults have gone by the wayside, thanks to privacy concerns. Yet even today, divorce laws and child support laws reflect society’s values about what is fair and right. So does the American Disabilities Act.
In every generation, there are legal and moral issues that provoke profound disagreements among citizens. For a brave few, there comes a time when a moral issue becomes inescapable. Those who cry out the loudest are often people of faith. The challenge comes during the time when some people see a serious moral issue and others don’t. There was a time when segregation and child labor were normal. When a particular group is oppressed, it’s tempting to just go along quietly. The argument is always some version of “it’s not that bad,” or “they deserve it” or even “everyone is better off this way.” Another popular argument against those who speak out is, “you’re trying to force your religion on us.” But where would we be today if Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t think his faith should affect his politics? King was jailed, reviled and killed for daring to assert that his black children should have the same freedoms and opportunities as white children, because his faith told him it was true.
We have seen the powerful impact of people of faith in my hometown of Dallas in the aftermath of the July 7 police shootings. Police Chief David Brown’s “bedrock” faith, which “doesn’t compartmentalize his professional and personal life,” gave him the strength and courage to lead a grieving city toward healing and away from violence. This isn’t a liberal or conservative issue. People on both sides of the aisle can be motivated by their faith.
Of course, I can’t deny that evil has also been done in the name of religion. But I’m not talking about the violent. I am inspired by the people who have the courage to live their convictions in public, to keep questioning the status quo and who work to bring an end to injustices in our midst. Whether it is Dallas Police Chief David Brown talking about societal conditions that lead to violence, or Abby Johnson or David Daleiden speaking about the secret practices of abortion providers, we should listen. Those voices might just be the canary in the coal mine.
Over 30 years ago, I wrote an academic paper about how the Cherokee Indians’ criminal justice system evolved from a clan-based revenge system, or “blood feud”, to one of trial by jury. In a primitive, clan-based system, justice occurs when anyone of your clan is punished for a crime against someone in my clan. The identity of the perpetrator does not really matter as long as someone from his clan is punished. Today, we can see the horrible consequences of tribalism in places like Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
The tragic events of last week seem to threaten a return to this kind of “justice”, even here in the United States. As Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck said last Friday, “We have broken into tribes. All of a sudden it becomes more important who your parents are, what the color of your skin is, than whether you are an American.” I see this attitude in those who trivialize the Black Lives Matter movement and also in those who vilify all police. Hearts harden as each side dehumanizes the other. Name-calling, stereotyping, and labeling are running rampant and have been encouraged and modeled by a major presidential candidate. How do we make it stop?
As people harden into their own positions and perspective, it becomes more and more difficult to break through conflict into empathy and understanding. But there is one method that has a power all its own: the power of a story.
In the Bible, the book of Samuel tells the story of King David, a man with hundreds of wives and concubines, who murdered one of his soldiers in order to cover up an affair with the soldier’s wife. The prophet Nathan did not confront David directly, but instead told a story about a man with hundreds of sheep who stole and slaughtered a poor family’s solitary lamb. The story enraged King David, until Nathan said to him, “You are the man!” David’s eyes were opened, and suddenly he repented and understood the perspective of the man he had murdered.
Another story that changed hearts is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852. The novel’s compelling portrayal of the human cost of slavery finally awoke the nation’s conscience in a way that speeches and rallies had failed to do. Regardless of the book’s flaws, its message of compassion broke through hardened hearts and created the motivation the country needed to end the scourge of slavery.
As I have struggled to process the horrible events here in Dallas and across the country, I have been angered by the evil, foolishness, and recklessness that have led to loss of life. Even more frightening to me, though, is the hardening of our hearts and the descent into tribalism. It can only lead to more violence. I beg of you, listen to the stories of those who aren’t your tribe. Imagine what it’s like to be the parent of a black teenager like Trayvon Martin, who was shot while returning from a trip to 7-Eleven. Imagine what it’s like to be a police officer answering a domestic violence call where an armed man is threatening a woman and her children. Watch movies that show other people’s perspective, like Spike Lee’s award-winning Do the Right Thing. We have known for some time that reading literary fiction and watching movies can help people increase their empathy, so do it. After what has happened in this July of 2016, we should be shaken. This is an opportunity to break out of our tribalism, soften our hardened hearts, and try to see another’s perspective. An American Jewish Army Psychiatrist, Capt. Gilbert, who interviewed Nazi war criminals, said it best: “Evil is a lack of empathy, a total incapacity to feel with their fellow man.” In these evil times, let us listen to each other’s stories, so that we might find a way to feel for one another.
