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This is not meant to be a political discussion. I just have run into this technique of sort of reverse engineering an argument that usually relies on some sort of redefining or narrowly restricting the meaning of a word or concept so that the argument can be made. I apologize as I am not a philosophy expert, but there's seems to be something wrong with this line of reasoning:

Statement: "Criticizing the press is not an ‘attack’ because that would imply an action that would do harm such as: outlaw a publication, jail a reporter, etc. Calling out bias or false reporting (ie: fake news) is just expressing an opinion and free speech. If you’re saying that ‘free speech’ is an ‘attack’ then you have a problem with free speech."

My research shows that

  1. Criticism can be considered a verbal attack
  2. The criticism of the journalists' and press reporting frequently contains false statements and accusations and has resulted in harm to them such as harrassment, bomb threats, etc.
  3. In US Constitutional Law, false statements of fact are an exception to the protection of Free Speech under the First Amendment

Is the original statement above a sound argument: "if you think free speech is an attack then you have a problem with free speech"?

Is it a logical fallacy, and if so, which one?

Thank you for any insight you can provide.

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  • 1
    Sound arguments only apply to deductive reasoning. Your example here is inductive reasoning. A sound argument means something specific: the argument must have all true premises & a true conclusion plus the argument must have valid form. All of this must be simultaneous. So if you wanted to make this deductive reasoning you would need factual claims that must be absolute. What you have is at best probability in your premises. Even if all of your premises were true the conclusion can never be absolute. There will forever be doubts. Deductive Reasoning is about absolute truth. This is not – Logikal Nov 18 '20 at 12:05
  • I think it might depend partly on whether or not you let a person know you're changing the meaning. If you say, "This is true because of X," but you're secretly using a definition of X other than the generally accepted definition, then it seems to me that would be a fallacious argument. Of course, that doesn't apply to your example, though, because the other person explained his definition. – David Blomstrom Nov 18 '20 at 16:46
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Logikal might be correct when he says that this is not an example of a fallacy in general. However, the manipulation of words is a huge scam that can arguably veer into the realm of fallacy. It is certainly something that philosophy students should be aware of, particularly because many of the scammers call themselves philosophers.

Case in point - conspiracy. I'm working on a book about conspiracy science, and I was floored by the new definitions of the terms conspiracy and conspiracy theory that have been coined by propagandists. In fact, I've written five separate chapters addressing this topic alone.

Merriam-Webster features just one definition for the term conspiracy theory. It's an example of what I call the classic, or traditional definition.

Dictionary.com is a relatively new operation that offers three definitions. The first defines conspiracy theory as a theory that differs from the "standard theory."

Many propagandists define conspiracy theory as a theory that differs from the official theory - a bit of a problem if there's no "standard" or "official" theory to begin with. They further argue that the government and media are trustworthy sources...and therefore they must be right. (That is a classic appeal to authority, which is a fallacy, by the way.)

It has also become popular to define conspiracy theory as a theory that's inherently kooky. This would appear to be treading awfully close to an ad hominem attack, which is considered a fallacy. Indeed, a popular meme among propagandists is "conspiracies are for losers."

Taking it to an even greater extreme, some propagandists claim that conspiracy or conspiracy theory don't even exist. (Karl Popper conceded that conspiracy is real enough, but he claimed that it's exceedingly rare and - on an even weirder note - we shouldn't talk about it.) The reason is that they don't meet the criterion of whatever obscure definition they're using.

As discussed in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article Conspiracy Theories, some philosophers have divided philosophers who study conspiracy into two groups - generalists and particularists. The former group believe there's something about the term conspiracy theory that automatically impeaches its credibility.

So two people could have the same theory, but if one calls it a "conspiracy theory," they may be ridiculed. But if the other calls it a "hypothesis," they should theoretically be treated with a little more respect.

An author may make some wild claim about conspiracy without telling the reader what definition he is using (a lie of omission), or they may explain the definition in a manner that makes it hard to understand (obfuscation). Of course, neither lies of omission nor obfuscation qualify as fallacy, however.

The terms fascism and genocide are similarly manipulated for political purposes. It's gotten to a point where some argue that both words have become meaningless.

