Non-Arguments: Talking points that hurt rather than help civic engagement

In line with my previous post, a key thing I think we need to all get better at is civic engagement. And, as discussed at length in the news media and elsewhere, one of the big challenges to effective civic engagement is dis/misinformation. While there are myriad issues wrapped into dis/misinformation, an important action to counteract it is to be able to recognize when someone is using a non-argument.

By non-argument, I mean they make a claim or say something that is meant to be a counter-argument or to be used as evidence to make a case for a certain idea but, in fact, there is no actual substance behind the argument. A non-argument sounds like an argument when, really, it is just a variation of a fallacy. And, while the list of fallacies often used in discourse is long and, often, they are discussed more in terms of logic, probabilities, and the like, I thought it valuable to try and hit on some key ones that I’m noticing in conversations with others. This list is by no means exhaustive, but, hopefully, it can be useful for you to see when someone is making non-arguments and then, with that knowledge, find a way to kindly call out the non-argument and then get back into robust civic engagement.

“The other side does it” argument. This one involves arguing that one’s group should do an act that, in general, is recognized as bad because “the other side” does it too. This is a non-argument as, what really matters are the principles that guide good moral action, such as truth, fairness, justice, mercy, and the like, coupled with a recognition of context and the particulars to figure out how best to live up to those principles. The “other side” doing something bad doesn’t make it a good thing to do.

The “what about” argument. This one involves a person bringing up some tangentially related, but ultimately different bit of information or a new argument without ever addressing a challenge or concern raised to them. You know this happens when someone isn’t actually responding to your ideas, thoughts, or questions, but, instead, just changing the subject. It’s a non-argument as it quite explicitly changes the subject, thus enabling a person not to have to talk about what was being discussed.

Gaslighting. This is when someone says or does something that makes someone else question their understanding of reality. The biggest and most obvious one happening right now is the “Stop the Steal” trope. This is a form of gaslighting as the trope, “Stop the Steal” is quite literally being used to steal an election. There are many more examples of this in everyday life here. This is a non-argument as the tactic pulls the discussion away from a grounding in truth, reality, and what happened and, often, also involves an explicit use of power and privilege from one person using that to exert an oversized influence on the beliefs of others. Thus, it doesn’t help civic discourse as its more of a power-play for influence than an honest discussion grounded, first, in seeking out truth.

The “everybody knows this” argument. This one involves a person stating an opinion and then states some variant of “everybody knows this” or, “everybody’s saying it” or some other variant. This makes one person’s opinion sound more important or more true and, thus, is a valuable rhetorical tool. This one is relatively easy to challenge though to learn if its actually true (as it is possible that a person is, indeed, expressing a common viewpoint) or if its a non-argument. When you hear this type of “evidence’ used, ask for specifics. Who said it? When? Give me examples of concrete people. If a person is just saying this phrase then, when challenged, no further evidence or data is provided. Confidence increases when a person answers not merely with a few names but sufficiently rigorous methods used to make such a claim, such as good journalistic practices or the use of appropriate observational and statistical tools that explicitly provide a sense on the prevalence of a belief.

“The ends justify the means” argument. While there are many variations of this one, I want to call out the most extreme form as it is particularly dangerous. It basically starts from a person establishing the unquestionable moral superiority of a group. Then, from that place of unquestionable moral authority, the person then justifies doing a bad act, because “the other” is too dangerous. The only moral thing to do is to destroy evil in the world, otherwise, it will run rampage. This is the central underlying theme that justifies confrontational politics, which is being used as a central playbook in the Alt-Right. Since I am unquestionably good, any act I do is, unquestionably, good, including acts that, even in my own moral code, would be perceived as bad (and, by the way, I see this as also directly linked with apex predator logic). The ends justify the means. The reason why this is a non-argument is that it is values and principles that define good practices, not some belief in the innate moral superiority of one group over another. Obviously, this is a big one that is used all the time, as it is a central structuring behind many famous stories, both fictional and true, such as Star Wars or Nazi Germany. It’s easy to spot as one can probe into the underlying principles that normally guide a person and to then engage in a discussion on how to move forward without violating those principles.

The “if there’s smoke there’s fire” argument. This amounts to the use of feelings that inspire allegations as evidence and not, in fact, the use of actual observation or other forms of rigorous inquiry needed to establish robust evidence. The “smoke” is the feelings and stories and rumors people are engaging with and the fire is the allegations. This seems to be one of the big ones happening related to the election as it was the false arguments used by Cruz, Hawley and others in the Halls of Congress to justify questioning the election. This is particularly problematic when the probes actually checking any “smoke”/allegations are checked, turn out to be false, BUT that checked information was never shared back to those who are having the feelings and spreading the allegations. We should all watch out for this one and, whenever someone offers feelings and allegations, use that as a time to probe deeper into understanding how true those feelings are, how well they are grounded in reality, and, what those feelings are saying about a person that does need tending to.

The “blame the victim” argument. This one is very common in sexual assault cases but there is also a very relevant here related to race relations. The basic idea is that the person who committed a bad act, like violence or otherwise, says that the victim of the bad act provoked them. Related to sexual assault, this involves stating some variant of an argument that a woman was wearing the wrong clothes or inviting being abused. With regard to the riots at the Capitol on January 6, it involved white people making claims that they resorted to violence because they were provoked by non-violent actors. This, again, is a non-argument as the act of violence is a violation of principles. It is also dangerous as it further propagates and reinforces powerful differentials in society, thus pulling society away from being more just and driven by principles. My friend, Christopher Carter, discussed unpacked the problems with this with regard to racial justice in a recent sermon.

The “moderation” argument. This one involves the basic idea that, since there are two or more sides to an issue, that the best path forward must be the answer that is somewhere in the middle. While I personally like David Brooks and his arguments, I also see him falling into this trap all of the time, so I’d suggest you look there. It’s a false argument as it lacks grounding in other factors that define a good pathway forward, particularly context, scientific and other forms of evidence that can be used to rule out ideas that seem plausible but, after scrutiny don’t work, and then competing values and principles. The moderation argument doesn’t often account for context or evidence and, thus, is a non-argument, particularly related to policies.

As I said, there are a lot more than just these but I thought a list of the ones I’m personally hearing the most just might be valuable.

Writing them out and thinking about them has been really helpful for me to do better civic engagement. How? Well, with this list, I’ve been listening for these when talking with others. When I hear them, I can now identify them and suggest that the person engaged in a non-argument. I can then ask them if they see how their argument is a non-argument that is not helping to progress the conversation and, if they do see. it, we can get back to the discussion at hand. If they don’t, I invite, via Socratic dialogue, more discussion on processes and ways to get towards shared understanding. Either way, it facilitates a type of discussion that enables people to meaningfully listen and engage with one another, and not just fall into false tropes and other non-arguments that fill up a lot of time, without getting into the root cause issues that should be addressed to make progress on complex issues. Recognizing them helps us to get unstuck from non-discussions and, thus, is part of helping us learn and heal together.

As I hear more of these, I’m going to update this. Thus, if you hear others that you think should be on this list, please suggest them in the comments below. I’ll then try and add them to this list as a nice resource to work from that has the common ones of today while not getting so large that it just ends up making it hard to remember them.

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