As a kid, when I didn’t want to eat my fruits and veggies, my parents always said, “Think of all the kids starving in Africa!” This argument, however convincing, was deceptive. Instead of providing facts about why fruits and veggies are good for our well being, parents often choose to appeal to their kids’ emotions — a type of logical fallacy.
But parents are not the only tricksters. Media pundits, journalists, and public figures commonly use logical fallacies as tools for persuasion and duplicity. In the wake of the attack on the Paris-based satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, influential figures have used logical fallacies in an attempt to forge a relationship between Islam and extremism. Let’s examine some of them:
1. Rupert Murdoch: “Maybe most Moslems [are] peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.”
This fallacy is known as “Guilt by Association.” Murdoch is asserting that all Muslims, even the peaceful majority, should be held accountable for the crimes of the gunmen who carried out the attack at Charlie Hebdo. This logical fallacy tries to prove that because you have something in common with the criminals, you must also be one of them. It is an irrelevant and flawed argument, because it fails to show that all Muslims support extremism. Although this argument may seem harmless, it can prove dangerous for Muslims living under the shadow of rising Islamophobia in Europe.
2. Bill Maher: “When there’s this many bad apples, there’s something wrong with the orchard.”
I’ll label this one a “False Analogy,” because it wrongly compares two ideas, leading to a false conclusion. In his statement, Maher argues that Islam and extremism are one. Since extremists are using Islam as an excuse to kill people, Islam’s teachings must be fueling the extremist ideologies.
Therefore, Maher concludes that the entire religion — with more than a billion followers — is malicious based on the actions of a few. By doing so, not only is Maher detracting from the underlying issues of extremism, he is also guilty of overgeneralization. By pointing to Islam as the problem, Maher is ignoring the political and social motives that guide most extremist beliefs.
3. Richard Dawkins: “Some useful idiot will claim it had nothing to do with religion.”
Well known atheist Richard Dawkins tweeted this statement after he posted a link to the news about the Charlie Hebdo attack. By connecting the violence in Paris to religion, he is using the “Taboo” fallacy and declaring that any other justification for the attack is off the table.
Some atheists, like Dawkins, use this fallacy because it serves to undermine religion and bolster their argument that religion plays a vital role in enticing people to be violent. In fact, this fallacy doesn’t prove anything, because terrorism is a very complex issue and religion is but one factor in the bigger scheme of things. This argument merely impedes on people seeing the larger picture.
4. Don Lemon: “Do you support ISIS?”
According to a poll from last year, 16 percent of French Muslims support ISIS. CNN anchor Don Lemon interviewed Arsalan Iftikhar, a prominent Muslim attorney, after the Charlie Hebdo attack and asked him what he thought of the poll. While Iftikhar explained that the poll highlights a complex issue within the Muslim communities in France, Lemon interrupted and asked him to be more specific — going so far as to ask him if he supported ISIS.
This example is not exactly an argument, but it is an inquiry that begs a black or white response — a type of fallacy. Instead of focusing on the complexity of the issue, Lemon tries to boil it down to this: either you support ISIS or you are against it. This type of reasoning detracts from the underlying problems.
This is also a “Genetic” fallacy because Lemon’s question has a presumption built into it. Iftikhar identifies as a Muslim so Lemon assumes that he must have a stance on ISIS.
5. Steve Emerson: “Parts of London, there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to Muslim, religious Muslim attire.”
Emerson is the “terrorism expert” who made headlines over the last few days after making preposterous claims on Fox News about a city in the UK, which he describes as teeming with Muslim extremists. Emerson uses the “Big Lie” fallacy — a tactic that gained popularity after Adolf Hitler used it against Jewish people in Germany.
The “Big Lie” fallacy is also a form of propaganda filled with assertions so outrageous that people hesitate to question their credibility. People ask, “Who would make up such a blatant lie?” Fortunately, in Emerson’s case the British authorities stepped forward and called out his farcical claims immediately.
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Logical fallacies may seem benign — and most of the time we are quick enough to catch them and save ourselves from being fooled. But they can also be callous. The use of logical fallacies can be extremely misleading, only there to promote an agenda. They infiltrate our minds, shape our thinking, and distract us from the real issues at hand.
In the book, Everything’s an Argument, Andrea A. Lunsford notes a keen distinction between people who seek the truth and people who seek to persuade. She argues that those who seek to persuade sometimes do so by abandoning reason, fairness, and truth. Instead of arguing to win the case, we should strive to find common ground, look at the underlying issues, and come to a solution that benefits all.
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