However, your specific question seems different - and a little confusing.

You wrote that people who criticize journalists and the media often make false statements and accusations, noting,

In US Constitutional Law, false statements of fact are an exception to the protection of Free Speech under the First Amendment.

Surely, you're aware that the media do the same. For many people, the word "media" is virtually synonymous with liar or deception.

Of course, two wrongs don't make a right, so that doesn't necessarily render your comment invalid.

However, another question revolves around the meaning of the word "attack." In the example you gave, an individual may have offered a bogus definition of attack. On the positive side, they at least spelled out how THEY define attack, although they apparently didn't offer a source or many details.

To me, the issue is either finding a definition you can both agree on, or letting the other person know that you don't accept their definition. (You might press them for details, asking if their definition has some kind of legal standing, for example.)

This statement is a can of worms...

If you’re saying that ‘free speech’ is an ‘attack’ then you have a problem with free speech."

In addition to defining "attack," we also have to define "free speech" and explain how it works. Since media rats (to use a relatively polite term) lie on a daily basis, it seems only fair that people lie about them in return (although I don't recommend it). And if someone wants to claim that a media critic in attack mode isn't engaging in free speech, then that argument should also be applied to the media.

I loosely define free speech as the legal right to say whatever you want to say, whether it's true or not. (There are, of course, some exceptions, like yelling "Fire" in a crowded room when there is none.) Free speech gives people the right to lie, and if you disagree with that, then you're condemning politicians, the media, corporate executives, lawyers and lots of other people.

Instead of focusing on free speech, you might want to consider the term fair speech.

Going back to your opening question, I strongly suspect that using re-engineered words or bogus definitions does qualify as a fallacy. Maybe someone else can shed some light on that question.

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If I am reconstructing your point correctly, you are asking whether the following argument is fallacious:

  1. There exists in a free society a default assumption that free speech is OK, subject to some limitations.
  2. Attempting to harm, or threatening to harm, or incitement to harm a person for expressing a view contrary to your own is not free speech. Such a thing is an attack and is prohibited.
  3. Criticising a published article and/or making a claim of bias or false reporting is not an attack.
  4. Therefore, criticising a published article and/or making a claim of bias or false reporting comes under the heading of free speech.
  5. Therefore, if you are opposed to criticism of published articles, you are opposing free speech.

Your question is whether the word 'attack' is being used too narrowly here, and that a criticism is itself a form of attack.

We should distinguish between attacking a person and attacking a published article or a position. We may make a criticism of a published article, even a very strong criticism, without this being an attack on the author. We may even claim that the article is biased, intentionally misleading, and part of a pattern of partisanship on the part of the author or the publisher. Such a thing is a matter of course with any publication.

You say, "Criticism can be considered a verbal attack". It depends on how it is worded. Some journalists are ignorant, dull-witted and incompetent and deserve to be told so. Some journalists are paid to toe the party line and will write anything without caring much whether what they say is true or well-sourced. On the other hand, personal criticisms might come under the heading of defamation and be prohibited.

You say, "The criticism of the journalists' and press reporting frequently contains false statements and accusations and has resulted in harm to them such as harrassment, bomb threats, etc." Articles in the press are often matters of dispute or matters of opinion, so it is to be expected that criticisms of them may themselves contain disputed claims, contrary opinions and even falsehoods. That is part and parcel of a robust debate. The fact that journalists get harrassed or threatened is obviously bad, but I doubt whether it is correct to attribute that to the criticism rather than to the original publication. There are already laws against incitement to violence. Also, the fact that there are bad people who are willing to engage in violence is not a reason to curtail free speech.

You say, "In US Constitutional Law, false statements of fact are an exception to the protection of Free Speech under the First Amendment". Yes, though typically those are known false statements, such as cases of libel or slander. Expressing strong disagreement with a published article is hardly such a case, unless it is accompanied by a personal attack on the author.

In summary, I'm inclined to agree with the argument and disagree that it is fallacious. If you stick your neck out and publish something, you should be ready for criticism. You don't have a monopoly on the truth, you are prone to error like everyone else, you are prone to bias like everyone else, and other people are entitled to tell you so. If you do not like being criticised then keep your opinions to yourself.

