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Learn how to debate!

07 December 2011, 11:02

Whenever I read comments and posts on news24, it’s easy to get swept up in emotive thinking, where people challenge our core beliefs and offend our feelings. This is an inevitable result of all human interaction. Disagreements occur and it’s easy to fall into tired old traps of sloppy thinking motivated not by the defense of our ideas, but rather maintaining our feeling of being right, or occupying the moral high ground. I would like to offer some pointers in this regard in order to help some people structure the defense of their ideas in a more coherent way. I know that I do not always adhere to these strict rules of argumentation, but I do feel that they are noble goals to which we can all aspire to in our writing endeavors.


One of the most frequently observed fallacies is the ‘ad hominem’ attacks. This fallacy holds that if you can discredit the person, you can discredit the ideas or ‘facts’ that he offers. Example: Statement: ‘Africans had not invented the wheel by the beginning of the nineteenth century.’ Counter argument: ‘That’s racist, and anyone stating that ‘fact’ to establish a theory pertaining to everything and anything is a racist by extension.’ This line is used time and time again by people, especially authorities who seem to revel in creating an ever expanding vocabulary of ad hominem terms that includes, but is not limited to, ‘counter-revolutionary’, ‘capitalist’, ‘agent’, ‘racist’ and ‘people who wish a return to apartheid’. Once it has been established that a person is any one of these things, all of their ideas and statements are supposedly instantly invalidated.


This leads onto the next common error, an argument from authority. The ANC claims that there are forces at work to reverse the gains of the revolution. They have no evidence of these forces or their activities so, without the ability to evaluate this claim on merit, they basically want you to trust them because they are the ANC. This kind of thinking produces statements like ‘poverty causes AIDS’ or ‘there IS no crime in South Africa’. It amounts to a petulant child insisting that they are right because he or she says so. Of course this is patently untrue, as the National Party was once in a position of authority and we all know that they were consistently wrong on too many issues to cover here.


An argument from adverse consequences is the type of argument that appeals to people’s fear of what will happen should the person’s ideas prove false. For example: Without a minimum wage, workers and their families would be starving on the streets. The straw man of abject poverty is a common thread that permeates our society at this point in time. Another example is that if we don’t institute measures to curb climate change, then we shall make the world uninhabitable in the near future.


The appeal to ignorance is also all too common. People have heard the line that ‘the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence’. This is absolutely true, and is the counter argument to the fallacy that would claim that since there is no contrary evidence to a position it is automatically true, and likewise that if there is no supporting evidence to a position it is automatically false. I came across a good example of this kind of argument last week. Someone claimed that they had never seen a white person at a mass rally, get shot by the apartheid security forces, or putting up any ‘real’ resistance to the system and that therefore ‘all’ whites enjoyed apartheid and its benefits. Tell that to Joe Slovo, Nadine Gordimer and George Bizos. It only takes one exception to disprove the contention of absolute conformity to a norm. Furthermore, no one can prove a negative. If someone asked you to prove that you are not a racist, you could not do it, so stop rising to the bait. The onus is always on the accuser to prove the positive – that you are a racist – this is why people are considered innocent until proven guilty.


Special pleading is often a last resort or an argument. Question: How can socialist policies consistently result in megalomaniac dictators rising to the top of the system? Special plea: You don’t understand true socialism. No one has implemented it before. Stalin perverted Marxist theories for his own ends, etc. etc. We have heard it all before.


There are many serial offenders who love nothing more than to utilize observational selection or ‘cherry picking’ facts to support their own arguments. This includes taking quotes or events out of context or emphasizing ‘hits’ and covering up the ‘misses’. The ANC will bolster their human rights record with Mandela’s legacy and speeches imploring racial unity, but I’ll bet that you are unable to recall the last time you read about the necklacing of ‘collaborators’ in the 1980’s, or the activities in Quattro Camp in a government publication.


Misunderstanding or misrepresentation of statistics often fuels many a rant in the comments sections. 99% of this held by 1% of that! That’s unfair! On what timeframes or populations are these sound bite statistics based on? Is it a year, a month? People are not locked into these categories for life, the Forbes List changes every year, what happened to the people that were on the list last year? Are they now part of that populist ‘99%’? I think not. Household income has been in decline for the last fifty years?! Well, households have shrunk over the last fifty years. Citizens of first world countries are having fewer children and there are more singletons now than before. People sometimes express shock that half of the world’s population is below average intelligence. Thomas Sowell put these kinds of misunderstanding in a humorous light. ‘They say that a man is hit by a car every five minutes in New York City. He must get damn tired.


There are so many ways to improve our writing and argumentative skills, and I have really only scratched the surface with the above list. If people are interested in understanding the world, and sharing that understanding with others, do they not have a responsibility to do that to the best of their abilities? Accepting tired old arguments riddled with these and other intellectual fallacies has to be stamped out if we want to have real discussions about the issues raised by current events.

Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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