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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Dear Life: Stories and A Brief Discussion About Logical Fallacies

I was not really surprised by what he was saying. A lot of people felt that way. Especially men. There was a quantity of things that men hated. Or had no use for, as they said. And that was exactly right. They had no use for it, so they hated it. Maybe it was the same way I felt about algebra- I doubted very much that I would ever find any use for it. But I didn't go so far as to want it wiped off the face of the earth for that reason. - Alice Munro, Dear Life: Stories

Do you like to win arguments? If you're writing this you do. If you're writing this it's possible that there's what feels like a bottomless hole in your soul that demands to be filled with the approval of your peers. If that approval is impossible, a reasonable substitute would be to prove dominance in the rhetorical battlefield of words. Both of these tactics are like filling a hole with balloons. It might seem pretty full for a while, but in the end you've got the same sized hole filled with colorful but useless bits of rubber and the dead birds they've choked.

The dead birds in this analogy could be friendships, or relationships with family, or just plain old dead birds because the loftiness of your arguments are so insufferable that they poison the air. Those little coughs you hear when it's quiet? That's on you. Remember that next time, bird killer.

I'm still talking to myself, by the way, in case you were looking at the screen with a pained expression and mouthing the word "me?" as a solitary tear rolls down your cheek. That's what this blog is actually. If you listen in and enjoy it, tell your friend or share it on facebook or instagram or twitter or snapchat or just write down the URL on a piece of paper and put it in a bottle and send it off to sea and by sea I mean the garbage can which is at this point one in the same. Wipe that tear, dear reader. Then dry your hand because if your fingers are wet you won't be able to share this post on your smartphone.

Maybe one of those times you've been arguing and someone has told you what logical fallacy you've committed. This is adorable and should be viewed as such. "Fallacy!" your opponent shouts through their keyboard as if they've just arrived panting from the steps of the Acropolis while learning at the feet of Socrates, "That is the *Latin words that I looked up on Wikipedia* fallacy! You lose."

The loser in this case, as was the case in every theater showing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice this year, are both the participants and the audience. Here's why: unless you're in a sanctioned debate, nobody cares about your fallacies. You come across not as the victor on the crowd's shoulders, but as the guy on the playground ball court trying to call illegal defense. You know the guy. He always carries around his basketball goggles in his pocket just in case. Hey Kareem? We got it. You played in high school. I'm sorry your life has never again lived up to those glory days but I'm not sorry that I have to be the one to break it to you.

Listen, logical fallacies are bad. You should avoid them. They mean your argument is weak and you're using manipulation instead of solid reasoning. You should also avoid being in the lane for three seconds, but on a blacktop court nobody's going to applaud you for calling someone else on it. Often sports fans want to blame a single bad call on the outcome of an entire game, not realizing that the losing team usually put themselves in that spot with countless other missteps.

What are some of these fallacies, you ask? Well let's consider Kronk's shoulder angel and devil in The Emperor's New Groove.

Did you catch the fallacies? There's an ad hominem in there, more specifically the "poisoning the well" subversion. According to Wikipedia (the ultimate in argument non-settlers), this is "a type of ad hominem where adverse information about a target is presented with the intention of discrediting everything that the target person says." By making fun of the harp and the robe, Shoulder Devil distracts Kronk from the actual debate, instead attacking the target's credibility.

He also finishes up with an Appeal to Authority, specifically Appeal to Accomplishment, "where an assertion is deemed true or false based on the accomplishments of the proposer" with that admittedly sick one-handed handstand.

The killer, though, the one that makes me crazy, is the one where Shoulder Devil tells Kronk what Shoulder Angel is trying to do. This is the Straw Man argument. Instead of letting his opponent make a point, Shoulder Devil instead tells Kronk what Shoulder Angel is really trying to do, then he presents his witty rejoinder. The Shoulder Angel isn't advocating the saving of a life, he's just being boring. Nobody likes being bored!

These should all sound very familiar this year.

Of all the fallacies, this is one of the easiest to recognize and most delightful to imagine. It's also one of the most eagerly used by both sides of virtually every argument. I'm told that liberals don't really care about endangered species when they raise the alarm about climate change. That's what they want you to think. Instead, they want to control us by scaring the populace about the harmless specter of end-of-the-world calamities in order to tighten that grip of government on the stringy necks of the patriots. 

Congratulations. You have fabricated a roughly human-shaped doppelganger out of straw and grandma's old bloomers that roughly resembles your opponent and thrown it into the field of play. Let's regard it, you say, before we set it on fire. Look at how quickly it burns! What a poorly constructed argument that was definitely my opponent's creation and not my own.

