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