A version of this appears in the July 13, 2016 Dallas Morning News.
Last month I had the joyful experience of seeing my second daughter graduate from college, with a job offer in hand. My oldest is a married, employed college graduate and my youngest just finished his freshman year of college, so I’m pretty much finished with “raising children.” Imagine my delight when one of them told me recently that I’m pretty good at this parenting thing. (Apparently they have forgotten or at least forgiven a few of my earlier disastrous efforts). Immediately, I started fantasizing about how different the world might be if I had been given the opportunity to parent some other people (a certain presidential candidate comes to mind.) Just imagine if I could go back in time and share a few of my life principles:
- Don’t call people names. This is basic. I don’t care if they “deserve” it. Our society seems to have reached a new low where name-calling is acceptable in all sorts of venues, from online posts and comments to television and radio. Set an example for others by showing everyone respect.
- Don’t use any language that contributes to the ugliness in the world. I realize that cursing is utterly commonplace these days, but if you think about what most curse words mean, they are either scatological, racist, or misogynistic, and are clearly intended to hurt and insult. I’m sure many people would call me old-fashioned and naïve, but I believe language matters. (Also, don’t judge me on this, I came by it naturally. My mother was once offended when a nurse used the word “poop” in her presence.)
- Don’t make fun of people because of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, weight, looks, or even their clothes or their hair. You can disagree with people’s choices and behavior, but mocking and disrespect are unkind and wrong, especially if it’s about something a person can’t change.
- Have a little humility. Be willing to listen to other people’s point of view –most issues are more complicated than you realize. Before reacting, make sure you have all the facts. For example, if you are pro-choice, do you know how many women are pressured into having abortions, and exactly how abortion procedures are performed? If you don’t like transgender people, do you know anything about gender dysphoria? Do you know the rates of murder and suicide among transgender people? Be willing to learn something new. We all have to live together, and a little understanding can go a long way.
These are just a few of my most basic beliefs and values. As a Catholic Christian, I believe that every human being is created in the Imago Dei (the image of God) and therefore has inherent value. This means everyone. It doesn’t matter if it’s the multi-pierced, tattooed kid who waits on you at Starbucks, the liberal atheist co-worker, the cranky conservative neighbor, the disabled, the prisoner, the elderly nursing home patient, or the unborn. Every human being is worthy of being treated with dignity and respect, including those we disagree with. Of course, our family, like everyone else’s, doesn’t always live up to these principles, but I’m not going to quit trying. We can make the world a better place if we do.
A version of this piece appeared in the Miami Herald on June 14, 2016.
In case you haven’t heard, last week another man who claims to be pro-life made an incredibly insensitive and stupid comment. Although Donald Trump has since reversed his position, he indicated that women who obtain abortions should probably go to jail. This ridiculous statement is right up there with former Missouri Senator Todd Akin’s claim that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant.
Unfortunately, men like Donald Trump and Todd Akin help perpetuate one of the abortion debate’s greatest myths: that pro-life supporters are just a bunch of old white men who want to control women’s bodies and keep them down. But if you take a close look at the leadership of the pro-life community, you’ll find a large number of extraordinary women. Let’s start with Dr. Alveda King, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King is the Director for African-American Outreach for two pro-life organizations, Priests for Life and Gospel of Life Ministries. Another prominent pro-life leader is Abby Johnson, a former award-winning Clinic Director for Planned Parenthood. (Other prominent pro-life women leaders include Dr. Peggy Hartshorn, Chairman of Heartbeat International, Kristan Hawkins, President of Students for Life, Marjorie Dannenfelser, President of the Susan B. Anthony List, and Serrin Foster, President of Feminists for Life, to name just a few.) Dr. King and Abby Johnson both acknowledge and regret their own past abortions — they are speaking from experience. So my first tip for pro-life men is, whenever possible, let women take the lead when talking to other women about pro-life issues. Women are uniquely positioned to understand what other women with crisis pregnancies are going through.