I get it. It's easier to tie up decades of debate into a little bow that feeds an already latent distrust of government conspiracy than confront the literal thousands of scientists and their combined tens of thousands of years of experience. It's also mild sauce. It's the packet of sauce you put on a newborn baby's tacos at Taco Bell while happily devouring the Fire Sauce of well-reasoned debate (don't feed your newborn tacos). If there's one rule I cannot stress enough, it's this: don't bring mild sauce to an asada. Trust me on this one.

It's equally easy to convince yourself that pro-life conservatives don't really care about babies, they just don't want women to have sex. But who's going to have sex with the conservatives, you scream in a megaphone in front of their kids while topless but tastefully covered with your dreadlocks, if not these same women? Wow, good point. I can't imagine why I would have to talk with someone who disagreed with me now that I have such a solid knowledge of their entire philosophy. 

You don't have to agree. You can certainly stand up for your opinion. You can disagree with someone and still have a respect for what they're trying to say, is all I'm saying. It's not popular, but it's possible.

Here's the thing. Anytime someone wants to tell you what the other side is arguing while simultaneously telling you to avoid hearing that argument from the source is engaging in all of the funny words Antonin Scalia liked to use in his flowery dissents. Applesauce! Flim-flam! Jiggery Pokery! Some Latin Words I Found on Wikipedia!

Whether it's Rush Limbaugh telling you, "The feminazis want you to think that..." or your favorite podcaster says, "I'm going to break down the conservative agenda for you," you guys need to make like Joseph son of Jacob and run. Forming your political opinion based on what someone else is telling you that someone else believes is like making fun of a movie you haven't seen based only on your friend who hasn't seen it either, but read on the internet that it's bad. Avoiding the movie is one thing, we've all got stuff to do and classic video game systems to collect (send me yours). Criticizing someone else for liking it? That's some real nonsense.

This yard sale find: not nonsense
You can't win an argument without thoroughly knowing your opponent's position. And you can't understand their position through third-hand resources. That's when you get in situations where people who don't know each other start out their sweet internet clapback with the words "typical (liberal/conservative)" and then proceed to tell you your life story. And that's why we should never type things and put them on the internet.

I read Dear Life: Stories, by Alice Munro, by the way. In my attempt to research it for this blog, I came across an article telling me that it's actually bad and I only liked it because I was so enraptured by Munro's reputation. I had Pulitzer blindness. It happens to the best of us. Funny thing is I didn't know she'd won a Pulitzer before I read it. Her name was on a list I keep on my phone and I'll be honest, a lot of times I don't remember why those names are on that list. You don't know me, anonymous blogger. Even I don't know me, blogger-nicknamed-Howie.

Again, you don't like the story, that's fine. You can say that without having to create a narrative for why someone else did and why they're wrong. In the quote at the top of this post the narrator doesn't have much use for algebra. She has no problem with it existing, though. She doesn't criticize the fact that someone else loves it and would marry algebra if it were legal, (but if it were legal to marry algebra what next, a man marrying soil science (slippery slope fallacy)?!), she just shrugs and says "not for me."

Here's a choose-your-own adventure right here in this blog. If you would rather read a mean review of a story that presents a straw-man version of the author before tearing it down, go here and then go to ENDING 1. If you want to read a short story and decide for yourself, click here and after reading, go to ENDING 2. (The actual story being criticized is behind a pay wall, so you can't compare them straight across unless you get the book, but the critique is about the author in general, and not just the story.)

Speaking of endings, it's funny that short stories don't have them sometimes. Munro's generally do, though. These are very small and intimate character portraits. There are some mid-life crisis type stories of strait-laced folks acting out for the first time. Young moms in the 60s who are so constrained by culture that even reading a "real novel" would be frowned upon. There are some very bad decisions and some very lovely people. Some of the stories are that crackerjack twist ending type you read in English class, but most of them are the ones that you mull over for a while afterwards, which are good, too.

Each story is based around some kind of pivotal meeting. Each connection sends ripples throughout the lives of the characters. Sometimes we see decades pass, sometimes it's just an afternoon. If I have one quibble it's how many of these stories revolve around infidelity. I'm not saying it's not a compelling topic that resonates with a lot of people, but I do think it's a little lazy. There are many more ways to introduce complexity and shades of gray to a character. But aside from that gripe, this is good stuff.

Munro is a good writer, and it's not just because she has a Pulitzer. Actually, usually it's the other way 'round. Anyway, speaking of things that have no ending.