Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Glenn Greenwald and Informal Fallacies

Anyone whose read this blog in the past when the subject matter has wandered onto political territory should be unsurprised to hear that I find Ann Coulter's frequently expressed views about Muslims and Arabs to be fairly loathsome. That said, free speech protections only applying to views that you like (or that are close enough to views that you like to be in your sphere of "the bounds of civilized discussion") isn't worth much, so I find the attempts of a Canadian university administrator to use that country's "hate speech" laws to stifle the free expression of Coulter's vile opinions to be pretty vile in its own way.

All of this, however, is mostly by way of preamble. What I find more interesting is that if you read the comment thread on the Glenn Greenwald article I just linked to, you find a really weird sort of confusion about the difference between fallacious slippery slope arguments against those laws and substantive objections to the laws based on fairly banally familiar sorts of social contract considerations.

The former go like this:

"It starts with the criminalization of hate speech. Then, before you know it, we're criminalizing all kinds of categories of speech, and sooner or later, Big Brother is monitoring and censoring every word that comes out of your mouth and telling you exactly what to think about every conceivable subject. We need to stop this progression before it's too late!"

This is a very silly kind of argument, for very familiar reasons. Contrast it with the following argument:

"'Hatred' is a tricky notion, and which political opinions count as expressions of hatred and which don't depends on where you're sitting. If you criminalize views you find offensive, then you might be acting against your own long-term self-interest by setting a precedent which could be used against you, if your political enemies ever take power and they find your views offensive. Really, it's in everyone's interests for society to be ordered in such a way that the expression of all views is equally and automatically protected."

Now, reasonable people can disagree about whether the second argument goes through, and it could be no doubt be objected to in all sorts of ways, but it certainly doesn't commit the glaringly obvious slippery slope fallacy at the heart of the first argument, right?

Well, in his article, Greenwald talks about how he will "never understand people's failure to realize that endorsing this power will, one day, very likely result in their own views being criminalized when their political enemies (rather than allies) are empowered." I think the "very likely" is over-reach, but still, what he's saying seems to be, very clearly, an instance of the second argument rather than anything even close to the first. Yet the comment thread is absolutely filled with people responding to Greenwald as if he'd made the first argument, going on about how Canada is hardly an Orwellian nightmare, and it's still a functioning democracy, and making snarky little comments about how Greenwald should be careful about getting a midnight knock on his door from the Mounties come to stifle his free speech and so on and so forth.

So, really, maybe I've just been doing philosophy for too long and I've lost touch with the way people argue out there in the real world, but....really? Is the distinction between those two sorts of arguments really too subtle for casual readers on Salon to sort out?

1 comment:

Emil O. W. Kirkegaard said...

Hint: Most people are unreasonable and may even purposely misunderstand people to make their points. Comment fields are usually filled with junk at such sites.