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The word "attack" is routinely used with two different senses relevant here:

Attack v. tr.

  1. To set upon with violent force.
  2. To criticize strongly or in a hostile manner.

These two senses are not theoretical. Everybody routinely uses them. Yet, you don't even mention the distinction.

So, criticising the press is not an attack in the first sense but it is in the second sense. If someone argues that criticising the press is not an attack, it is easy to reply that it is an attack in the sense of criticise strongly or in a hostile manner, but then this isn't illegal and leaves you without any argument.

All you had to do was clarify the terminology used in the argument simply by looking up a dictionary.

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Is the original statement above a sound argument: "if you think free speech is an attack then you have a problem with free speech"?

The prime method of philosophy is to use reason and language to examine relationships, truths, properties, etc. So, let's begin there. Let's take it piecewise, and examine the truth condition of each statement.

Criticizing the Press

"Criticizing the press is not an ‘attack’ because that would imply an action that would do harm such as: outlaw a publication, jail a reporter, etc.

FALSE

Definition of attack at MW:

transitive verb
1 : to set upon or work against forcefully attack an enemy fortification
2 : to assail with unfriendly or bitter words a politician verbally attacked by critics
3 : to begin to affect or to act on injuriously plants attacked by aphids
4a : to set to work on attack a problem

This is false because criticizing the press certainly can be an 'attack' even if it does not result in a physical attack or harm to the organization or members as in 1. Consider definienda 2, 3, and 4a. One can certainly use unfriendly or bitter words. One can harm the reputation of a medium which would affect injuriously. One can consider it an attempt to reform the problems of an outlet. Any of those senses allow us to characterize the criticism of the press as an attack according to conventional word meaning.

Your statement:

Criticism can be considered a verbal attack

Is true.

Calling Out

Calling out bias or false reporting (ie: fake news) is just expressing an opinion and free speech.

MIXED

This statement has two predicates, one characterizing the action as expressing an opinion and the other expressing it as an act of free speech.

Certainly, criticizing an outlet for propagating falsehoods is an act of free speech, and is a perfect candidate as an example because it's likely to be the type of speech those in power particularly the government may not like if they control a news outlet. The difference between criticizing the Chinese state medium and the UK BBC is that the former can land you in trouble and the latter is encouraged. Therefore it is true that criticizing the various media is an act of free speech.

But what about it being an opinion? That is false. If a newspaper is printing falsehoods, deliberately or otherwise, calling those statements falsehoods is not an opinion. It is a matter of fact. And commenting on the reputation of that outlet with a statement pointing that out is also a matter of fact. It may be a true or false fact, but this isn't in the realm of subjective opinion.

Objecting to Free Speech

If you’re saying that ‘free speech’ is an ‘attack’ then you have a problem with free speech."

FALSE

A good place to look for lines of argument against this proposition are my answer to the PhilSE post: Is the statement “If you are against criticizing the media, then you are against free speech” begging the question?

This proposition is open to many interpretations, so let's take one:

P1. Using free speech to criticize speech is an attack.
P2. (It's objectionable to attack.)
C. Therefore, one who attacks another's speech objects to free speech.

Well, that's just nonsense. The definition of free speech according to WP:

Freedom of speech2 is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction.

How can the exercise of free speech to object to falsehoods that may be a tool of repression be an attack on free speech itself? This is a typical response of authoritarian regimes and is Orwellian doublespeak. There's a clear contradiction here. What fallacy is at play? I would argue that according to Damer's taxonomy in his Attacking Faulty Reason, this constitutes a Distinction without Difference:

This fallacy consists in attempting to defend... a point of view as different from some other one... by means of a very careful distinction of language... [which] is no different in substance.

There is NO substantial distinction between using free speech to say pleasant things and free speech to say hostile things precisely because the nature of free speech is that it is designed specifically to protect the speaker who uses speech to attack. And the reasoning is straightforward: It is better that uncomfortable facts be spoken than it is to allow those with power to suppress speech in the interest of free and honest discourse. Thus under US law, free speech is interpreted as expansively as possible including the concept of symbolic speech in the interests of truth, justice, and the American way. This is a mechanism to prevent the powerful from abusing the weak in society.

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