Friday, April 14, 2006

STRATEGIES FOR DEALING WITH DENIAL - Part II : Logical Fallacies and Rhetorical Ploys Used in Denial

This is the second of a three-part series on Strategies for dealing with denial. Part I -The Many Faces of Denial can be found here. Part III is here.

In this post I am going to discuss some of the techniques that those in denial use in order to maintain and facilitate their denial and to prevent any confrontation about it or their motivations. There are a number of logical fallacies and rhetorical ploys that frequently pop up when dealing with someone in denial. People in denial may believe they are engaging in substantive arguments and presenting their case, but when examined, the grounds they present are actually examples of pseudo-reasoning.

Although not precisely a fallacy or rhetorical ploy, physical coercion is another important technique that is used to defuse and/or disrupt rational argument or discussion. For the denier, coercion has the advantage of eliminating any possibiity they might have to confront their denial and what is driving it.

Understanding all of these techniques is essential for being able to deal with individuals in denial.

There is frequently a connection between the pseudo-reasoning technique employed to perpetuate denial, and the style of denial being used (as described in Part I). The list that follows is not exhaustive, and only includes some of what I consider the more important techniques being used. The table is only intended to be a preliminary guide. A brief discussion of each of the fallacies or rhetorical ploys referred to follows after table.


From: Critical Thinking A Concise Guide (Bowell and Kemp):
Rhetoric is any verbal or written attempt to persuade someone to beieve, desire or do something that does not attempt to give good reasons for the belief, desire or action, but attempts ot motivate that belief, desire or action solely through the power of the words used.

The difference between fallacies and rhetorical ploys is understood most eaily as a difference in the function of the language being employed....politicians, advertisers and newspaper columnists tend to be experts when it come to using rhetorical ploys. Rhetorical ploys typically make a more or less direct appeal to feeling and emotion rather than to reason, which is the domin of argument. Fallacies, on the other hand, are simply defective attempts at arguments....They may fool us into thinking they are not defective, but they are still presented as attempts at argument. Of course, manny writers and speakers will use a mixture of rhetorical ploys, fallacies, and genuine arguments when attempting to persuade us of the truth of their claim.

Let us first consider some of the most common rhetorical ploys in use:

-Appeals to FEELINGS : this type of ploy is very common and the user tries to appeal to specific feelings or desires. For example, you may be enticed to believe what is said because of the passion with which it is said (rather than analyzing the content); or because it stimulates compassion, pity, guilt, fear or any number of other feelings.

Eliciting fear is also known as using "scare tactics", and should be distinguished from genuine warnings for which there is a good reason to act and/or experience the emotion.

Additionally, when one appeals to feelings; emphasis may be placed on the novelty of the idea; or popularity ("everyone thinks this!") or the sexiness or cuteness etc.; all of which can easily distract from a rational analysis of the idea or product.

-Direct attack is simply the unapologetic assertion that something is true or not true without any evidence presented.

-Buzzwords are the use of emotion-laden terms that subtly influence the listener but which offer no information about the truth of what is being said.

-Scare quotes are used to mock the opposition (I use them myself at times!) by calling into question a particular concept (e.g., terrorism vs "terrorism").

-Smokescreen is diverting attention from the topic of discussion by introducing a new topic.

-Equivocation is deliberately making ambiguous statements in order to mislead.


-Formal fallacies can be found in almost any text on logic and include affirming the consequent (i.e., if P then Q; Q; therefore P) or denying the antecedent (i.e., if P then Q; not-P; therefore not-Q). As a group they are invalid arguments because of formal mistakes in reasoning.

-Substantive fallacies are fallacies that rely on an implied but not expressed general premise, but which are false when scrutinized. They include:
Majority belief - concluding that because a majority believe something it must be true. This category includes the excessive reliance on polls to be the arbiter of what is true or false and how one should behave.
Common practice - concluding that because everyone does a certain thing, you should do it too.
Ad hominem is responding to an argument by attacking your opponent rather than addressing the argument itself.
Appeal to an alleged authority - is problematic when the authority appealed to has no expertise in a particular field; or even if he does, there is no automatic guarantee that he is correct.
Perfectionist fallacy - where an idea or proposal is rejected because it cannot completely solve a particular problem.
Weak analogy -use of an unjustied or unsustainable analogy;
Causal fallacies are also very common and involve making assumptions that (1)because things are temporally related that there is a cause and effect (temporal fallacy); or (2) that because two things are correlated there is a causal relationship between them; (3) going from knowing a certain thing is true to believing that something else also must be true when there is no evidence to support the belief is called the Epistemic fallacy.


The following techniques don't fit into the previous categories; or are a combination of one or more already mentioned. They include:

-Red Herrings are premises or ideas that are irrelevant to a particular conclusion but which are offered as evidence of the conclusion;

-Straw man is deliberately setting up a false target that is easier to defeat in argument;

-Begging the question is the situation where the truth of a conclusion is assumed by its premises;

-Selective use of evidence: in any analysis there is usually a large amount of evidence to consider; particularly when there is sufficient complexity involved, it is sometimes easy to pay attention only to evidence that supports the desired conclusions and not to evidence which contradicts it;

-Moving the goalposts is a common practice in denial and occurs when someone always demands more evidence than can currently be provided. If that evidence becomes available at a later date, the demand is then made for even more evidence ad infinitum;

-Argument by definition is changing the meaning of words or concepts so that they support your argument (e.g., "it depends on what the meaning of 'is' is."; and other distortions of language like using the opposite meaning of a word as in Orwell's Newspeak)

-Liar paradox is one of my personal favorites and is the use of paradoxical statements (e.g., "This statement is false" or "There is no objective truth") that are linguistically correct but internally inconsistent and cannot be demonstrated to be either true or false.


