Misusing the Awesome Power of Latin, and Other Rhetorical Abuses: Part Two of a Primer.

I hope, gentle reader, that you have found strength and confidence in the lesson of part one: dominus vobiscum does not Thomas Aquinas make.

The Awesome Power of Latin can be appropriated by those who have little idea of what they’re talking, or whose intellectual and personal bent is most definitely not awesome.*

Another more amorphous but related rhetorical abuse is the habit of using or demanding bigger tools than necessary, either as the lame use crutches or as an octopus uses ink.

This pernicious practice takes two forms.

 

1. Misapplying informal fallacies by treating them as something between a litmus test and a tiger trap.

This happened recently in an old thread. I’m not linking to it because I don’t want to shame the criminal in question, but it really is good example.

 

Me: Women, you don’t have to put up with this crap. Go you!

Him: Yes you do, because A.

Me: Yeah, A doesn’t really override B, C, and D

Him: But you haven’t defined your terms! QUESTION BEGGING.

 

Now, if the conversation had gone like this

 

Me: Women, you don’t have to put up with this crap. Go you!

Him: Yes you do, because it’s not really crap–it’s fully compatible with B, C, and D.

Me: But how can you trample on B, C, and, D!!

 

I could understand his point.

But what actually happened was that I wrote a basically exhortatory post, and he wanted to argue a point. When I found his arguments unconvincing, he introduced a new set of points, suggested, via QUESTION BEGGING, that they had been the subject of the argument all along, then demanded I address them.

Well, as Bertie Wooster says. I mean to say. I mean, dash it all, eh what, dash it?

But, because he used a big tool, the very official informal fallacy buzzword QUESTION BEGGING, which, in my opinion, solely by virtue of its association with AD HOMINEM and the Awesome Power of Latin, rings with the unmistakable clang of authority, I almost bought it for a minute.

Informal fallacy buzzwords are a great way to put people on an unnecessary defensive and make the argument easier to control. I’m sure you won’t use them this way. Why would you want to do your friends and comrades in this vale of tears like that?

But there are two lessons to take from this sordid tale.

 

You needn’t have every argument with everyone who asks.

My aforementioned friend implied that my failure to define each and all of my terms was a fatal flaw in reasoning.

But I says to him, I says: buddy, if I have to define “discretion” or “intimacy” before we can have an argument about something else, I don’t think we have enough in common semantically or affectively to make this hand-holding worth my while.

You really don’t have to engage. And if someone engages you argumentatively, and then aggressively tries to make you do all the heavy lifting, yeah.

And remember, there are plenty of people who know better than they’re arguing, but like baiting earnestness or defending nastiness for fun. Feel free to shut that down.

It’s easy to get suckered by the unmistakable clang of authority.

Informal fallacies feel like a powerful indictment–people who call them out sound like they’re equipped with infallible beeping wrongness detectors.

But mostly, they’re just shortcuts that may or may not be judicious, given the context. Two believing Catholics arguing from the authority of the bishops is perfectly valid. Appealing to the authority of a well-respected scientist in his own field is a pretty safe bet. Citing your neighbor’s ex-husband on questions of medieval orthography is probably pretty dumb.

Nobody, except maybe logical positivists and high school debate teams, and there is a reason those people never get laid**, is having arguments in abstraction, defining every term and questioning every premise; disputes takes place in a socio-intellectual context where some questions are settled, some premises taken for granted, many terms understood.

The power of informal fallacies is much greater than their applicability, so stay cool and suspicious if someone takes one out and and tries to whack you with it.

All of this brings us to the second common incarnation of our amorphous rhetorical abuse.

 

2. Moving the discussion to a higher level than necessary.

Sometimes when we are argue, we escalate the example in order to dig out the principle at work. See Darwin’s post on banned book week.

 

Someone Who Read Ray Bradbury Once: We should never ban books! That’s evil!

Darwin: Really? So you’d have a problem with your library declining to shelve racist books?

 

Now, maybe Little Black Sambo is, in fact, a hill SWRRBO is willing to die on! But usually it’s not, and so we learn that they’re not absolutely opposed to banning books on principle.

But sometimes we move the discussion to a higher level than necessary in order to obscure, disorient, and de-rail. See the “define your terms!” fiasco above. See also Bill Clinton and what is is. See this (paraphrased) gem I found on facebook the other day:

 

A: You can’t say a woman is raped if she’s just lying there not fighting back.

B: So you just assume consent as the default, without either mutual physical participation or verbal negotiation?

C: What is consent anyway? How does the structure of consent originate in the mind? Is a woman really harmed if her consent is violated? Or is it just knowing her consent is violated? Until we answer these important questions, I’m afraid we can’t proceed further!

 

These question are important, and in another context might be totally unexceptionable. But in this context, and most:

 

Gentle reader, now that I have dragged you along my rambles through all the multifarious perversities of internet and other kinds of argument, here is the good news: most people are not like this.

Most people know intuitively that Latin and other big tools must be used for good (even if we all fail sometimes) and many people really engage you in order to defend or discover the truth. These people will be pleasant, or at least thought-provoking, comrades in arms, whether they agree with you or not.

But when the minority does show up, inflamed from their freshman logic class or crippled in the field of basic relating, they will make themselves very loud, and you can spend a lot of time running in circles after them.

Don’t run after the ignorant armies. Instead, shut your computer, fix yourself a martini, and maybe go read some lubricious Latin poetry. When you are ready to come back to the internet, you are welcome to come hang out here, where I will be posting Bjork videos and trolling the trolls.

 

*Like the Emperor Nero, or that guy who thinks that every time you wear a two-piece, God punts a baby angel.

**Invective

 

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