Thursday, September 07, 2006

New Fallacy: Pulling a Falstaff or Attacking a Blogger

There is a standard rhetorical trick called "Attacking a Strawman" in which an opposing view is claimed to be refuted by ignoring the actual counter-argument, and instead creating a weaker, more easily attacked version of their position which is then attributed to them, and by tearing down the misattributed position, victory is claimed over the critic. The name is based upon the idea that it is easier to beat the stuffing out of a scarecrow than a normal person.

We see this move all the time, but an interesting twist has begun to appear. The arguer can now seek protection from the fact that he is not creating the strawman, but responding to a real critic whom he can quote advocating some absurd view. Indeed, such critics have become incredibly easy to find. Not that they haven't always been around -- Rene Descartes said that there was no position so absurd that some philosopher somewhere hasn't held it. If this is true, the blogosphere is full of "philosophers." The wonderful thing about the internet, of course, is that anyone can say anything; the worst part about the internet, on the other hand, is that they usually do.

It has been alledged on major left-leaning blogs like DailyKos and Atrios that Joe Lieberman's campaign has set up a blog with the intention of trolling for nasty, especially anti-Semitic, comments that could then be used to tar Lamont's supporters in general. "Look at the horrible things they say, you wouldn't want to be associated with them would you?" I don't know if it is true or not, but, if so, the idea would be that it is not exactly a strawman because some of the people you are arguing against actually are putting forward these positions.

While it is perfectly acceptable to argue against all comers, the fallacy is in running roughshod over the principle of charity. If you want to claim to have undermined an objection, you must have shown a fatal flaw in the strongest version of the objection. This is a deliberate attempt to avoid the most effective counter-argument, while appearing not to. It is akin to the standard misquoting of Shakespeare's, "Discretion is better part of valour," which comes out of the mouth of Jack Falstaff in Henry IV when he is found to have pretended to kill an already dead warrior in order to seem brave, when, in fact, he had been cowardly hiding from him only moments earlier. This is the logical version: finding a position that is already logically DOA and then claiming it was the dangerous, strongest view from the other side.

One prominent example occurred a couple of months ago when Representative Jack Murtha called for a draw down of troops in Iraq. In response, the President and many prominent Republicans decried the Democrats who wanted to bring all the troops home immediately leaving a vacuum in Iraq that would no doubt be filled with violent thugs who probably should not be the ones in charge. This was not at all what Murtha was calling for. But, there are those who could be cited as having advocated that position. He never mentioned Murtha by name, so he wasn't directly misattributing a view, but in the context of the discussion, it was clear that it was Murtha's proposal that was on the table. Instead of dealing with it, he found a substitute view held by people with a connection to Murtha, but which he found easier to attack.

This move gets easier and easier and for this, your one stop shopping will quickly become the blog comment threads. Want to attribute a horribly anti-religious, anti-Semitic, ill-reasoned, hateful, foul-mouthed view? You can find it on-line, no problem. For this reason, I'm proposing we refer to the move either as "Pulling a Falstaff" or "Attacking a Blogger."

The problem is that with the use of hyperbole, it is easy to facilitate this sort of move. Zeek in the Klan march thread a couple of days ago points out that some environmental activists help do this. Cindy Sheehan unwittingly walked right into it. The ease with which we pop of on threads that blow off steam we are feeling as well, primes the pump. A call for discretion is likely to be utterly ineffective, so my proposal is that we name the move and discredit it. When a student turns in a research paper with web only resources and has no real books in his or her bibliography, he or she is mocked. The same should become true of anyone who cites web content in support of a "they say" claim because it's pulling a Falstaff when you attack a blogger.