Friday, May 29, 2009

How to Use Fallacies and Influence People

(Ed. Note: Shout out to Anonymous!)

An ethicist might argue that it is wrong to use fallacies to influence people, but what that ethicist is forgetting is that there's very little difference between sophistication and sophistry. In addition, no one wants to look like an idiot in front of others.

For example, here is a list of authors whose work I have never read who occasionally pop up in everyday conversation: Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan (unless one chapter of The Bonesetter's Daughter counts), and John Updike. On more than one occasion, I've had to dodge these authors in conversation like speeding bullets. Here's an example of a rather clumsy diversionary tactic:

A: "So what do you think of John Updike?"
B: "What do you mean, what do I think of him? What, are we dating and now we have to hold hands and talk about our feelings and thoughts and Updike? Jeez, get a life, man!"

While this may change the topic of conversation, it may also convince your listener that you should be heavily medicated. Other diversionary tactics that should probably be avoided are pulling the fire alarm and veering deliberately into on-coming traffic. Here is a list of safer (and somewhat easier) logical fallacies that can be used to hijack the conversation back to safer ground. You're welcome.

1) Guilt by Association
A typical guilt-by-association diversion would go like this:

A: "Didn't you love A Handmaid's Tale?"
B: "No, but do you know who did? Osama bin Laden."

And there you have it. Quick, simple, and easy to remember.
2) Appeal to Flattery

This is fairly easy to pull off, especially if you know something (anything) about the author in question. For example, I was speaking to someone last week who mentioned that Cormac McCarthy was her favorite author. I replied, "McCarthy? Ah, The Road," in a knowing voice, and, before she could ask if I had read it, said, "You know, it's funny, but a lot of people I really admire enjoy his books. It doesn't surprise me that you do, too." We then discussed other authors she had read, moving on to writers with whom I had some familiarity. Reputation preserved!
3) Ad Hominem Attack
This is perhaps the least-subtle of the diversionary tactics available in your repertoire, but a successful ad hominem attack is sometimes your last resort. For example:

A: "I finally finished Midnight's Children last week. Have you read it?"
B: "No, I'm not a philistine, unlike some people I know. I try to read good books. Have you ever actually read a good book?"

He or she will then fumble to prove that he or she has, indeed, read a good book... or he or she will write you off as an asshat.
4) Shifting the Onus of Proof
This one is most useful if you have tried to fib your way through a literary discussion and potentially flubbed it:

A: ... and that's why I think Amy Tan is the best African-American writer today.
B: Amy Tan isn't African American.
A: Oh, yeah? Prove it!

Stick to your guns, and as long as the person you're arguing with doesn't have internet access on their cell phone, you should be good to go. If he/she does have internet access and attempts to prove you wrong by providing the requested proof, get out the ol' Red Herring tactic and accuse them of being one of those extremely annoying people who has to flaunt their iPhone in every conversation. (Those people are the worst.)


Homero said...

Thought that you might like this blog post... and I have employed each of these tactics at some point or another.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

"Rule #5: Remember Titus Alone.
Sometimes your only recourse is to out-lit-nerd your opponent, to bring up something they haven’t read. For this, there’s no better ammunition than the third book of the Gormenghast series. Why? Because no one has ever read it. Not even Mervyn Peake himself. He wrote it while drunk in the late 1950s and couldn’t remember a word. His editor supposedly cut big parts of it, but the truth is he just didn’t read it. They printed it anyway since there was a paper surplus that year. The person who wrote the wikipedia page is guessing. (I’m sure someone in the comments section of this post will claim they’ve read it. It’s all right. I won’t contradict you. Your secret is safe with me.)"


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