Two of the six core values that support Western Connecticut State University’s mission are:
- Dialogue. We value the conversations that explore diverse perspectives and encourage shared understanding.
- Respect. We value the right of all people to be treated with dignity and fairness and expect this in our policies, classrooms, and community.
These statements reveal a campus that has embraced the difficult and exciting discussions that follow when people of different social, political, and cultural backgrounds gather to address current and ancient societal debates. This is who we are, and these values should be at the heart of any educational organization. But acceptance of the challenge of exploring differences in civil and thoughtful ways may need more support than just open minds and empathy. Given the preponderance of fallacious arguments in the ether, it may be time to commit to some direct instruction in informal logic.
For the uninitiated, informal logic springs from the field of philosophy (also embraced in writing and communication curriculum), that provides a toolkit for examining arguments for structure and validity. Much like the old grammatical diagrams that were once used in the teaching of English (helping to break down nouns, verbs and connecting parts of speech), informal logic allows us to diagram arguments in terms of claims, support for those claims and conclusions. This diagramming is a great way to identify places where the supporting evidence or facts under discussion may have strayed from the initial claim or premise.
I recall my first encounter with informal logic as an undergraduate at Hunter College in the 1980s. Sitting in a room of over 100 students listening to Dr. James Freeman introduce the structure of argument I felt a light go on. For years, I had felt like there were problems with the statements/beliefs/worldviews that I encountered, but I could not figure out what was wrong. These diagrams of arguments were a first step to uncovering the weaknesses or other leaps not supported by the claims I regularly faced. That course changed my life.
Now the field of logic has many nuances that most of us will never really dig into or fully understand, but the basics should be accessible to us all. Among the basic concepts is the idea of a fallacy. Simply put, fallacies are irrelevant evidence for a claim. They are included as evidence, with no real bearing on the debate. They are distractions, keeping us from examining the central claim. Typical examples are ad hominem fallacies (attacking the speaker instead of the argument), false dichotomy (setting up an argument around two choices, when many others are possible), or appeals to authority (invoking opinions of famous people, who may or may not have a connection to the actual topic). Learning to see these tricks is incredibly helpful as one tries to evaluate a substantive issue.
One particular fallacy that seems to be dominating our lives right now is the straw man. The straw man fallacy is a way of distorting the central claim of an argument and then arguing against the distortion, rather than the actual claim. This tactic usually relies on taking things out of context or exaggerating the initial claim. Since any example I give at this point is likely to draw some kind of bias claim, I will relate a totally unintended version that happened in an interaction with a six-year-old, twenty years ago. The six- year-old (let’s call her Sally) came to play with my daughter some time in mid-December. The two began to discuss holiday plans and decorations. At some point, Sally stated that “everyone” would be going to church on Christmas Eve. Since our family would not be heading to church, I interjected, “You mean everyone who celebrates Christmas.” Sally responded, “You mean you hate Jesus?”
Sally was not malicious. Her words were the innocent observations of a child who had never encountered a non-Christian before. I will not say things were easy to clarify, she was young and I wanted to be gentle, but we sorted things out. However, I think you can see that in malicious hands, this statement is an interpretation of my words that was not in any way accurate. In adult hands, with intention, this can become very ugly indeed.
This is a strategy that is dominating political arguments from all directions (left, right, and everywhere in between). You name the issue (environment, immigration, gun control, healthcare, equity, etc.) and you will find a plethora of straw man arguments designed to distract us from the central argument. At their worst, they are baiting us into discussions that are entirely false or at best, beside the point. This is not a good state of affairs.
So what of my university’s values? Well, like all universities, we are engaged in conversations like the one I had with Sally. In nearly every course, we challenge our assumptions about how the world is, was, or should be organized. Whether studying chemistry, biology, criminology, marketing, or history, students and faculty will uncover long held ideas and assumptions that may need to be reconsidered. Our task, then, is to insure that the reconsideration does not go astray with straw man arguments, or any other kind of fallacy.
To put it more plainly, when we ask ourselves to grapple with ideas that contradict everything we have known to be true, we may feel discomfort. That discomfort should not drive us to tactics that distort the question. We should not start casting complex debates as either/or, us/them, and allow them to be reduced to slogans. We cannot allow simplistic, straw man fallacies, to distract us from our commitment to reasoned discourse on all issues. If keeping this commitment means more instruction in logic for all of us, let’s do it!