For most, it seems obvious that we should be logical and rational in the way that we construct our worldview. By ridding ourselves of fallacious thinking and bad arguments, we should be able to chart a better pathway forward for us all. But we must keep our guard up argues Ben Burgis. In the last decade or so, a new breed of commentators, mostly right wing, have weaponised ‘facts’ and ‘logic’ as an effective rhetorical tricks. In an edited extract from his recent book ‘Logic for the Left’, Ben Burgis examines how this has happened, where it came from, and how it should be resisted.
At the end of the spring semester, I went to a Philosophy Department party at Rutgers. A graduate student told me that she’d been assigned to teach a class called “Logic, Reasoning, and Persuasion” in the fall. She expressed amazement and confusion about the fact that it was “below” Rutgers’ introductory symbolic logic class. What, she asked, could be below that? What did one even cover in such a class? Having taught LRP before, I said it was basically what other universities call a “Critical Reasoning” class. Whether it was because she was a little drunk or because the course is called something else in her native Canada, she still seemed to be drawing a blank. I suggested “fallacies,” and this graduate student—a Jacobin- reading leftist who I agree with about most subjects—looked at me like I’d just suggested that she kill her cat. “God no,” she said. “That’s how people learn to become annoying libertarian boys.”
To lay my biases on the table, I’m someone who talks a lot about logic. I’m a philosophy professor. My doctoral dissertation was about logical paradoxes, also the subject of my book Logic Without Gaps or Gluts. I’ve taught both symbolic logic and the dreaded “fallacy” class on many occasions and I think that (when they’re done right) such courses actually serve a useful purpose.
So, how have some leftists become so manifestly hostile to the very mention of logic? The phenomenon can’t be reduced to one cause. One relatively esoteric part of the answer is the confusion about “dialectical logic” and its relationship to the kind of logic I’m talking about in this book that was introduced to the American socialist movement by Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. Some bigger and more obvious pieces of the puzzle have to do with the toxic culture of social media, the ways in which logic is often taught at the introductory level, and the rhetorical posture of the right.
Realistically, anyone who non-ironically brags about having proven someone wrong by his or her own logic isn’t likely to see argumentation as any sort of disinterested rational enterprise.
Realistically, anyone who non-ironically brags about having proven someone wrong by his or her own logic isn’t likely to see argumentation as any sort of disinterested rational enterprise. He or she—let’s be honest, he—is far more likely to talk about logic as a sort of mental weapon he can use to defeat and humiliate “libtards.” Even the words “logic” and “argument” are wielded almost like magical talismans. Post a video critical of the alt-right in certain online spaces and you’ll be greeted by a hundred comments smarmily or angrily claiming that the video is “not an argument.” One of the more bizarre creations of Trump-loving editorial cartoonist Ben Garrison was a cartoon depicting Trump-loving podcaster Stefan Molyneux using needles labelled “logic,” “reason,” and “evidence” to puncture balloons as an oddly thin and muscular version of Donald Trump watches approvingly. Each balloon contains a screaming face. An angry black man who might be meant to represent Barack Obama says, “Trump is Hitler!” An angry elephant says, “Never Trump!” An angry Megan Kelly says, “Trump is a misogynist!” Other, less recognizable figures yell, “Trump is a racist!”, “Trump went bankrupt!”, and “My feelings!” As a smiling Molyneux punctures them all, he proclaims, “Not an argument!”
While it’s certainly true that a three or four-word summary of an assertion like “Trump is a misogynist” is not in itself an argument either for that claim or from it to some other conclusion, it’s somewhat mysterious why Garrison takes this to be a damning criticism. (I imagine him walking around his house late at night, angrily accusing his lamp and his toaster and his household pets of not being arguments.) Pointing out that something is “not an argument” is itself not an argument. Of course, the “not an argument” brigades don’t seriously advocate this standard. Labelling everything under the sun as NOT AN ARGUMENT is their way of signalling that they’re superior to the irrational left-wing.