My second tip for pro-life men is, offer support, rather than criticism, for women facing crisis pregnancies. Criticizing women who are already under stress with an unexpected pregnancy comes across as arrogant and insensitive. The most dedicated people in the pro-life movement have incredible compassion for women experiencing unexpected pregnancies, and only seek to help them. Up to three-fourths of women who seek abortions do so because they lack the financial means to support a baby, or because they believe having the baby will disrupt their education or career. Crisis pregnancy centers such as the White Rose, the Pregnancy Resource Center and Involved for Life offer adoption referral services, childbirth and parenting classes, and material help such as diapers, formula, and clothing. Feminists for Life works to bring day care centers to college campuses so that women don’t have to choose between completing their education and having their child. There are so many pro-life organizations where your money can make a difference. Finally, if you want to support women in crisis pregnancies, don’t make harsh cuts to government programs such as WIC and food stamps that provide a safety net for poor single mothers. Pro-life men, please put your money where your mouth is on this issue.
My last tip for pro-life men is to promote a culture of responsible fatherhood. Studies show that women who believe they cannot rely on their partner to help care for a child are more likely to have abortions. Not only that, some studies indicate that up to 70 percent of men facing a partner’s unexpected pregnancy will pressure her to obtain an abortion. The widespread use of birth control, the availability of abortion, and changing cultural expectations about premarital sex have allowed men to take the position that a crisis pregnancy is strictly the woman’s problem. Men can speak to other men about making responsible choices to avoid unexpected pregnancies and about stepping up to provide support when their partner does become pregnant.
Of course, I know many pro-life men who are extremely compassionate, and who offer support to women in crisis pregnancies by their actions as well as their words. And women undoubtedly bear their share of responsibility when an unexpected pregnancy occurs. But if you claim to be a pro-life man, yet seem to only offer criticism to women in crisis, don’t expect anyone to listen.
A version of this piece appeared in the Dallas Morning News on April 4, 2016, as well as in the Miami Herald, the Burlington Hawkeye, and several other newspapers.
Last week, at the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis said that the Church must extend “a sincere invitation to young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family.” His message gave me hope. The last few months I have been surprised by the negative books and news stories about modern dating culture and the supposed death of monogamy. In his book, Modern Romance, popular comedian Aziz Ansari bemoans the effect technology and dating apps have had on romantic relationships. With so many options out there, and with more people communicating by text, people quickly move from one partner to another, rarely taking time to really get to know another person. Ansari points out that dating sites such as Match.com and okCupid have helped create the illusion that there is one perfect soul mate out there for everyone. With so many options available, people seeking partners have little patience to invest in any one person if they don’t appear to fit the “perfect profile” of the imagined “One.” Similarly, the combination of the sexual revolution and apps like Tinder has made it unbelievably easy to find willing sexual partners. Not surprisingly, however, even ultra-hip Vanity Fair admits how unsatisfying these shallow relationships tend to be. In September’s issue one young man compared Tinder to porn use: “People are gorging. That’s why it’s not intimate.”
Even though his own parents remain happily married, Ansari also questions whether monogamy is realistic in today’s world, and just last week the cover of Time magazine asked, “Is Monogamy Over?” Thankfully, the lead psychologist quoted by Time said no, noting that although monogamy isn’t “natural” or easy, “it does offer the benefit of biparental care. . . . And because human children need so much parental assistance, protection and investment, humans, perhaps more than any other animal, especially benefit from monogamy.”
I understand that in today’s culture, it’s definitely harder to sell the concept of faithful, lifelong marriage. Many people have experienced the pain of divorce, or have grown up with parents who never married. The ease of casual hook-ups, combined with the fear of commitment, has caused many younger people to shy away from the altar.
To all those who see no point in getting married, I say, don’t be afraid! Most worthwhile things in life are pretty scary at the start, and take a lot of effort. If you have been lucky enough to know an older couple who made it “until death do us part” with a happy marriage, you can begin to understand the benefits. There’s nothing like a lifelong friend who loves you. Families also benefit from having a stable, loving couple as their foundation. A married couple’s lessons of perseverance, adaptation and forgiveness learned over many years together point the way for future generations and give them hope.
