Necessarily insufficient: politics, language, logic

Nitpicking is wearisome; few of us relish a quibbler’s fastidious regard for logical distinctions when the main thrust of an argument appeals to our sensibilities. But who among us today thinks our political discourse suffers from an overzealous concern for logical precision? Both parties resist qualifying their sweeping judgments with provisos that might spare their opponents from the harshest possible censure. Both willfully disregard inconvenient nuances that would attenuate their accusations or falsify their categorical dismissals. We all bear the cost of this rhetorical laxity. The force of language increases in inverse ratio to a culture’s tolerance of irresponsible political invective. George Orwell wrote that “the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes,” and we’re seeing that play out daily in political squabbles propelled by half-truths and galling approximations. The more frequently pundits and legislators equivocate, the greater violence they do to the linguistic and logical standards of conduct that enable liberal societies to constructively weigh competing ideas. The English language, Orwell observed, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Evidence of foolishness abounds. Take for instance the curious fate of one of the logician’s principle armaments, the foundational distinction between sufficient and necessary conditions. Instances of the latter type are now widely regarded as having satisfied the criteria stipulated by the former. Everywhere political operatives and academic ideologues hail a necessary condition as having supplied sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, whether it be of racism, misogyny, transphobia, or whatever cardinal sin presently roils. The aggrieved seize upon tokens of behavior or utterance consistent with a genuine wrongdoer’s actions as incontrovertible proof of affiliation with some proscribed cabal. On the field of today’s logically impoverished cultural battleground, one need only share attributes with a stereotypical offender to warrant a full share of condemnation.

A concrete example will illustrate the point. When President Trump told four American citizens serving in Congress to return to their ethnic countries of origin, partisans of the left denounced him as a racist. They cited as evidence his having delivered remarks consistent with a bona fide racist’s views. Charitably, we might concede the left’s point and agree that expressing a desire for persons of non-European descent to return to their countries of heritage qualifies as a necessary condition of membership to the species of racist they accused Trump of being. We would, after all, expect such a racist to express precisely those views. But we would also expect him to love his country, to be a proud American and to champion other innocuous views shared by millions of his countrymen, none of which are sufficient to mark him a racist. In conflating sufficient and necessary conditions, the progressive left illegitimately elevated coincidental attributes to the status of determinative hallmarks.

This slipshod tactic constitutes more than a weak argument; it’s a formal logical fallacy called affirming the consequent. When the left dismissed the possibility that other factors, commitments or motivations besides racism led Trump to issue his rebuke, they misconstrued the logical relationship obtaining between premises and conclusion. Affirming the consequent results when a conclusion is invalidly inferred as proceeding necessarily from a conditional premise. The classic example provided by Wikipedia is instructive:

If an animal is a dog, then it has four legs.

My cat has four legs.

Therefore, my cat is a dog.

Premises one and two are valid, but the conclusion is obviously unwarranted, as any number of other antecedents provide defeating counterexamples. Not all four-legged creature are dogs, even though all dogs are four-legged creatures. The form of the argument is flawed. Replace the premises and conclusion with traits relevant to our discussion and you get the following equation:

If a person is a racist, then he will speak critically of persons of foreign descent.

Trump spoke critically of persons of foreign descent.

Therefore, Trump is a racist.

While not as obviously flawed as the above example, this rendition is no more permissible. We cannot logically infer that a person is a racist on the strength of the provided premises alone because it remains possible that other factors led him to issue such statements. What’s missing is a necessary correlation between speaking critically of persons of foreign descent and the predicate “foreign descentedness.” If Trump had stated his criticism in such a way as to indicate “foreign descentedness” as the target of his criticism, then matters would be different. But as it stands, Trump might have wanted these particular persons of foreign descent to return to their respective countries of cultural origin because he thinks they are, for example, agents of a foreign government, plotting to commit crimes, unwilling to perform the duties of their office, or so at odds with the prevailing attitudes of their constituents that they no longer represent the interests of the people. All that matters for the purposes of this discussion are logical formalities, and the rules of logic prohibit drawing any conclusions about Trump from him merely having made remarks consistent with those of a racist. I am no admirer of Trump, but logic dictates that I insist on this point: his isolated remarks alone cannot qualify as sufficient conditions of racism. He may indeed be a racist, but we require more evidence to defend the claim.

By now you are probably weary of pedantic distinctions. But pedantry might yet save us from the erosion of language and logic abetting partisan distortions and sophistry. Nietzsche’s lament should be our battle cry: “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” Bearing with it the atomized units of logical relations, language invokes a logos restraining all who summon its power, irrespective of tribal affiliation. As the common medium through which we advance our claims, it resists abuses by imposing universal boundaries to cogent speech. The better stewards we are of language, the more sensitive our culture becomes to violations of reason.

The role of policing political discourse falls to us all. Both sides are guilty, and both sides must embrace a common commitment to logical fidelity for the sake of our fractured republic. We should resist the temptation to paper over inconvenient exceptions and counterexamples, even when they deprive our political pronouncements of their maximal benefit. The long-term costs to our collective coherence outweigh the short-term political gains.

 

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