Or: How ignoring the rules of logic will make people ignore *you*
I’m generally open to arguing politics with anyone, but I’ve come to believe, from repeated exposure, that Trumpists are not good faith arguers. In fact, I’ve always prided myself on being open to friendship with people of all political orientations. And this makes sense, because over my lifetime I’ve evolved across the political spectrum and have enjoyed my political conversations along the way (as opposed to the old chestnut about growing more conservative as one grows older, I was a 16-year-old libertarian and find myself getting more and more critical of the status quo as I progress through middle-age). I understand what is attractive about almost all political positions (except social conservatism…that’s just bigotry [mostly] and I really don’t get that). So, because throughout my life I’ve been a person of good faith seeking truth, I treat everyone else as if they bring the same spirit to conversations.
On the other hand, I don’t argue with people who don’t approach conversations in good faith and it has been my universal experience that Trumpists are bad faith arguers. Good faith in argument consists of several attitudes, the absence of any one of them means you are not interested in engaging in conversation to advance knowledge. Here are my rules for good faith discussions
- You are open to having your mind changed.
2. You are aware of (and follow) the rules of logic.
3. You apply principles consistently.
The first of these is really the most important. Many people (on both right and left, but research has shown it is far more prevalent on the right [for a non-technical overview, see The Republican Brain by Chris Mooney]) are so firm in their beliefs that no piece of evidence would ever change their mind about anything. A couple of good examples are the belief in capitalism among libertarians and the belief in Communism among Marxists. There is generally nothing you can say to dissuade someone who holds these views. Tell a capitalist that children were exploited and essentially enslaved in early capitalism and they often retort that it was better for people because they were able to support their families or (with shocking backward logic) that it was somehow because real, “pure” capitalism has never really been tried and it was really the fault of whatever minor regulation was in place at the time. Similarly, argue with a Marxist that human beings are, as a group, too selfish for Communism and that history has shown this to be the case, and you’ll likely be accused of not having a raised consciousness and the very fact you’re arguing against Communism shows that don’t get it.
So here’s the question I always pose to people: Can you imagine some fact [or set of facts], occurrence, or circumstance that would change your mind about this issue? If you claim that gay people adopting children will create emotionally unstable children, how would you react if a raft of academic articles show that (as they have) what effects emotional stability is how loving and stable a family is, not the gender of the parents? Will you claim that academic articles are just written by left-wing academics and therefore can be disregarded? If so, you fail the “open-mindedness” rule and I’m uninterested in talking further with you. If you believe that centrally planned economies are better for people than one based in a market system, how would you react if shown historical data showing that people were poorer under communist regimes? Would you claim that the statistics have been manipulated by capitalist tool researchers that are beholden to corporate benefactors? Same deal. You fail. If there’s nothing that can change your mind, your mind is closed. Arguing with logic and facts against a closed mind is like talking louder to someone who doesn’t speak your language: it seems like the right thing to do, but you’re just wasting your breath. Trumpists, to a person (in my experience), lack open minds.
Logic, of both the formal and informal varieties, comprises the rules of what makes sense. It is as exact, in almost all respects, as math and other sciences. There a formal rules you need to follow for your conclusion to follow from your premises, and there are informal fallacies you must avoid in order to be certain you are arguing correctly. If you argue, as Mitt Romney did, that because President Obama wants to extend early voting to all Ohioans he’s trying to take away the rights of the military, who currently enjoy that right already, you are guilty of a formal logical mistake. If (m) is a member of set (EV), making (a) a member of that set doesn’t make (m) no longer a member of (EV). It’s not even a particularly hard rule of logic. Donald Trump and his followers make these kinds of mistakes with startling regularity.
Similarly, if you use any of the informal logical fallacies that you should have been taught in Introduction to Critical Thinking, you similarly fail this rule. Fact is, everyone indulges in these from time to time, but if it’s pointed out to you, a person arguing in good faith will admit her or his error and back down. If you double down or change your argument, you’ve lost the credibility necessary for civil discourse. For example, if I say “X is a liar and here are 10 examples”, the only credible response is: “no, you are wrong: here are facts that refute your claim, or here is how your reasoning has gone wrong”. Saying “your guy also lies” (red herring — whether my guy lies or not is a separate question and has no bearing on the truth of my claim about your guy), “the lame stream media has a left wing bias and that’s why you think this” (appeal to motive or the ad hominem fallacy — who makes a claim is independent of whether a claim is true), “over 50% of the people in the United States believe that he’s telling the truth” (appeal to popularity: whether an idea is widely held says nothing about its truth: remember Copernicus), or “only a left-wing liberal would think that” (ad hominem — again, my politics are irrelevant to the truth or falsity/validity of my argument), it means that you’re not looking for truth, you’re only trying to score points. I don’t argue with people for sport (mostly), but to come to greater understanding. If we don’t share that goal, there’s no reason to continue the discussion. And this is where Trumpists are most guilty: the “but Obama…”, “but Hillary…”, or now, “but Biden…” retorts are never in order when some damning fact about president* Trump is pointed out.