The most obvious technique in this category is the physical analog of the ad hominem attack. This clearly requires no thinking or logic manipulations at all. We see this in the physical attacks that are made by the left on whoever incurs their ire; or dares to spread ideas that deviate from their own script.

Isaac Asimov famously said that "violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." From a psychiatric perspective, I would amend the saying to: physical coercion is the last refuge of a person in denial.

Coercion is the historically tried and true method by which most totalitarian regimes perpetuate themselves. They must control the flow of information; ruthlessly suppress any ideas that delegitimize their ideology; eliminate any persons threatening to expose their weaknesses; and even physically prevent their own people from being able to freely leave the country where they might pick up alien ideas. All of these measures ensure that psychological denial and the underlying motives of those in control are never questioned or challenged. A tyrant is, from this perspective, the ultimate person in denial.

There are many deluded people who claim that this situation already exists in the U.S. under the BusHitler. I'm sure you have noticed the frequent round-ups and imprisonment of all those Hollywood stars; and courageous antiwar protesters whose opinions are being ruthlessly suppressed by the Bush Administration.

Nevertheless, the real physical suppression and aggressive attacks that are occurring instead of rational debate are not coming from either the government or conservatives for the most part.

Some of the most recent examples can be seen here and here. The latter story about the attempt by law schools to ban US military recruiters is particularly amusing in light of the law school's belief that not only should they be able to effectively prevent the military from recruiting on campus, but they should also continue to receive money (and protection from the military, I assume) from the organization that runs the military (i.e., the US government).

Further, there are numerous physical attempts to shut people up that also use the rhetorical ploy of appeal to feelings--in particular, an appeal to cuteness--when protesters throw pies in the faces of speakers they don't agree with; or the mindless--and loud-- chanting of cute slogans to drown out speakers with whom protesters disagree.

Not only do these individuals and groups not bother to argue their side of an issue, but they can't even bear to listen to someone who might stimulate them to consider alternative ideas or confront their own denial.

Jeff at Beautiful Atrocities suggests to me some other ways that today's political left have developed to control the flow of information. He mentions Amazon, where you can track swarms of those on the left panning new conservative books they've obviously never bothered to read. Jeff suggests that this occurs, "As though the very existence of material that challenges their worldview is a threat that must be extinguished (rather than letting people make up their mind)."

Exactly. The last thing a person in denial wants is the free flow of information about a topic that threatens the perfection and contentment of his denial.

Wikipedia is another forum where people deep in denial have painstakingly tried to rewrite history so that it conforms with their ideology. If you read about the Aztecs, for instance, you'll find that their mass human sacrifice was really no different from European warmongering.

Democrats have also stated their intention, should they get the opportunity, to reinstate the 'Fairness Doctrine' aka govt regulation of private radio stations, which would have the effect of forcing conservative talk radio stations to jettison half their content in favor of Air America type shows, regardless of whether anyone wants to listen to them.

How many times have you heard those from the left side of the political spectrum state that the FCC should shut down FOX for its "lies". At college campuses all over the country, every time a campus newspaper runs an editorial that goes against the ideology, all the papers are stolen by the ideological minions of the left. Military recruiters are run off campus by the threat of violence (either to them or any who would like to listen to them).

I won't even go into the entire issue of leftist mainstream media bias, which has been taken up in many other venues.

The pattern remains the same. To physically prevent people access to alternate
worldviews or information instead of persuasing them by rational argument of the truth of your own position.

None of these techniques (rhetorical ploys, logical fallacies, or physical control) are unique to one side of the political spectrum or the other certainly; but in today's political climate, most of the denial manifested--particularly since 9/11--is almost all on one side. Back in the 40's and 50's of the last century, the situation was reverse.

In Part III, I will discuss various strategies for dealing with your own psychological denial; as well as psychological denial in others. One commenter in the discussion thread for Part I said:
You have a solution? After only four years and seven months? But now we have to wait for it? Please hurry, early voting for the primaries starts tomorrow here in NC.

Well, I hate to disappoint. You can only lead a denier to reality, but you can't make him (or her) drink. That said, there are some useful strategies that may be helpful in dealing with the problem!

UPDATE: Anyone who would like to send a link to examples of any of the above techniques will have it listed here.
-SC&A found an example of coercion where a college librarian is being sued for sexual harrassment because he recommend several conservative books to a freshman.
-LLB sent me this article about a display on abortion being destroyed.
-Junior says that with latest news today about the Iranian president saying that Israel will be annihilated, this blogger is more worried about what Bush will do. (Displacement)

UPDATE II: At the Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh writes this about the SC&A referred article:
It's quite sad, I think, that these university professors are responding to offensive ideas not just by arguing against them, but by trying to coercively suppress them (apparently, according to the ADF's letter, with considerable support from their colleagues).

Yes, isn't it?

UPDATE III: Neo-neocon has a great post up on Critical Thinking. She agrees that it is...critical! Great minds think alike.

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