As a lover of arguments, there are few things more irritating than the kinds of arguments which shut down the conversation. Ad hominems are probably the most familiar variety of this sort of conversation-closer, but they are pretty easy to recognize and point out. They’re not the most pernicious.
At the moment, one particularly nasty and difficult kind of conversation-closer I will call the “personalized-exclusive” argument. It goes roughly as follows:
- Allude to claim made by another person (“You said that socialized healthcare was bad”)
- Personalize the claim (“My husband had cancer, and got treated in a socialized hospital”)
- Exclude all possible alternatives (“He would have died without that socialized hospital”)
- Lay the responsibility (“You want my husband to die!”)
In formal language:
1. A => (not B)
2. Therefore (not A) = B
3. Therefore (anti-A person) supports B
Where “A” is a proposed solution to problem “B” (e.g., “B” = gun violence, and “A” = gun control)
Whether it’s guns, or healthcare, or environmental issues, this kind of argument is particularly common on the left… although it is not exclusively owned by them. You might hear a conservative immigrant from a former Soviet-block country overhear a leftist seriously consider the merits of some communist policy (maybe even in isolation), and immediately conjure their dead family in the Ukranian wastelands.
It’s a particularly pernicious argument because personalized arguments are not invalid. In many ways, in fact, personal arguments are more trustworthy than arguments from logic or data, because their source is more direct to the person making the argument. Personal arguments have a long history in the world of more formal philosophy; many renditions of the problem of evil are given in a personalized form.
What’s wrong with the argument is — first — its preclusion of alternatives. This is logically invalid, since there may be other ways of achieving not-B than A (of mitigating gun violence than gun-control). To say “my friend/spouse/child would have DIED without this particular solution” is simply unknowable.
Rhetorically speaking, this counter does not sound very compelling because it is not emotional. A dead spouse or child is concrete, visceral. Dead or suffering others — in a hypothetical trade-off — or possible alternative solutions are both abstract, distant. Saying “it might work another way” doesn’t sound very convincing as a response to an assertion made with certainty: “they would have died.” But uncertainty about alternatives necessarily implies uncertainty of the inverse too — the death of the loved one in question. After all, if there might be some other solution that would have kept them alive, then you can’t know that they would have died without the solution in question.
This could be countered with a probabilistic argument in its place, something like “my loved one probably would have died without solution X.” And this probabilistic argument is not subject to the criticism above, since it is not exclusionary. It is perfectly reasonable and defensible to say “I don’t know that my loved one would have died without solution X, but I’m not willing to risk finding out.”
However, this probabilistic argument would miss out on the power of the personalized-exclusive, which is its fourth step: laying the blame on the one who disagrees for desiring the negative outcome. “You don’t want gun controls because you want children dead!”
This second personalization is the greater fault with the personalized-exclusive argument. It is an illegitimate move for the reasons above, as well as for what it allows, which is the emotional excuse to ignore all arguments to the contrary. They feel (or feign) emotional distress at the thought of their dead loved one, which shifts the burden of tactful argumentation heavily onto the shoulders of their adversary. This allows the personalized-excluder to essentially avoid the hassle of actually dealing with the argument by making it all about their loved one and their own emotions.
Unfortunately, there is not an easy rhetorical answer to this strategic pseudo-argument (“pseudo-” because it is rhetorical in nature, and not argumentative). Emotional control is a requirement in having an adult conversation, and those who systematically or intentionally impose the burden of controlling their own emotional faculties on others relinquish their claim to a place at the adult table.
But — to complicate things further — this defense in itself can be abused, and those expressing genuine emotions in a heated fashion may not be doing so in an intentional or systematic fashion (as is the case in the personalized-exclusive argument). They may, in fact, be reacting to something absurd and — forgive the phrase — insensitive that you may have said, something actually warranted, or at least justified. I myself have on occasion accused people of unfairly placing the burden of emotional control on others, when the other party’s emotions were — though heated — reasonable and not manipulative in nature.
Hopefully, there will be value in simply recognizing the structure of the argument, so that we might avoid making this manipulative mistake ourselves, and maybe help others to avoid the same. And if “manipulative mistake” seems like a strange phrase, bear in mind that patterns of arguments can be learned subconsciously, based upon what works, rather than intentionally, in a planned-out fashion. Once the structure has been identified and pushed to the side, then the heavy work of figuring out the best solutions to shared problems can be figured out.
Sometimes I think that Thomas Sowell’s entire life was nothing but one giant war against the personalized-exclusive argument.
Allison: I can’t believe they didn’t pass this gun-control bill.
Bill: Well, I can kind of sympathize. I actually didn’t vote for it myself.
Allison: What? Why!?
Bill: Well, I don’t think that the gun-control they’re advocating would really help, and I think it would have some nasty side-effects.
Allison: Bill, my mom was killed in that school-shooting last year. The kid came in with a gun that this bill wouldn’t have let him get his hands on, and shot her in the face. Maybe for you, your “principles” are more important than my mother, but if something like this had been passed before, she might… [breaks down sobbing]
Bill: Allison! Allison, hey–
Allison: WHAT?! Do you just not care?
Bill: Allison. Look: you’ve known me for a long time. Neither of us wants people to die. Both of us want to minimize killings. We only disagree on what the best way to do that is. You understand that we both want to minimize deaths like this right?
Allison: Then why would you support this bill?
Bill: Because the effects of the bill might be different than what they say they will be. Think of SOPA, or the Department of Education, or Common Core. Historically, owning guns has been a strong defense against the tyranny of the state. That may sound abstract, but when millions of people die under a tyrannical state, those are people’s family members too.
What would you say, if your mother was alive, but someone else’s mother got killed in a drone-strike, as “collateral damage,” or died of starvation in a labor camp? And maybe the bill would have been passed, and that shooter decided to go with explosives anyway. We can’t know how the future will pan out. It seems easy looking back in hindsight and saying ‘that would have prevented this!’, but sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. All we can do is look at patterns objectively, try to do what’s right, and hope that God or chance doesn’t give us the short stick.
Who knows how hypothetical Allison would respond to such a position, but as far as I can tell, it’s the best approach we can take to the personalized-exclusive:
- Step back and establish common ground
- Frame the problem at the appropriate scale (usually bigger than the personal)
- Acknowledge the importance of our personal acquaintances (this only works if you demonstrate actual care for these individuals in your day-to-day life)
- Allude to (but don’t state too harshly) the personalized-exclusives laying in store for the other person, if they get their way, but their way is not, in fact, the “best” way