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It has been two decades since I took a reason and argument course in college. I am rusty on my command of logical fallacies. With that preface, I have been trying to locate a logical fallacy that describes an obfuscation/neutralization strategy I have been encountering in a number of rhetorical arenas on social media. I am an anthropologist and archaeologist, so two of the examples relate to Native American issues. Here are some examples:

Example 1:
Argument: "The US government engaged in a targeted and precise campaign to destroy Native American culture, including warfare and removal."
Rebuttal: "Native Americans were fighting each other before white people even got here. Humans have been fighting each other from the beginning of time."

Example 2:
Argument: "X corporation's lobbyist's leverage their wealth to influence Y politician."
Rebuttal: "That sounds like all corporations and politicians."

Example 3:
Argument: "Native Americans land was taken from them by force and deceit."
Rebuttal: "Native Americans aren't native. They came to the Americas from somewhere else just like the rest of us."

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    "Whataboutism" comes to mind – armand Jan 23 at 10:03
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    It's almost tu quoque: otherwise valid observations that nonetheless don't address or excuse the original claim made in any relevant way. – Asteroids With Wings Jan 23 at 17:21
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    It's not necessarily a fallacy in itself, and whether it's is even a good or bad counter-argument highly depends on what claim the person with the argument made. For the first example: if you want to just say that western civilization did some morally questionable things, then the rebuttal isn't justified. However, if you want to use the first argument to claim that western civilization is worse (or more evil) than other civilizations, then the rebuttal is justified. – vsz Jan 23 at 19:50
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    I think you need to back up a little and state what arguments you were actually trying to make. If you were literally just arguing that, "The US government engaged in a targeted and precise campaign to destroy Native American culture, including warfare and removal," I don't think you'll find many people who would argue that this (and the same for the European powers before the U.S. was even formed) are not true. The question is were you literally just asserting this or were you using it as a supporting point for some other argument. This could change how valid (or not) the responses are. – reirab Jan 23 at 21:20
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    "Whataboutism" is merely a rhetorical trick to avoid contradictory evidence. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Jan 24 at 6:16
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Its a funny thing. Like David Blomstrom, I don't think this is actually a fallacy.

The trick is that, in order to have a logical fallacy, one must have a logical argument. This consists of premises and conclusions. So what are the conclusions?

Person 1 - Premise: "The US government engaged in a targeted and precise campaign to destroy Native American culture, including warfare and removal."
Person 1 - Conclusion: ???

Person 2 - Premise: "Native Americans were fighting each other before white people even got here. Humans have been fighting each other from the beginning of time."
Person 2 - Conclusion: ???

The thing missing here are the conclusions. Neither party is stating them. The conclusion are all implied. That's part of why its hard to pin down an exlicit fallacy. No argument has actually been made explicitly, so no argument can be explicitly fallacious.

And when I say no argument has actually been made, that goes for both parties. The original speaker undertook the same form of discourse, leaving it to the other to draw their own conclusions.

Now what I, personally, find interesting about this pattern is that one could take either parties position, draw their conclusion (to make it explicit), and then argue it by adding additional premises. Depending on the conclusion chosen and the additional premises chosen, this may form a fallacy, or it may form a solid argument. However, upon adding enough premises to make a solid argument, one also increases the attack surface upon their argument. These sorts of implied conclusions are popular in situations where that extra attack surface is a major liability, such as in politics.

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  • I would suggest that once a conclusion is stated (assuming one, that disproves the premise), it would qualify as a non-sequitur (without thinking about it too deeply probably a fallacy of four terms). – peterph Jan 24 at 23:53
  • One of the best things I've read in a while. This pretty much sums up the problem with what we call political discourse in these times. This is why I think logic is a subject that needs to be a required subject in primary education. – JimmyJames Jan 25 at 22:27
  • @JimmyJames "This is why I think logic is a subject that needs to be a required subject in primary education." Okay, what do you want to cut from the curriculum to add logical reasoning to it? Primary teachers have a finite amount of time to spend with their students, after all. – nick012000 Jan 26 at 5:06
  • @nick012000 We'll in my kids' high-school there's plenty of time for rote memorization of countries and capitals so that they can forget it soon after. There are 'health' classes where they are taught things that are either totally stupid or in the process of being debunked by science. There are foreign language requirements that most will never need or use (other than on vacation, maybe.) Tons of money is spent on sports and music which is great but very few will use these skills for more than personal pleasure. – JimmyJames Jan 26 at 15:42
  • @nick012000 I don't really understand how we expect a democracy that works when the vast majority of the electorate doesn't understand what a valid logical argument is. What we have in the US is a political system where money is used to manipulate people to join a faction using emotional and fallacious arguments. Debates (if we can call them that) are reduced who can get in the most 'zingers' and catch-phrases. I'm not sure it would fix everything but if we could increase understanding of logic even a little, I think we'd be better off as a whole. – JimmyJames Jan 26 at 15:48
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Strictly speaking, I'm not sure if any of these qualify as fallacies - a reminder that not all propaganda is fallacious.