The greatest philosopher of the 20th century (Ludwig Wittgenstein) argued persuasively that we only need to engage people in argument if they actually believe what they are saying. His example was determinism, but it is an easily generalizable principle. If you are making an argument for the importance of some principle (say, some activity makes you a bad person that shouldn’t be elected) in a particular case (usually one’s political opponents), I only need to actually answer the argument if I think you hold that view as a principle. If, however, you wouldn’t apply the same rule to someone who shares your political views, then you don’t actually hold the view you claim to hold.
To see what I mean by this, imagine how people on the right would react if someone from Barack Obama’s senior leadership had leaked the name of a CIA agent so that he would be exposed. They would characterize it as “treason”, and rightly so. Yet, when the same thing happened in the George W. Bush administration, they defended the actions and claimed that Scooter Libby was the target of a “witch hunt”. The sad implication of this some people have no moral core, that they use ideology and ethics as nothing more than a stick to gain power over their opposition. Over and over during Trump’s administration, acts that would have been considered grounds for impeachment (or worse) had they been done by President Obama have been excused by his followers. Calling something “fake news” doesn’t, in fact, make it so. What is more likely, that Mr. Trump is guilty of (most of) the things he’s been accused of by the *all* of the mainstream media, or that he (and his followers) are guilty of cherry-picking data sources?
This is actually a challenging rule to follow. We are always more likely to think our friends are motivated by good and our enemies are not. But it is a necessity for intellectual and civil honesty. I try very hard to make sure I’m holding myself, and my political compatriots, to the same standards I hold everyone else. For example, I’ve was very disappointed in the Obama administration for the way they continued the “War on [some] Drugs”, as I was by the way they let the same financial interests that caused the 2008 meltdown run the Treasury. But beyond admitting they don’t like his “style” sometimes, Trumpists seem absolutely unable to apply the same rules of evidence to their leader’s actions as to those of everyone else.
There’s an essential humility to arguing in good faith. It’s the humility of a person who knows that the truth exists and also how easily we can be lead astray by bad logic and unconscious bias. I’m honest enough to know that I’ve been persuaded by bad arguments and believed things that were not true. Life is too short to hang on to beliefs that are false. That’s the only reason to argue about things with people, to try to come to a better understanding of the world. But if you don’t have this humility, which is to say that you aren’t arguing in good faith by following the rules I outlined above, you’re just taking up minutes of a life that is far too short, minutes that could be far better spent spending time with my family, writing my dissertation or even just watching an old soccer match during the quarantine. So please don’t comment on things I post on Facebook or Medium unless you share my love of truth and my ethos of civil conversation. I understand an occasional post to show you’re in disagreement, but unless you are interested in a true rational conversation, not just one where you might be seen to score a rhetorical point or two, I’d suggest supporters of Mr. Trump take their bad faith, cult-like arguments elsewhere.
Addendum/Edit: I want to clarify one point. This is a descriptive piece, not a prescriptive one. I don’t say I’ll never argue with Trumpists, only that I’ve stopped doing so because I’ve too much inductive evidence (4 or so years of engaging with them) without a single good-faith arguer among them. All inductive arguments are only probable, not deductively certain, so I would argue one is justified in making the probabilistic judgment that Trumpists are overwhelmingly likely to argue in bad faith. As I say in the article, I will engage with people up until they show themselves to be bad faith arguers. It usually takes only a sentence or two. The Fox News epistemological bubble is so self-reinforcing that I’ve found otherwise reasonable people making fallacious arguments as soon as the topic of Trump comes up. Once, an otherwise smart Christian coworker of mine, when I pointed out the hypocrisy of the way the good and decent family man Obama was treated compared to the womanizing, seemingly hateful Trump, responded “well, you know Michelle Obama is a man, right?” with a totally straight face. I consider not engaging with him at that point to be both justified and an object lesson for every other interaction I’ve had with Trumpists.