A president's guide to logical fallacies
Understanding the manipulative tools of political rhetoric.
The ancient Greeks prized the art of rhetoric: the ability to sway a crowd of free thinking men with a thoughtful, gracefully delivered argument. Having leaders who could embody clear thought in persuasive speech was viewed as central to holding a democratic republic together. And for the Greeks, a free man was one who was persuaded by a sound argument rather than coerced by violence, like a slave or foreigner.
We are all aware of the pitfalls of this craft. When art becomes detached from truth, when words stop pointing to what actually exists—when smooth speaking becomes simply a means to achieve a political end.
Socrates denounced the Sophists, whom he charged with this crime; and in a world of advertising, salesmen, and corporate con men, we are only too familiar with this type of manipulation.
I was struck by the particularly poor use of rhetoric in the first U.S. presidential debate. The debates are the forum where most Americans, if they have not already sided one way or the other, will form their final decision about who to elect as president.
But instead of defining terms and providing specific evidence for their claims, I found that both candidates used emotionally charged key phrases to manipulate the audience. And even more significantly, both candidates committed a number of logical fallacies: common errors in reasoning that actually invalidate an argument.
So, here are some useful definitions of a few logical fallacies as they were used in the first presidential debate. Understanding these fallacies can help us distinguish a logical argument from improper, manipulative rhetoric, and hopefully will protect us from falling victim to their manipulation.
Sadly, you can’t really evaluate where a candidate stands on the various issues by what he or she says in a public debate. Instead, do research to find out a candidate’s track record, how they voted and acted in the past, to get a sense of how they will probably proceed in the future.
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