Native Americans were fighting each other before white people even got here. Humans have been fighting each other from the beginning of time.

That's literally true. Whether or not it's justification for European colonization is a matter of opinion.

My perspective: Most Native Americans were forced to defend the resources they needed to survive from other tribes, as growing populations increased competition. That's called survival. Europeans' survival, on the other hand, wasn't dependent on discovering and colonizing other worlds. Moreover, Europeans effectively waged war against the environment to boot. That's one rebuttal you could use against this particular argument. But, again, I don't think it qualifies as a fallacy.

Argument: "X corporation's lobbyist's leverage their wealth to influence Y politician." Rebuttal: "That sounds like all corporations and politicians."

Again, that sounds like a weak fallacy at best, since greed and corruption are rampant and apparently increasing. One could quibble over the word "all," but prefacing that sentence with "That sounds" suggests that they aren't attempting to make a precise statement. It sounds like they're simply saying, "So who is NOT corrupt among politicians and corporate tycoons these days?"

Possible comebacks might be "Two wrongs don't make a right," or "Enough is enough! Where do we draw the line?"

Argument: "Native Americans land was taken from them by force and deceit." Rebuttal: "Native Americans aren't native. They came to the Americas from somewhere else just like the rest of us."

In fact, Native Americans DID emigrate from the Old World.

We could quibble with the phrase "just like the rest of us." They certainly didn't arrive on high-tech sailing ships. In fact, most probably migrated across the Bering Land Bridge during the Ice Age. Another point: After living in the Americas for thousands of years, the first Americans adapted to the environment. Their cultures were essentially tied to the land. In contrast, many Europeans were largely divorced from Nature even before they left Europe for various colonies. Most Europeans' roots in the New World are relatively shallow, and their cultural links to the environment - aka "Mother Earth" - are equally shallow. There's a difference between "native American" (e.g. native born) and "Native American" (note the capital N). Most of the latter can also be called Amerindians, but there's no such thing as Amereuropeans, as far as I know.

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    "Europeans' survival wasn't dependent on discovering and colonizing" The Highland Clearances in Scotland, and The Potato Famine in Ireland were two clear exceptions, and religious dissenters were a major driver of emigration by people who felt persecuted or at risk enough for the challenge - two similar sized groups at Roanoke before the Mayflower were completely wiped out. The Mayflower group were radical exiles, mostly living in the Netherlands. – CriglCragl Jan 23 at 16:03
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    A reminder that logical fallacies relate to the argument and not solely to the facts in the statement. You can say something that's completely factually accurate, but misses the point of the original argument and therefore is a fallacious attack on that argument. "The sky is sometimes red." "It's sometimes blue too." And? So? Therefore? – Asteroids With Wings Jan 23 at 17:22
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    @ David. You're missing the implied argument. All arguments have at least two premises and one conclusion. Arguing about a premise misses the point. – user48488 Jan 23 at 21:36
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    The problem lies in the word "implied." I can smell the propaganda, but is it literally a fallacy if the statement is literally true, and we have to go fishing for implications? – David Blomstrom Jan 23 at 22:10
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    That speaks to capacity, not intent. Whilst I'm at it, the native americans didn't consider themselves (and were not) one people, the europeans didn't consider themselves (and were not) one people. "..I'm intrigued by people's willingness to aggregate only when the aggregation is misplaced..." – Giu Piete Jan 24 at 9:01
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As the others have remarked, the counter-arguments you face are factually more or less defendable. Nonetheless, they bother us. Why is that? Because the actual dissent is in what wasn't said.

When somebody like you points out the less-than-admirable behavior of the European intruders in the Americas they try to change the prevalent narrative. The typical schoolbooks of the mid-20th century — that is, the image that was bestowed on the boomers whose rule is increasingly challenged — romanticized the early history of the United States. The genocide of the native Americans was ignored, denied or glossed over. The white settlers were depicted as heroes conquering the Western frontier, mostly by being real men who can hunt and defend themselves against wild animals and wild Indians.

This is what Americans traditionally think they come from. This is the foundation of their country and their heritage. These virtues and values of the settlers live on in the present.

