Three years ago I wrote a post about six popular arguments that should be less persuasive than they often are.
1. The Big Nasty. One of the best ways to discredit your opponent is to give his position a nasty sounding name.
2. The Third Way. That Isn’t. The problem is when people argue for a third way like it’s the only sane option between two crazy extremes.
3. Categorize and Conquer. Once you’ve assigned the categories you’ve already given the strong impression that no one view is more correct than another. You sit above the whole mess and can see the parts of a larger whole.
4. Preemptive Strikes. This approach doesn’t anticipate arguments, it merely tries to preempt them by defining would-be opponents in unflattering terms.
5. Affirm Then Deny. In this approach you simply say one thing and then say the opposite. “I’m not saying you’re fat, I’m just saying your grossly overweight.”
6. We’ve Been Wrong, So You Are Wrong. The argument usually goes like this: “I can’t believe you are holding to these outdated beliefs. Sure, you think the Bible is on your side, but Christians used to think the sun went around the earth, and Christians used to defend slavery from the Bible.”
If you traffic the blogosphere, or just scroll down Hootsuite or your Facebook page, you will find these arguments in abundance. And they very often carry the day. But on closer inspection, the reasoning is often much less than meets the eye.
Like these four other arguments, which, when combined with the original give us an even ten.
7. One Story to Rule Them All. People love stories. People are moved by stories. There’s nothing wrong with that. Conservatives probably need to improve in their ability to make their ideas powerful through the use of stories. But just because someone has a gut-wrenching story does not mean the position they are advocating is morally praiseworthy. We see this kind of argument all the time. If the Democrats want to pass Obamacare, they will tell the story of some sorry soul who can’t get healthcare because he inherited a tragic condition. And if the Republicans want to overturn Obamacare, they will tell the story of a sad family who lost their favorite doctor and now can’t afford their old health plan. We respond to these stories and think, “That’s terrible. That’s not fair. Something must be done to help these people!” That’s a fine reaction, but it doesn’t mean the proposed plan will be effective or prudent.
Public policy always deals in tradeoffs, so if we are going to do more than feel knee-jerk sympathy for people we must learn to think beyond stage one (as Thomas Sowell calls it). This is especially true when debating economic policies or budget proposals. If the government spends a trillion dollars, somebody is going to helped by that. There will be stories to tell. The money isn’t just flushed down the toilet (although, you never know). Likewise, if funding is cut for something, someone will be hurt. With 300 million people in the country, someone is bound to be adversely affected by almost every policy decision. We have to see that there are always tradeoffs. Money doesn’t grow on trees. You can’t print it without negative ramifications either. We have to look at the whole picture and not just the one story that brings a tear to our eye.
8. Unequal Stats Equal Discrimination. This argument is tricky because there may be merit to it, but by itself it doesn’t prove anything. It’s an easy argument to make and convincing to many people, but life is more complicated to expect that every field, every profession, every school, every conference, every department, every political body, every denominational committee, and every industry will equally represented by across the spectrum of gender, race, sexual preference, and religious belief. We tend to be highly selective in using the unequal representation argument, employing it when our issue is at stake and ignoring it in most of our day to day lives.
9. Some People With Your Beliefs Are Stupid. Human beings are fallible. We don’t live up to our ideals. Our hearts can find a way to twist any good idea, act in utterly inconsistent ways, and use the best of beliefs to justify the worst of behavior. Just like meeting one really nice Nazi family man does not make The Final Solution a good idea, so meeting one nutty homeschool dad does not make all of conservative Christianity a joke. If Jesus had Judas, we are bound to have some undesirables in our camps too.
10. We Feel Bad So Your Arguments Must Be Bad. Again, like most of these weak arguments, there is something important to consider. As Christians, we do care about others and don’t want to hurt people. But some people are easily hurtable. In fact, some people are looking for every opportunity to be offended, aghast, appalled, outraged, and generally put out. Can you imagine if Jesus gave in to the professional offense-takers in his day? He would have shut down his ministry after a couple weeks. Rational discourse in our day has been hijacked by those who operate with the less than cogent, but incredibly powerful, philosophical principle: I hurt, therefore I am right.
More and more, I’m convinced that one of the chief apologetic aims in our day is to get people to think. An introductory course on logic could really serve the cause of the gospel among younger generations.
What bad arguments do you run into over and over?