Sunday, July 22, 2007

Fallacies of Reasoning - Absolutisms

This is a strange time , Mister. No man may longer doubt the powers of the dark are gathered in monstrous attack upon this village. - The Crucible, by Arthur Miller.

As mentioned in my last post, after my disillusioning experience with class group think, I resolved to sharpen the focus of the language unit. This meant going beyond one of the core essays, Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and including the "Knowing How to Think” Royal Bank newsletter. The latter opened the door to explore, in detail, fallacies of reasoning. Three of the fallacies I think my students most benefited from were “absolutisms,” “ad hominems” and “appealing to popular passions.” Coincidentally, these seem to be the three most commonly practiced by governments when communicating with their citizens, so there was no dearth of examples to be found for classroom illustration.

Absolutisms: This fallacy is perhaps the easiest to spot. It suggests that there is only one right and wrong answer, that everything is black or white, with no gradations of gray. In a world hungry for simplicity and straightforward answers, the often emotive context of absolutisms makes it easy to fall under their beguiling spell. How else, for example, could George Bush, shortly after the New York terrorist attacks, say to the world: “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists”? Or in my own country, how can Prime Minister Stephen Harper say that those who question the mission in Afghanistan are emboldening the terrorists?

As I said, there was never a shortage of examples to use in the classroom, but I often wondered how the principal would have reacted to a parental complaint that I was somehow being partisan in using these sorts of examples. As I used to tell my students, they can be found on any part of the political spectrum; it’s just that it is so easy to find them from the right wing, given the prominence accorded it by the media.

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