Defending the settlers implicitly defends this traditional image against revision. Yeah, we may have been a bit fuzzy with the facts in the past but the new insights really don't change anything. By contrast, questioning the motives of the settlers and finding the land occupation morally reprehensive questions this heritage. It asks for a revision of our historic narrative.

Revising this history is hard because it revises the foundation of who white Americans are, of their identity. It's a bit as if somebody pulls the epistemological carpet away from under your feet and you find yourself in a disoriented spin-tumble much like Truman Burbank in the Truman Show: Wait, I've been told lies all my life by my teachers and parents? I may not have any rights to the land I'm living on? "We" (as a people) mass-murdered a whole people and took away their land, made it our own and then called ourselves heroes and pioneers, instead of thieves and murderers?

Stating that white settlers took away the land and massacred the people living on it implies that our identity is based on lies. We are living a lie. We must question who we are and acknowledge a collective guilt.

The repercussions of acknowledging that may reach into the present with respect to land rights, reparations or what one might call "affirmative action" to compensate for past injustice. Ideally it would also make us more humble and less certain of ourselves (what else I believe may be entirely wrong?), decidedly un-American traits.

By rejecting this perpetrator-victim analysis your conversation partner effectively defends their identity, even if this identity never was an explicit part of the conversation. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the traditional way American history is told, and therefore nothing wrong with their life.

Similar issues are at play in your other examples as well. What we are being told — fair, free markets and fair, free elections which lead to an implementation of the people's will — conflicts with reports of deception, lies and ethics violations. Our society may not quite be what we are being told; particularly not as good, a judgement which reflects directly back at us who are part of it. Your conversation partner downplays such criticism and by association rejects the challenge to his or her identity.

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  • Upvoted after I read the first paragraph. ;) – David Blomstrom Jan 23 at 23:50
  • It seems a little ironic on a page like this to say, basically, "it was the boomers." Pretty sure this started a little tiny bit before that. Maybe you mean that in the 60's and 70's these cultural myths began to be seriously discussed and challenged? – Spike0xff Jan 24 at 21:40
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    @Spike0xff Yes, it started obviously earlier. But the OP is describing, I must assume, a contemporary discussion. The 60s and 70s are the last decades when the traditional narrative wasn't questioned, so I assume the conversation partner grew up then, which happens to make them a boomer. And not necessarily, but typically, these conversations are between generations. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jan 24 at 22:52
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    Your attempt to psychoanalyse how people might feel about American settlers from paragraph 2 onwards seems quite far removed from what the question is actually asking, i.e. what's wrong with that style of reasoning. Also, it leaves quite a bad taste in my mouth when people try to make completely incorrect and uncalled for generalisations, especially ones that include me, like you're doing in this answer (what you've written is most definitely not why that style of reasoning bothers me). Feel free to say it's how you personally feel about it, but don't drag everyone else into it. – NotThatGuy Jan 25 at 5:29
  • @NotThatGuy I think it's not far removed, I think it is exactly the underlying dissent. I may have been carried away into too much detail, and perhaps one of the other examples would have needed less exposition, but still. If you consider that indeed the counter-arguments are true then the unease with them must be from something else, something that wasn't said. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jan 25 at 7:29
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I would not say this is a fallacy, instead it is, to put in modern terms, a frame challenge.

So, the second party in your little scenario is saying:

Europeans came to the Americas and raped and plundered their way across several continents —- what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?

Even if we take it as a given that their behavior was bad, we don’t have to accept that anyone currently living has any responsibility (or ability) to redress the situation.

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It's, Any idiot can choose a frame (of time) within which nothing matters.

I quote this from Jordan B. Peterson "12 Rules of Life" chapter 4 p.87:

That's a cliche of nihilism, like the phrase, In a million years, who's going to know the difference? The proper response to that statement is not, Well, then, everything is meaningless. It's, Any idiot can choose a frame of time within which nothing matters.

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  • That's an interesting observation which is new to me, obvious as it is now. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jan 23 at 18:41
  • Paradoxically, the notion value of things depends on its marked change in the universe is a fallacy itself in my opinion – Probably Jan 23 at 20:20
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    "In the long run, we're all dead". – RonJohn Jan 24 at 8:08
  • This doesn't explain what the responses in question are, it's just a (rude) counter-argument. The question asks for the former, and asking for the latter would probably also be off topic. It also arguably doesn't even apply to any of the responses in the question. The first implies something which is constant, for which this certainly doesn't apply. It definitely doesn't apply to the second, which is about the present. The third is more arguable, but I'd probably still disagree about that. Also, the only thing Peterson changes about the quote is to make it an insult. – NotThatGuy Jan 24 at 23:41
  • Widen the frame (of not only time) to make anything appear natural: Example 1: from "US government vs. Native Americans" to "man vs man" Example 2: from "X bribes Y" to "all donations, paid speeches, even consultancy influences politics" Example 3: from "Native Americans have established right to the land" to "Homo Sapiens invades the world outside Africa" – Jens Jensen Jan 25 at 0:31
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I think it is easy to characterize this sort of invalid rebuttal, but for some reason it hasn't been said: It is an excuse.

