Person A says: “Everyone shorter than 5’8″ is an admirable person who deserves political support. Hillary Clinton is 5’7″. Therefore, we should support her.”
Person B says: “Adolf Hitler was 5’6″, and he’s not an admirable person, and doesn’t deserve support, thus disproving your argument.”
Has Person B equated, or even compared, Hillary Clinton and Adolf Hitler? Has Person B suggested that those two figures have anything in common beyond their height? Everyone with the most minimal understanding of logical reasoning would instantly recognize that the answer to both questions is “no.” Anyone accusing Person B of “equating” or “comparing” Hillary Clinton to Hitler would be engaged in a clear distortion.
Person B, to disprove Person A’s principle, has simply used a basic instrument of logical reasoning known as “reductio ad absurdum”: “a mode of argumentation that seeks to establish a contention by deriving an absurdity from its denial, thus arguing that a thesis must be accepted because its rejection would be untenable. It is a style of reasoning that has been employed throughout the history of mathematics and philosophy from classical antiquity onwards.”
But this specific type of distortion is incredibly common in political discourse. I raise it now because the PEN writers objecting to the Charlie Hebdo award, and those of us who supported their argument, were inundated with this fraudulent accusation yesterday and today.
To defend the award to Charlie Hebdo, PEN officials argued that the award did not constitute an endorsement of the content of the cartoonists’ speech, but rather, only a recognition that they were courageous in expressing themselves. The principle articulated by PEN was clear: a person is deserving of this award if they continue to express their views even in the face of credible threats of violence, and especially if they pay for their right to free expression with their lives.
The objecting PEN writers believe this principle to be invalid and contrived. To prove that point, they offered a hypothetical example that was classic reductio ad absurdum: suppose a KKK leader continued to publish white supremacist filth in the face of credible threats of violence, and was killed for doing so: of course PEN would not bestow the KKK with a courage award, and almost nobody would be comfortable if they had.
This example was offered to disprove the principle invoked by PEN to justify the award — exactly like Person B’s citation of Hitler’s height was offered to disprove Person A’s principle. Their point was that the award is not merely about courage, but is clearly linked to a positive assessment of the content of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, as proven by the fact that PEN would never give the award to someone, such as a KKK leader, who expresses heinous views. And since these PEN writers don’t view the content of the cartoons as worthy of admiration, they oppose the award. They believe Charlie Hebdo should have full free speech rights, but not be admired for the content of their speech: the most basic distinction when it comes to free speech advocacy. That’s all there is to it.
In her original letter kicking off the controversy, Deborah Eisenberg raised the examples of racist fraternities and Nazi propagandists who express widely reviled views that provoke recrimination and threats, and asked: “Is there not a difference — a critical difference — between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable and enthusiastically awarding such expression?” Another objecting PEN writer, Francine Prose, wrote an incredibly clear op-ed in the Guardian this morning making clear exactly what her objections are (and are not), and similarly wrote:
I believe that Charlie Hebdo has every right to publish whatever they wish.
But that is not the same as feeling that Charlie Hebdo deserves an award. As a friend wrote me: the First Amendment guarantees the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, but we don’t give them an award. The bestowing of an award suggests to me a certain respect and admiration for the work that has been done, and for the value of that work and though I admire the courage with which Charlie Hebdo has insisted on its right to provoke and challenge the doctrinaire, I don’t feel that their work has the importance – the necessity – that would deserve such an honor.
To claim that she, or Eisenberg, were equating or comparing Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to Nazis is just as inane as claiming that Person B was comparing Hillary Clinton and Hitler. Yet all day long, that’s exactly what people who sought to vilify them did:
I don’t know if this is dishonesty or ignorance. What I do know is that Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have been converted into the closest thing the West has to religious-like martyrs in the war against radical Islam, which means that anything short of pure reverence for them generates tribal rage and vilification. That’s fine, I suppose. But what’s not fine is to depict opposition to giving them an award as some sort of breach of free speech principles. And what’s definitely not fine is to wildly distort the views of those opposing the award through complete ignorance of basic principles of logical reasoning.
I raise this not only because this sin against logical reasoning was common yesterday, but because it is common in so many political arguments. This was just an excellent opportunity to highlight it for current and future reference.
Photo:Laurie Dieffembacq/AFP/Getty Images