Unfair Portraits of Opponents' Positions

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I've been wondering about a common rhetorical trick that really offends the opposing party in a debate. Often in arguments, we present unfair portraits of others' views, unfair because they wouldn't themselves describe it that way. But if it's an accurate description of their view or the results of it, and they just don't acknowledge that their view has that consequence, why not describe them as holding that view? The charitable opponent will recognize that they just don't see the consequence and therefore won't believe it. I once thought it was always worth describing things the way people would describe their own views. It's only fair to ascribe to them only the views they themselves hold and not the views that others wrongly take them to hold. I'm now beginning to think that it's not so simple as that.

Before I say anything more about this, I should admit that both Mac and I were guilty of this (if it's something one can be guilty of, which I haven't answered yet) in our recent debate about KJV-onlyism. It's not just that we both made such rhetorical moves. Each got upset when the other did it to him. I won't search through to find these, but I should at least link the part of the debate that occurred here so those interested might be able to find them.

A passing comment in the Ochuk post about Planned Parenthood that I mentioned in my last post illustrates this well:

But the reality is far more women come to PP in order to ruin their lives and destroy another than to listen to a Christian wax eloquent about life beginning at conception�something PP utterly laughs at.

Do women (and, more commonly young girls) go to Planned Parenthood with the explicit purpose of ruining their lives? They are destroying a life, and that is their intent unless they believed the most simplistic versions of the pro-choice view that claim that a fetus isn't alive (which is medically ridiculous but unfortunately common enough that pro-life people really believe most pro-choice people think that, which I doubt is even close to accurate). On the best pro-choice view, they don't think they're destroying a person, however, and they certainly don't expect it to ruin their lives. So is Ochuk being unfair?

Assume he's right that having an abortion is likely to ruin one's life. The people he's talking about don't believe it will, but it will, on this assumption. So Ochuk, who believes that assumption, is describing them as doing something in order to ruin their lives, when they wouldn't see that as one of their goals, but he'd defend his claim by saying that it is the expected result of their action once you understand what's involved in that action and its effects on one's life. Still, they wouldn't describe their action that way, and it isn't the intended purpose of their action. So is it fair to describe it that way?

Let's examine another abortion issue, since that seems to be the theme for the day. Pro-life people generally shun the term 'anti-abortion', mostly because they don't want to sound negative. They'd rather emphasize that it's the principle of preserving life that drives them. So they tend to get upset when pro-choice people use that term. I myself think it's a perfectly fine term and am happy to apply it to myself. I think abortion is a great evil, so of course I'm against abortion. Still, the exclusive use by some pro-choice groups of 'anti-abortion' rather than the preferred term 'pro-life' seems to me to be for rhetorical purposes only with no value in terms of real argumentation. In that way you might find it to be a little unfair.

Even more to the point, pro-life people often call pro-choice people pro-abortion, and depending on which pro-choice view is in question it may or may not be accurate. Some people believe abortion is never wrong and is good in a number of ways (e.g. population control). Most pro-choice people, however, consider abortion a bad thing and just think women have a right to decide whether they will do that bad thing, sometimes thinking the considerations for it outweigh those against it and sometimes just thinking people have the right to do bad things. This kind of view is not pro-abortion in the sense of thinking abortion is a good thing and should be encouraged, but pro-life rhetoric makes it sound that way.

So I was thinking about this in light of the discussion I had with Mac, realizing that we had both done this to each other and both gotten upset that the other had done it, thinking of that as a bad reflection on both of us. Then I made a connection with the study of Isaiah that I've been leading this summer. We've covered Isaiah 28:1-30:18 so far, and it struck me that Isaiah engages in exactly the kind of rhetorical move that I'd been thinking of as bad. So the Bible itself does this.

Here are the two most obvious examples:

Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers,
who rule this people in Jerusalem!
Because you have said, �We have made a covenant with death,
and with Sheol we have an agreement,
when the overwhelming whip passes through
it will not come to us,
for we have made lies our refuge,
and in falsehood we have taken shelter
(Isaiah 28:14-15, ESV)

For they are a rebellious people,
lying children,
children unwilling to hear
the instruction of the Lord;
who say to the seers, �Do not see,�
and to the prophets, �Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
prophesy illusions,
leave the way, turn aside from the path,
let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.
(Isaiah 30:9-11, ESV)

This is clearly putting things on the lips of people that they wouldn't themselves affirm. But Isaiah is saying that in effect they are saying such things. By rejecting the message God has given it's as if they're tellking the seers not to see and the prophets not to prophesy what's right. They're asking for illusions, even though they wouldn't describe them as illusions and lies. They wouldn't describe their appeal to Egypt as a covenant with death, but Isaiah is ironically putting on their lips the explicit covenant with death that has spiritually taken place.

Of course, Isaiah had divine insight into what other people's motivations and views really were. We don't necessarily, so is it wrong for me to do the same? When I do know what's behind someone's view through discussing it with them or through careful reasoning, it doesn't bear the mark of divine authority but is still pretty good. Some people really do hold views that have consequences or implications beyond what they'd admit. When it's clear that I'm being ironic, as Isaiah was, I don't see a problem doing this, as long as I make it clear that I realize the person I'm talking about wouldn't admit to that description. I think that was clear in Isaiah's case, since the things he was placing on their lips were just absurd. In contemporary philosophy, when people say absurd things all the time, we need a little more care in making it clear that the description is sarcastic. Sometimes it's worth pointing out to people what their view really entails, and sometimes sarcasm is the best way to do so. Sometimes it isn't, especially when it's not clear that it was sarcastic (as is the case when I did it to Mac).

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:4-5, ESV)

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