Sunday, November 22, 2015

The uses of "connected with" and evidence

The best thing about having a humanities degree is that it trained me in how to argue, and especially how to spot weak arguments.  (The ability to see through stupid arguments explains the hostility some politicians and pundits have toward the humanities.  If more people could do this, those guys would have to get a real job.)  One particularly bad one I've seen often is the assertion that some person or another is "connected" with some bad thing or another.  Syrian refugees are "connected" to Daesh or al Qaeda.  Obama is "connected" to the Weathermen.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was "connected" to the Nazis.  The evidence supporting the connection varies, but the writer asserts a connection between Random Terrible Thing and whatever person the writer wants to discredit.  The writer isn't required to provide her evidence or state any arguments against any particular policy because the connection to random terrible thing is enough to spoil anything the person with Random Terrible Connection advocates.

Let's walk through a case study: I am connected to Charles Whitman, the guy who held the title for death toll in a school shooting for many years.  I graduated from UT Austin; Whitman attended UT Austin.  I used to work with a guy who was actually on campus during the shooting and won a bet that he couldn't run across the street and make a call from a phone booth -- for those under 40, use Google -- and run back to the dorm without getting shot.  Even more persuasive, my husband's uncle was a Justice of the Peace for that precinct in 1966 and signed the death certificates for the victims and for Whitman himself.  Thus, I am 'connected' to Charles Whitman.

Of course, these connections don't prove anything.  I had turned three years old about a month before Whitman's rampage.  I had nothing whatsoever to do with this particular tragedy other than be born before it happened.  It is possible, however, to type "Karen Cox has connections to Charles Whitman" and not be a complete filthy liar.  Thus, assertions of connections is a common rhetorical technique in mendacious and tenacious arguments.

Let's follow a real-world example, that of Benedict XVI.  Now, I have zero use for pretty much any Pope.  I'm a proud and committed Protestant and will happily explain why a belief in transubstantiation is wrong and idolatrous, should any of you be foolish enough to ask.  That said, I know that Nazi Pope assertions were, to use the technical term, bullshit.  Joseph Ratzinger joined the Hitler Youth when he was a teenager in Germany.  So far, okay.  Supporting the conclusion that Ratzinger was a Nazi and therefore all of his opinions were terrible, however, requires ignoring the other facts about being a teenager in Nazi Germany, such as refusing to join meant at the very least causing his family a great deal of pain, up to and including imprisonment.  It also meant getting sent to the Eastern Front for little Josephchen.  Expecting a teenager to risk his and his family's lives just to make a point many years later is absurd.  Yes, Ratzinger was a member of a Nazi youth organization.  He probably heard many antisemitic speeches and read a lot of propaganda.  Those facts are in no way relevant to whether or not the Catholic Church should recognize second marriages or punish dissident theologians.

To use an example from Team Red, many people claim President Obama is somehow a protege of the Weather Underground -- the radicals, not the weather website -- because he and Bill Ayers both lived in the same neighborhood in Chicago.  Bill Ayers was actually involved a couple of unsuccessful bomb plots, and wrote an autobiography making, in my opinion, an unsuccessful effort to justify his actions.  He's a genuine radical, with at best a checkered legacy.  All of his violent acts, however, occurred before 1970.  He's been a boringly conventional rich guy with leftist opinions since then.  President Obama was nine years old in 1970, and living in, I think, Indonesia.  He was not at the '68 Democratic convention.  Obama may agree with Ayers on some things -- or not -- but their connection doesn't prove anything.

My point is not to defend Obamacare or the exclusion of divorced and remarried people from Catholic Communion.  If I wanted to do that, I would, for example, discuss the cost of medication and the effect on poor people of delayed or denied care, or discuss the doctrine of the sacraments and the effect of changing that doctrine.  My point is to demonstrate a particularly terrible rhetorical device, and to encourage everyone to check the evidence before repeating that Facebook or Tumblr post or forwarding that Tweet or email.  During the next election year, there will be as many opinions about candidates or policies presented as their are people with an Internet connection.  Those opinions stand or fall on the evidence presented to support them, not on what clubs the people on either side joined when they were kids or whether one person recognized another at cocktail parties.  Be careful!

1 comment:

Jeff Lipton said...

It sounds like you're saying "Pope Benedict was a Nazi [fairly irrefutable] but it doesn't count because of reasons." That's nowhere near the same as you and Mr Whitman or Obama and Mr Ayers.