I hope and pray that the next generation doesn’t give up on lifelong love. To those who wonder how it can be done, I say, start with becoming the kind of person who would make an excellent husband or wife. One man I know, whose parents’ marriage did not survive, spent his entire engagement reading books about how to be a good husband, so he would be better prepared for his marriage. Seek spiritual guidance in becoming the right person as well as finding the right person. Second, spend time around older couples who have made their marriage a success, and learn from them. Finally, if you are racing from one shallow relationship to another, stop. As happily married Paul Newman once pointed out, “Why go out for hamburger when I can have steak at home?” Today’s “Tinder diet” is worse than that – it’s like living on Cheetos and ramen noodles. If you hope to find a person to share your life with, don’t fill your life with junk relationships – start exercising healthy habits now by spending time with worthwhile people and getting to know them before becoming involved. You’re much more likely to find love that way.
This summer, I was given the gift of attending a beautiful wedding. Underneath the floral arch, with rain on the windows behind them, the bride and groom said their vows to one another. The ceremony included tears and laughter, stories and promises, and timeless words from the Book of Common Prayer:
The union of husband and wife in heart, body and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given to one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.
Marriage does offer joy, help and comfort, as well as challenges, and it is worth it. Lastly, it is important to know that faithful love cannot be sustained by our own power. Along with the congregation, I bowed my head as the priest prayed for the couple:
O gracious and everliving God, you have created us male and female in your image: Look mercifully upon this man and this woman who come to you seeking your blessing, and assist them with your grace, that with true fidelity and steadfast love they may honor and keep the promises and vows they make.
This year, our family was traveling on the Feast of the Holy Family (for Catholics, this occurs on the Sunday after Christmas), and for the first time in many years, I was not in church that day. I was sad to miss this special mass because it’s always one of my favorites. The timing is almost perfect, usually coming just a few days after Christmas, when the excitement is over, the house is a mess, and we’ve had LOTS of time with those we love. Time with all of our loved ones is precious, especially as parents get older, teenagers go off to college, and young adults move away for their first jobs. But sometimes, this time of year, it doesn’t feel that way – we’ve had all the family we can stand. Usually, we’ve had to spend time with at least one relative whose view of the world is dramatically opposed to our own, or whose habits drive us crazy. That’s why remembering the value of family now is more important than ever.
In a recent New York Times column, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz noted that there is a drop in Google searches for “divorce” during the days leading up to Christmas and a significant rise in the 10 days after Christmas. He states, “What explains the post-Christmas surge of interest in divorce? Google searches for other terms help make that clear. First, Christmas allows for some reflection about family life. Searches for “dysfunctional family” reach their highest point every year around Christmas. Searches that include the word “hate” and a family member — “mom,” “dad,” “husband” or “wife,” for example — also rise on and around Christmas.”
How sad! With old wounds reopened, and new ones inflicted, how easy it is to fill your heart with bitterness and anger! That’s why the special readings from the Feast of the Holy Family always comfort and encourage me. From St. Paul, we hear, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you.” And from Sirach (an Apocryphal book of the Bible recognized by Catholics), “My child, help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives; even if his mind fails, be patient with him; because you have all your faculties do not despise him.”
As a parent, I have been surprised to learn that many of my children’s memories of their childhood are quite different from my own. Another mom recently told me how her own children remembered things she had said or done to hurt them that she doesn’t remember at all, or that she felt were taken out of context. We all hurt each other, and as we get older, we long for others to offer forgiveness and mercy for the times we have hurt them.
With the New Year approaching, let’s offer mercy and forgiveness to one another. Of course, I know there are families where abuse is occurring, and no one should condemn those who have had to separate or divorce for that reason. In many cases, though, whether it is between a husband and wife, parents and children, siblings, in-laws or other relatives, mercy and forgiveness is possible, even though it might be hard.
To quote the great St. John Paul II, “The family is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love. To the family is entrusted the task of striving, first and foremost, to unleash the forces of good.” As the year ends and a new one begins, let us stay of the side of love.