Essentially, instead of addressing the argument, it gives an excuse for the indefensible behaviour by saying that "others did it too". Well, murderers do not have the right to excuse themselves with "but others kill people too". Nor can people who give or take bribes give the excuse that "others cheat too". And of course, thieves cannot justify stealing even if what they steal had been stolen previously...

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I would say it's a type of strawman fallacy.

It’s much easier to defeat your opponent’s argument when it’s made of straw. The Strawman argument is aptly named after a harmless, lifeless, scarecrow. In the strawman argument, someone attacks a position the opponent doesn’t really hold. Instead of contending with the actual argument, he or she attacks the equivalent of a lifeless bundle of straw, an easily defeated effigy, which the opponent never intended upon defending anyway.

In example 1, the response claims that violence would happen anyway, so it's apparently "just fine" for it to happen that way, "since it was going to happen one way or another".

Example 1:
Argument: "The US government engaged in a targeted and precise campaign to destroy Native American culture, including warfare and removal."
Rebuttal: "Native Americans were fighting each other before white people even got here. Humans have been fighting each other from the beginning of time."

Incidentally, I've heard this kind of argument used against racial violence.

Why should we bother with preventing white-on-black violence when black-on-black violence exists?

Personally, I'd counter with:

Why bother with preventing black-on-white violence when white-on-white violence exists?

But I'm pretty sure the people against BLM wouldn't understand the logic of using their own lack of logic against them. But I digress.

In example 3, it's assuming that it doesn't matter that taking land and resources from someone is OK, because they aren't the original owners of it from the beginning of time.

Example 3:
Argument: "Native Americans land was taken from them by force and deceit."
Rebuttal: "Native Americans aren't native. They came to the Americas from somewhere else just like the rest of us."

For example 2, I'd think of that as a hasty generalization.

A hasty generalization is a general statement without sufficient evidence to support it. A hasty generalization is made out of a rush to have a conclusion, leading the arguer to commit some sort of illicit assumption, stereotyping, unwarranted conclusion, overstatement, or exaggeration.

By stating that "everyone else is doing it", it ignores those who don't do it as well as not including anything to support their statement. Even if they could somehow support their statement, it would be fairly easy to disprove the statement by showing how corporations don't all lobby and how some politicians don't take lobby money.

Example 2:
Argument: "X corporation's lobbyist's leverage their wealth to influence Y politician."
Rebuttal: "That sounds like all corporations and politicians."

It could also be a strawman argument, since it's trying to remove the validity of the original statement. They are trying to spread blame, which actually doesn't invalidate the original statement as they want it to. In trying to spread blame, they are attacking something "the opponent never intended upon defending anyway."

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This is the Red Herring fallacy (see Knachel).

A fictional example can illustrate the technique. Consider Frank, who, after a hard day at work, heads to the tavern to unwind. He has far too much to drink, and, unwisely, decides to drive home. Well, he’s swerving all over the road, and he gets pulled over by the police. Let’s suppose that Frank has been pulled over in a posh suburb where there’s not a lot of crime. When the police officer tells him he’s going to be arrested for drunk driving, Frank becomes belligerent:

“Where do you get off? You’re barely even real cops out here in the ’burbs. All you do is sit around all day and pull people over for speeding and stuff. Why don’t you go investigate some real crimes? There’s probably some unsolved murders in the inner city they could use some help with. Why do you have to bother a hard-working citizen like me who just wants to go home and go to bed?”

Frank is committing the red herring fallacy (and not very subtly). The issue at hand is whether or not he deserves to be arrested for driving drunk.

It's an attempt to distract instead of argue.

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Reification (in its interpretation as the fallacy of misplaced concreteness), also called Vicious abstractionism, is a peculiar candidate.

Wikipedia describes Reification (fallacy) as:

Reification takes place when natural or social processes are misunderstood or simplified; for example, when human creations are described as "facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will".

Reification may derive from an inborn tendency to simplify experience by assuming constancy as much as possible.

Curiously, the explanation itself refers to an inborn tendency as cause for misunderstanding something as facts of nature.

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