Suppose that, while walking down the street one day, you are approached by a man who asks you for a dollar. You decline - maybe you don't have any cash on you at the moment, or you are worried he will spend it on drugs, or you notice that, while claiming to be destitute, he can afford nicer shoes than you - the reason is irrelevant. The man then flags down a passing police officer, and you are arrested. The crime? You stole a dollar from the man on the street.
Most people reading this will instinctively understand the problem with this scenario: there is a clear difference between not giving something to someone and stealing something from someone. However, in our modern political discourse, this difference has been erased by those who wish to demonize their political opponents. See if you can catch this bait and switch in action in this quote from Nancy Pelosi:
"In one of the bills before us, six million seniors are deprived of meals -- homebound seniors are deprived of meals. People ask us to find our common ground, the middle ground. Is middle ground three million seniors not receiving meals? I don't think so. We've got to take this conversation from a debate about numbers and dollar figures and finding middle ground there to the higher ground of national values. I don't think the American people want any one of those six million people to lose their meals or the children who are being thrown off of Head Start and the rest of it."
Or this one from Harry Reid:
“Republicans want to shut down the government because they think there’s nothing more important than keeping women from getting cancer screenings. This is indefensible and everyone should be outraged.”
In case you didn't catch it, Pelosi equates not giving seniors federally-funded in-home meals with depriving seniors of food. And in an even more blatant example, Reid states that not paying for cancer screenings is the same thing as keeping women from getting a cancer screening.
There are actually four formal fallacies at work here (that I could easily identify):
- Fallacy of the false dilemma. This fallacy assumes that there are only two options. In Reid's statement, he implies that either the federal government pays for cancer screenings, or women cannot get cancer screenings. This is obviously false; private insurance, cash, and charitable organizations are all ways for women to pay for cancer screenings separate from federal funding. Likewise, Pelosi insinuates that either the government provide shut-ins hot meals, or they will go hungry. Again, private charity is a counter-example, as are neighbors who are willing to look out for the needy on their block.
- The straw-man. This fallacy requires that the speaker deliberately misrepresent their opponent's views in order to easily tear them apart. Here, Reid changes the statement "Republicans do not want the federal government to pay for women's cancer screenings," to "Republicans want to keep women from getting cancer screenings." which is a much easier claim to make an argument against. After all, as a libertarian, I object to almost everything that the government actively prevents me from doing.
- The red herring. This fallacy introduces a secondary topic as a way to distract attention from the real problem. The conversations that Pelosi and Reid were participating in was an argument regarding the federal budget. Neither Pelosi or Reid can effectively argue that the nation's fiscal house is in order (what with the $14 trillion in debt and all), so they introduce a hot-button issue in order to get people worked up about women's health issues and hungry old people instead of the government's financial health issues.
- An appeal to fear. Reid's argument amounts to "if you support the Republicans, they will make sure you all die of cancer!" while Pelosi is effectively saying "Republicans want to starve old people!"
I'm far less interested in the specific arguments that these two idiots are making than the general points regarding identifying and rejecting logical fallacies. After all, if Americans were better at detecting bullshit, people like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid (and roughly 500 of their coworkers) would have to find honest work.