The four cornerstones of arguing irrationally

Don’t get caught up in the techniques people use to ignore rational arguments.

Should a photo ID be required to be able to vote?

I recently made the mistake of trying to have a rational online debate with an acquaintance over this issue. It hinges around the belief by some that there is extensive election fraud. For others, it is an issue, but not one that requires laws that tend to create voting roadblocks for the poor and minorities. For them, this is a not-so-subtle attempt akin to Jim Crow laws of the past to keep the poor and minorities from the polls.

The pros and cons of this issue are not the focus of this column. Instead, the focus is on the coping techniques people use on both sides of the political divide when dealing with someone who holds an opposing opinion.

Thinking anecdotally: This technique has its place. We all have experiences and stories that shape our thinking and form our opinions about the world around us. That is what anecdotal thinking is. In the case of photo ID requirements for voting, the argument by my debate partner, an older white male, was that he had lived in the South and had personally seen voter fraud. Therefore, voter fraud must be extensive. Photo ID was a reasonable solution to a major problem.

By itself, anecdotal thinking might be the jumping off spot to test the hypothesis that voter fraud is rampant. The problem with this approach is that most of us rarely challenge our personal experiences to find out if we are making sweeping generalizations. We don’t take the next step to actually search out facts to determine whether our personal experiences match a greater reality.

Deflection: When a person who uses anecdotal thinking is confronted with actual information that contradicts his views, the next coping mechanism he is apt to choose is to focus on one word or phrase noted by the opposing view, dig into a minor part of the argument—and then go off on an unrelated rant that is only tangential to the actual issue. In the process, the larger questions are ignored by majoring in the minors.

Deflection can be used over and over, focusing on different issues that are peripheral to the central concern of whether voter fraud is a major national problem or not. Using this technique often makes the user feel superior and fact-based, while the other person would have to spend hours refuting the arguments that don’t really get to the heart of the core issue.

Discounting of reliable sources: The case in point for my debate partner was to discount a “USA Today” article that reported the Federal District Court decision stating that requirements for voter ID in a Texas discrimination lawsuit were based on unintentional racism. When I went back to the article, I linked to the actual District Court decision ruling. I copied and pasted what the “USA Today” author had reported about the decision, and then quoted the actual decision from the court document. The two sources agreed. The “USA Today” author had summarized correctly. The person who was debating with me was shown that discounting the “USA Today” article as “fake news” was in error in this particular case.

Ad hominem attacks: Having had all his rational arguments challenged and knocked down, the only way for my debater to avoid admitting error was to attack my integrity and character. He did this by strongly suggesting that I was racist because I underestimated the intelligence of poor blacks to be able to get around minor obstacles to vote. He then questioned whether I actually acted with integrity because I had not taught in my history classes over 31 years that President Eisenhower—a Republican—had actually helped push through the first Civil Rights Act in 1957, seven years before Democratic President Lyndon Johnson helped to push through the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This was an attack both on my integrity and my teaching. It was also irrelevant.

A witness to our interchange correctly pointed out that two District Court decisions are not the same as the final word of the Supreme Court. That was a valid argument that would have maintained that the issue is far more complex than I had argued. That would have been a rational and reasonable response to my arguments.

Most issues that are hotly debated have valid arguments on both sides of the political spectrum. The problem arises when anecdotal thinking, deflection, discounting of sources, and ad hominem attacks are used when facts fail. These techniques are defenses against reason and the need for humility. While I discovered these techniques in the debate, I also found that strongly held opinions are often more important than the actual facts. Arguing with those who will not change their views in the face of rational arguments is a mistake and a waste of time.

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