Shitty Arguments

by A. Jay Adler on January 10, 2011
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That is the technical term – shitty argument – a type of informal logical argument first identified by Aristotle in his Logic, as part of his discussion of sophistical arguments. A shitty argument may be shitty because it is a particular manifestation of “bad” – that is, so shameless that the perpetrator of it is recognized (generally immediately, by all but his mother, campaign manager, or enraged acolytes) as being full of, well, shit – and/or (these sub-species not being mutually exclusive) because the argument is of the infantile nature otherwise generally made by those formative thinkers who tend to be preoccupied with their – well, you know.

As the Urban Dictionary tells tells us

Shitty is of very poor quality; highly inferior. Contemptible; despicable. Unfortunate; unpleasant. Being in a state of discomfort or unhappiness; miserable. Incompetent; inept. Trivial; insignificant.

Almost all of these descriptions apply to a shitty argument. Because of the second definition of “contemptible; despicable,” it is often appropriate to refer to the propagator of a shitty argument as a “shit.”

As an example of the first kind of shitty argument, take the response generally forthcoming from some defenders of the unregulated sale and ownership of every form of fire arm from the derringer to the shoulder-fired missile, whenever there is an awful event like this weekend’s shooting in Tucson. Against the cries of gun control advocates, proponents of unfettered gun ownership rights will often argue, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” This is an attempt to direct our attention to the fact that guns do not have volition, while people do. This is true (“as far as I know,” to quote Hilary Clinton.) Nonetheless, this is a kind of fallacy of accent (a shitty fallacy of accent) because the proper first response to this argument is yes, in large numbers and far too easily, “People kill people with guns.” The argument may proceed from there, but this first response from gun advocates belongs in the can.

A second example of this kind of persuasive bull, a link to the second kind of argumentum ad latrine, is that being made by various conservatives and Tea Party sympathizers against charges that their rhetoric these past two years has created a volatile environment.

Some Democrats and liberal activists wondered aloud whether heated Republican and conservative attacks against Democrats and the government over the past two years had contributed to a climate in which the gunman found a target in a member of Congress.

Republicans, at times indignant, focused blame on the apparent psychological problems of the suspect, Jared L. Loughner, and suggested that liberals were trying to politicize a personal tragedy. As much as anyone, Ms. Palin emerged as a fulcrum for the debate, once again personifying a broader cultural and ideological divide.

Ah, but for we get to the always well-reasoned and sanitary Sarah Palin, what kind of “indignant” responses are we, indeed getting from the Right.

The radio hosts struck a defensive, even embattled tone at times on Monday. They said Saturday’s shooting had nothing to do with either their broadcasts or the state’s tense political environment; they read e-mails over the air that were critical of their political stances, and some spoke about death threats they had received.

All agreed that Sheriff Dupnik had embarrassed Arizona and unfairly denigrated talk radio by linking it with the shooting.

“There isn’t any correlation,” said Jon Justice, who hosts a highly rated program on KQTH, 104.1 FM, in Tucson. “It’s like blaming Jodie Foster for the individual who shot Ronald Reagan.”

Garret Lewis, host of The Morning Ritual on KNST, 790 AM, in Tucson, said Sherriff Dupnik’s comments had “incited stupidity around the world.”

“People have the image now that we’re a bunch of racist bigots and there are shootouts in the streets,” Mr. Lewis said. “Again, he has absolutely no proof that any of this is true.”

Steve, a caller on Mr. Justice’s show, said Mr. Dupnik’s statements “showed him for the buffoon he is.”

Later, a caller named Lee said the sheriff was “a blithering idiot.” Caller after caller came up with their own colorful descriptions.

An interesting element of the shitty argument– and Aristotle is very clear on this point – is its smelly quality, so that while it might potentially (if with little likelihood) be developed to a sound conclusion, it does still (as my Aunt Goldie would have said) stink to high heaven. The question I have for those making the protestations above – and the far reaching grasp of the Jodie Foster example is actually right on (how do we put it these days) target – is how many of them otherwise believe, or have argued over the past thirty or more years, that the increased verbal and visual violence and sexual crudity of contemporary film, television, and music has had a coarsening affect on the culture? How many have thought that nihilistic song lyrics have on occasion pushed troubled fans of the music over the edge into suicide? That has been a common conservative argument for a long time. Now, of course, under these circumstances, nothing anyone does has any affect on anyone else. But shitty arguments are shameless and convenient, like doing it on the side of the road.

Even more liberal, more usually well-reasoned people can find themselves incontinent on this issue. Said Jeffrey Goldberg today,

I’m with Jack Shafer, by the way: Such language does not make most people kill other people in shopping malls.

Do you see it? Do you see where the whole – the flush – is? “Most.” Who is arguing – who would? – that most people are driven to such acts? It need only be a few, or one? Who wants to argue – Sarah Palin? – that a few deaths, this weekend’s deaths, are a regrettable but acceptable price to pay for the exercise of the technical liberty to voice foolish, violent tropes?

Speaking of Palin, as I promised,

Ms. Mansour [a Palin advisor] said that the cross hairs [placed on maps of congressional districts, including that of Gabrielle Giffords), in fact, were not meant to be an allusion to guns, and agreed with her interviewer’s reference to them as “surveyors symbols.”

Pardon me, but someone just laid a stinker.

This whole topic of inflammatory speech brings out the inner child in large numbers of people. The most common response on the subject coming from those on the Right and otherwise angry these days – and when necessary comes just as readily from the Left – from people like Neal Boortz who are actually over ten years old, and have children and pay taxes and everything, is that the Left did the same thing when Bush was President.

This is a reasonable point to make only if your interlocutor is being a hypocrite on the subject or claiming that only one side of the political divide has been guilty of excessive rhetoric. Otherwise, I regret to report, if you make this argument – and I’m telling you, I’ve got Aristotle on my side – you just took a poopy.

AJA

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Don January 10, 2011 at 2:47 pm

No shit. All these years, Black Sabbath was going to make us kill our mothers. Now, “surveyor marks” and cage rattling have nothing to do with causing anyone that is on the edge to go over. Shit, shit, shit. I JUST shined these shoes, and now they are covered in, yes. Shit.

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