Embarassing Democracy: Gabrielle Giffords and Government by Fallacy

Giffords Notes

The estimable website Fallacy Files contains much wisdom and many tools, most aimed at helping human beings avoid stupidity and the poor decisions it generates. Among the logical fallacies it documents are the flawed appeals, arguments for a proposition based on the supposed authority of an argument of a person based on factors that should have no bearing on the debate at all. A familiar example is the appeal to ignorance, in which an advocate argues that there is no evidence that X is true, ergo X must be false.

Yesterday, gunshot victim and former Representative Gabriella Giffords made what was called “a surprise appearance” at the U.S. Senate (don’t get me started on how much of a “surprise” it was—just try showing up to testify before the U.S. Senate as a “surprise” and see how far you get.) and made what was widely called “powerful testimony” advocating gun control legislation. It wasn’t powerful testimony; it was pathetic testimony. It contributed neither information nor reasoning to the debate. Giffords said, carefully, in labored speech, “Speaking is difficult. I need to say something important. Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something.  It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you.” Despicably, some Left-wing blogs even managed to use her appearance to further the MSNBC lie that a Sandy Hook’s victim’s father had been “heckled” during his testimony before the Connecticut legislature. “You’ll notice that NOBODY dared to heckle Gabby as she was speaking,” commented one.

Giffords’ testimony wasn’t “powerful.” It was pathetic. It was, in fact, a classic example of another logical fallacy documented by the Fallacy File, the appeal to pity, where emotion is used as a substitute for facts, logic and argument. Emotion has a place in policy-making, as an exhortation to action, but when the event generating the emotion is unconnected to the problems under consideration, or when pathos is used to promote misinformation or simplistic thinking, the appeal to pity is as irresponsible as any of the rest. (The full list: Authority, Celebrity, Consequences, Envy, Fear, Force, Hatred, Ignorance, Nature, Pity, Popularity, Pride.)

It is especially unethical when an appeal to pity is dressed up and misrepresented as an appeal to reason, as here. Giffords’ words contributed nothing to the discussion, if indeed they were her words. The notes she spoke from were written by her speech therapist, and the suspicion lingers that the severely brain-damaged former Congresswoman is being programmed and exploited for political ends she may not comprehend. “We must do something” is an irresponsible exhortation: if we can do something effective, fair and reasonable that addresses the problem, we should do it; otherwise, we do more harm than good by taking wide-ranging measures just so we can say we “did something.” It is an appeal to incompetent, hysterical, event-driven government. “Too many children are dying” is a meaningless statement. How many children is the right number to be dying? The U.S. has too many children dying from all sorts of things: why is gun control the most pressing initiative to address this? It is dishonest to contend that child safety is the most pressing factor to be addressed by gun control; it is merely the opportunistic vehicle for its promotion now, in the wake of a horrific student shooting.

“The time is now”—why? Why is this the sudden priority? The economy isn’t recovering at an encouraging rate, and now there is talk that Congress will just let the looming sequester, with the attendant danger that it will plunge the nation into another recession, happen rather than address the debt and deficit crises. Those are far more urgent issues than gun control.  “Violence is a big problem”? Yes, everybody knows that. Be bold and courageous? Being bold and courageous for members of Congress would be to defy their constituencies, and to meaningfully and decisively address the finances of the country. Jumping on an emotion-propelled effort to “do something” about gun control isn’t “bold,” it’s business as usual.

As the largest and most successful democracy is the world, the United States is a showcase for freedom, a role model. It has an obligation to make democracy look good and desirable to other cultures. For a decade or more, it has done the opposite; it has embarrassed democracy before the world, and is continuing to do so. Congress has a duty to show itself motivated by real needs, sound arguments and good data, not puppet shows and fallacious appeals to pity rather than effective government. In short, our elected representative need to show the workings of the government to be serious and competent, not a cynical reality show, and then they need to actually be serious and competent. That would be bold and courageous; it is also their duty.

Gabby Giffords’ sad appearance is disturbing evidence that the current government has neither the intention, the inclination or the ability to fulfill that duty.


Facts: Detroit News

Source: Washington Post

13 thoughts on “Embarassing Democracy: Gabrielle Giffords and Government by Fallacy

  1. Jack,

    Any position that can be supported logically typically is supported logically and reasonably.

    When positions are supported fallaciously to the degree that it seems only fallacious arguments are used, it tends to betray that there aren’t logical arguments to support the position.

    However, America will not ever oppose this as our culture is far less rational and far more emotional as of late.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. It is plainly obvious that Giffords has permanent brain damage. Her husband should be ashamed of himself for participating in this spectacle.

    We now live in the period of the irrational. Reason is no longer a guide to anything. And so now the incompetent are running the show. I weep for the future.

        • Jack, I give you an Ethicist’s Pass for the “meanness.” The Kelly-Giffords duo schtick has become “channel-changing annoying.” That would be so, no matter what they were advocating and whose side they were on.

          At the risk of seeming even meaner than you, Jack, but to be completely honest: I resent the duo’s, and their ever-exploitative allies’, manipulative attempts at depriving me of the ability to defend myself and others, in the reasonable (albeit deadly) manner of my choosing. The only end which the quasi-Gepetto and his proto-Pinocchia are enabling, is even greater helplessness of, defenselessness of, and suffering of grievous and fatal bodily harm to, innocent and responsible persons against violent, lawless persons.

          • And another thing…

            The rigors of personal identity verification, which the gun control freaks are insisting on making mandatory for gun purchases, are conspicuously and suspiciously inconsistent with the same advocates’ opposition to relatively modest identification requirements for more fundamental exercises of citizenship, such as voting. Where’s the national voter database?

            • Which one of those “the gun control freaks” who “are insisting on making” “the rigors of personal identity verification” “mandatory for gun purchases” oppose ” relatively modest identification requirements for more fundamental exercises of citizenship, such as voting”?

  3. “We must do something” is an irresponsible exhortation: if we can do something effective, fair and reasonable that addresses the problem, we should do it; otherwise, we do more harm than good by taking wide-ranging measures just so we can say we “did something.”

    That “something” could be rounding up and euthanizing the mentally ill, whether they like it or not. We could even give it a cool name, like T-4.

    Someone even pointed out that “prejudice and bigotry would always triumph over …inconvenient little facts” and that the mentally ill are “best kind of scapegoat”.

  4. The corrosive spirit of niceness. You can’t say anything against Giffords because that wouldn’t be nice and you would just be a big meanie. It is OK to use a tragically brain damaged woman as a puppet for pet causes, but don’t you dare challenge it.

    It is a time proven strategy. The people who have been raised to think with their hearts and not with their brains will never see through it. We are doomed.

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