If you’ve spent any time at all looking over political blogs, political debates on social media, or online comments for political articles, you will have noticed a type of argument that is repeatedly made by both left and right. It goes something like this:
“You’re arguing for X [relatively mainstream opinion with which I disagree]. The person/group Y argues for X, but they also argue for Z [non-mainstream, politically extreme or fringe issue]. Defend that!”
If that sounds like a fallacious line of argument to you, you would be correct in thinking so. It is a named informal fallacy, guilt-by-association. In this instance, it is used in a twofold way: to dirty both the debate adversary and the mainstream issue by associating them, respectively, with a radical entity and a fringe cause.
As I said, I’ve seen this done time and time again by both sides. It is occasionally called out when one party is on the ball and recognizes the fallacy (whether they associate that term with it or not). That doesn’t necessarily mean that the person making the fallacious argument is going to back down, of course. As social science studies into the topic are increasingly finding out, ideology trumps logic and empirical evidence in, well, pretty much everyone, if allowed to. It can happen with any kind of ideology—political, social, religious, anti-religious, or intra-disciplinary (such as taking a hardline position on a controversial topic in a science—as a scientist). Unfortunately, most of the time that this fallacy is called out in an online debate, the person using the fallacy only doubles down on it. The usual gist of the doubling down is something like, “I don’t care if you don’t agree with view Z. It’s still your side!” –Sometimes with the pivot of “Why don’t you agree with view Z? Not progressive/conservative enough?” Which is a dodge from the original debate, but one that puts the attacker at a clear advantage if the opponent takes the bait, since doing so requires the opponent to defend himself instead of sticking to the topic.
However, more often than not, the guilt-by-association fallacy is not called out. The debater confronted with the guilt-by-association fallacy who doesn’t recognize it will feel compelled to defend another member of his own “side.” Humans are a deeply tribal species, another social science finding that I have long suspected to be true. We are driven to defend “our own” against “the other.” I rather suspect, in fact, that the social media use of the guilt-by-association fallacy is a contributing factor to the radicalization of the left and right in American politics. People who, before the rise of Facebook and Twitter, would not have been adherents of fringe views—seeing such views as, indeed, fringe, and feeling no obligation to defend them—are now being put on the spot by aggressive online “activists” who have access to search engines and networks of ideologically oriented websites that sometimes even list pithy, fallacious “talking points” for online political brawls. They are being compelled to view people as part of their “tribe” whom, in the past, they would not have, and are acting accordingly. Eventually, some of them do come to agree with the fringe views simply out of a sense of maintaining solidarity with one’s “team.”
That brings me to my final point, and it is, to me, the most disturbing one. I don’t think that the “masterminds” of such tactics sites care that they are encouraging anti-intellectual forms of debate. I certainly don’t think they care that they are contributing to political radicalization. I remember a number of years ago, when this type of online activism was first coming into its own, how the concept of “framing” exploded in the political blogosphere, and they were very open about what they were trying to do.
It was not the smooth marketing of “real” politics (not political campaigning, mind, but rather, deal-making and persuasive lobbying among elected officials and interest groups). In that environment, people are generally wiser to fallacious arguments. Half the people there, if not more, have legal education. In fact, I am pretty sure that this is why horse-trading does exist. To get something done with a truculent would-be ally, one must promise something tangible or concrete, or make an objective-sounding argument for why they should sign on. Fallacious appeals to emotion won’t cut it.
No, this “framing” that burst on the online grassroots scene around 2007 or so is something quite different from that. The point of it, as its originators proudly state, is deliberately to appeal to emotion, including the emotion of revulsion for an opponent because of guilt-by-association with a more extreme opponent. It is to take advantage of a widespread lack of critical thinking or logical analysis, and to play off the most primitive evolutionary parts of the human brain.
If this were the only way to get things done in politics, then it might be justifiable. But the fact is that this is not the case. In reality, this type of politicking is responsible for the rise of polarization and the inability to get anything done now, because it discourages people from stepping out of their reactionary knee-jerk “lizard brain” responses. I don’t see that it benefits anyone at all, except perhaps the PACs and firms that thrive on the ability to present their political opponents as crazy inhuman aliens who cannot possibly be reasoned with.
I’ve said before that I consider this type of populism to be anti-intellectual in the extreme. This is, by now, a running theme of this blog. Here’s yet another bit of evidence for it.