This article was last modified on May 9, 2006.


The Logical Fallacies of Political Rhetoric

On May 4, 2006, President George W. Bush declared to the world that “democratically elected leaders cannot have one foot in the camp of democracy and one foot in the camp of terror.” This simple declaration is representative of the game politicians play called the game of rhetoric. All politicians, not just Bush, play this game. It’s a bait and switch: offer the public one thing while really giving them another.

The Incorrect Phrasing

Bush stated that democracy and terrorism “cannot” go together. Cannot meaning that it simply is not possible. This claim, of course, is literally false.

Terrorism and democracy are mutually exclusive. Terrorism is the act of persuading others through violence. Democracy is a system where the government is elected by the people. Two very simple principles with no overlap. History has shown us time and again that governments elected by the people may very well unleash violence on other countries or even the people within the same country. And sometimes these people continue to be re-elected.

The three biggest terrorist states in the world today (by my estimation) are Palestine, Israel and America. And not surprisingly they are all democracies. If President Bush thinks it is not possible for terror and democracy to go hand-in-hand, he does not have far to look to see how wrong he is.

The Correct Phrasing

If Bush had wanted to make a correctly phrased statement he could have said “democratically elected leaders ought not have one foot in the camp of democracy and one foot in the camp of terror.” A normative (ethical) claim, and one I can fully agree with.

Nobody ought to engage in terrorism if we believe terrorism is wrong and/or that the ends can never justify the means. This is probably even more true when we are dealing with democracy because then the acts of the government are indirectly the acts of the citizens themselves. If a government acts in a terrorist fashion and the people do nothing to counter this, they are responsible for this by their acquiescence.

[Note: In the common vernacular, we tend to use “ought” and “should” interchangeably. This is a mistake. Ought is a normative word, implying that a choice between two options exist and what we “ought” to do is the correct choice. Should implies a way of nature – through cause and effect something “should” behave in an expected manner, without regards to it having a choice. When rain falls on cloth, the cloth “should” get wet… but this does mean the fabric “ought” to get wet.]

The Connotation

At least two things can be said about the connotation of the above sentence by President Bush. These same connotations, or ones of a similar nature, can be said about all political rhetoric (or probably anything you ever heard from a public relations firm).

1. Although the sentence is untrue, it comes off as true. Without stopping to analyze the actual meanings of words, the phrase sounds reasonable and the connotation is therefore that Hamas is violating a rule about democracy (which does not exist). Lots of political phrases can slide like this because they are not specific enough to be obviously false (such as claiming “Democrats boil and eat white babies”).

The Hamas claim is relatively small in the grand scheme. Whether democratic or not, involved in terror or not, some excuse would exist to deny them aid and assistance. But the claims are not always small. We have claims like “job growth is on the rise” which the average person would accept as a good thing and praise the President, while further investigation would reveal growth is rising after a long decline and the new jobs aren’t of the same quality as the old. So the claim is not entirely true.

2. If we accept the Hamas claim as logically correct, we can infer other claims from it. Logically we would say “States run by terrorists cannot be democratic” and therefore (since Hamas is a terrorist group) their government cannot be democratic. If the premises were true, this would be logically acceptable. And if people accept the premises, this is the conclusion their mind would make.

Denying that a country is democratic allows America the right to deny aid and assistance and continue the (false) claim that they support democracy. Rather than simply admit our government does not support democracy, they choose to redefine what democracy is.

Bonus Thought: Wiggle Words

Rhetoric employs what I like to call “wiggle words”: words of such vagueness that you can say them with one denotation and invoke a completely different connotation (or as analytic philosophers would say, point to one reference while invoking an unrelated sense). Again, all politicians and PR people use this trick, so let us quickly examine two examples.

1. Terror. As I have said many times before, “terror” is such a horrible word. Using “terrorist” today is like using “communist” in the 1950s. The word means a specific thing (one who uses violence to achieve a political goal) but provides a completely mental picture. Hijackers can be called terrorists (correctly), but now we can call all Iraqis terrorists because some of them are attacking American troops. But not all Iraqis are terrorists. Many are peace-loving people, just like many Americans are peace-loving people.

Further, the intentions of the “enemy” are never considered. When an American soldier enters a home speaking English, he might get shot. The government and media call this “terrorism”. But when an American home is entered by an Iraqi man speaking Arabic, it is seen as “self-defense” when he gets shot. Are some Iraqis terrorists? Probably. But are all of them? No; and painting them with this brush is both reckless and fascist.

Not to mention how silly a “War on Terror” is. Terror is an abstract, non-corporeal and timeless concept. You can never defeat terror, just as you can never defeat hate. This is actually more ludicrous than the “War on Drugs” because at least drugs exist in some limited fashion.

2. Evil. What is “evil”? Bush has his “Axis of Evil” just as Reagan had his “Evil Empire”… and as red-blooded Christian Americans, we want to stand against evil, don’t we? Yet “evil” here means to us the most sinister of things, but has no objective foundation. “Evil” is the anti-American, just as America could have been seen as evil by the Russians for being “anti-Soviet” (and you cannot deny our government did some horrible things to the Russian people).

The use of wiggle words rallies a group behind a hollow and meaningless cause. We all want to fight “terror” and “evil”… but who among us has the insight to know true terror or true evil when we see it as opposed to those painted as evil by the men and women we trust?

Conclusion

When you read the newspaper, rerad between the lines. Do not just read what is being said, read what is being meant and what is being not said. It is here you will find the real message and the real news. Everything else is just frosting on a rancid birthday cake.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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