If you’re a teacher of rhetoric, as I am, one of the skills you’d like your students to have is the ability to identify an argumentative fallacy so they can critique other arguments and also avoid fallacies in their own writing. There’s a standard list of fallacies you can use, and our culture seems to specialize in a few of them. It’s easy, for example, to show a youtube clip of Bill O’Reilly committing the ad hominem fallacy, or of the Shrub perpetrating a guilt by association fallacy (which he can do without evidence even of association). The consequences of such fallacies are dire—in some cases they lead to protracted, deadly, trillion dollar wars.
Others include begging the question, slippery slope, and hasty generalization. They all serve to divert the reader or listener’s attention away from the issue and make them focus on something else. Begging the question calls your attention to syntax; a slippery slope has you fearing what’s next; a hasty generalization lets you revel in the comfort of simple things.
In doing some tv-watching, strictly for research purposes, last night, I identified a new fallacy, and it seems to me the most pervasive one on cable TV news, but it rears its head regularly on NPR, talk radio, and even the New York Times.
I’d like to call it the donk-e-phant fallacy, in honor of the mascots for our two major political parties. As implied above, journalists commit this fallacy with frightening frequency by “reporting” an issue by: a) naming the issue b)explaining what the Republicans say about it and c) explaining what the Democrats say about it. b) and c) are sometimes reversed. The donk-e-phant fallacy precludes the idea that there might be some real investigating to do with respect to the issue and it also renders the journalist impotent—he or she can’t possibly point out that one group or the other is being disingenuous, deceptive, or is just plain wrong.
This would all be silly fun if the donk-e-phant fallacy didn’t lead to disastrous compromises such as the bailout, where both sides got what they wanted: increased spending combined with tax cuts. This policy stew only seems like compromise, and the fallacy helps it masquerade as such. Hopefully, it makes us sick enough to revisit some long-lasting problems.
Even though it’s against my very nature, I count myself among the hopefuls and quixotics who believe miscegenation has brought us a man who demands—deriving respect by commanding it—that we be better and neither support nor fall for the news outlets who perpetrate and perpetuate these fallacies.