When Ben Shapiro – one of the most famous U.S. conservative right wing commentators - insinuates on Twitter that anyone who supports anti-discrimination ordinances that prevent fundamentalist bakers from refusing to make gay wedding cakes and also approves of restaurants refusing service to Trump Administration officials is being inconsistent and instructs us to “pick one,” he isn’t inviting thoughtful responses. He doesn’t want his Twitter followers to reflect on the reasons why some categories but not others form the basis of “protected classes” for the purposes of anti-discrimination laws and whether those considerations could reasonably be applied to the “class” of government officials with unpopular policies. He just wants the liberals and leftists hate-reading his Twitter feed to feel momentarily confused and defensive and unsure of themselves before he moves on to his next point. The best outcome for him would be for someone to call him a homophobe, so he can respond with his catchphrase, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”
Similarly, Contrapoints, a left-wing transwoman (and philosophy grad school dropout) who often tangles with the alt-right on her YouTube channel, has a particularly funny video called “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist Sometimes (A Response to ArmouredSkeptic).” ArmouredSkeptic is exactly what he sounds like—someone who (a) takes his atheism to make him an exemplar of rationality and (b) is pretty sure that racism is not a problem. After the previous interaction between Contra and Armoured, one of Armoured’s fans on Twitter exulted about how Armoured had “annihilated” Contra. “He went in on you like there was no tomorrow, as if we were on the brink of extinction... Raw, unannounced, no lube, just ripped your faggoty as[s] panties apart and came all over you.” In the “A Little Bit Racist” video, Contra reads off the tweet and asks, “Is tearing your opponent’s butthole to shreds really the aim of rationality? I always thought the purpose of rational argument was communication, or even, y’know, reaching some kind of mutual understanding, not just annihilating a human being. Socrates wasn’t arguing with the citizens of Athens because he wanted to blast their buttholes... ok, actually, he did want to do that...but wasn’t there also a thing about, like, truth...?” That love of logic doesn’t always thrive in this environment is not shocking. Even Contra’s critique, though, points to a final reason why some on the left have learned to distrust the people who are most interested in talking about arguments.
Many leftists quite correctly sense that the point of this rhetorical strategy is to turn a disturbing lack of empathy with the victims of right-wing policies into a virtue.
Star Trek having given generations of American television viewers the very mistaken idea that “logic” has something to do with being “unemotional’, …--both free market libertarians and creepy online ethnonationalists delight in contrasting their investment in “facts” and “logic” with the left’s alleged obsession with “emotions.” Many leftists quite correctly sense that the point of this rhetorical strategy is to turn a disturbing lack of empathy with the victims of right-wing policies into a virtue. Once you’ve been told enough times that you wouldn’t object to human rights violations in Palestine or on America’s southern border if you were less “emotional” and hence more “logical,” it’s only natural to start to wonder whether there’s something very wrong with anyone who makes a big deal of valorising logic.
But dismissing logic as nothing more than an obsession of “annoying libertarian boys” would be a very profound mistake. We shouldn’t concede to the Shapiros and Molyneuxs of the world that they’re the “logical” ones. If anything, the more we look at the arguments these characters offer, the sloppier they look. And we certainly shouldn’t concede their absurd premise that the left is somehow being “illogical” by being emotionally committed to achieving equality and reducing avoidable human suffering. An argument rooted in premises we care very deeply about is no less rigorous on that account. And the left needs all the good arguments we can get.
A left that only knows how to shame, call out, privilege-check, and diagnose the allegedly unsavoury motivations of people who disagree with us will lose a lot of persuadable people whose material interests should put them on our side. What’s more, left-wing people who really do share all the same long-term goals often find themselves disagreeing about strategy and tactics. Should we advocate a Universal Jobs Guarantee (UJG) or Universal Basic Income (UBI)? Or are all demands for radical reforms within the current system counterproductive distractions from the fight against capitalism itself? These are complicated questions. If we’re out of practice using the kind of reasoning skills enhanced and sharpened by the study of logic, if we find that we’re just better at privilege-checking and snark and diagnosing people’s motivations than we are at making compelling arguments for our positions, the inevitable consequence is that when we argue with each other about these points of intra-left disagreement, all of those weapons are turned inward. That kind of thing makes the left about as appealing to potential converts as an endless Twitter war about race science with toxic right-wing logicbros. We can do better.