Too many times I’ve been guilty of acting like this guy.
The ironic “fallacy fallacy” is a frequent mistake among sharp-eyed critics who tend to miss the forest for the trees. It is the logical fallacy that presumes a claim is necessarily false because it’s been argued with faulty reasoning. But of course arguments can be both invalid and true. Logic-chopping isn’t enough.
Sometimes the truth value of such invalid arguments turns out to be true by simple, dumb luck. Sometimes they’re true because behind a badly stated argument stands a valid chain of reasoning. This is often the case with the so-called slippery slope or consequentialist fallacy.
The problem with decrying “slippery slopes” with impunity is that, in our helter-skelter landscape, slopes often are slippery. Not only can Z follow A, even when it can’t be shown to follow, but sometimes, upon closer examination, we see Z coming. The necessity of considering such consequences is of course notorious in jurisprudence; hence the significance of legal precedent. The steep and slippery slope of redefining marriage is currently being examined by the justices of the Supreme Court - either with fear and trembling or foolhardy bravado. But no one is intelligently denying the slope, or that a certain gravity pulls us down it.
Having said that, Doug Wilson’s recent post on the question of “the flag” is guilty of a number of logical fallacies. But his conclusions are not all, therefore, without merit. As usual, Wilson makes many deft observations and draws not a few insightful connections. For instance, Wilson is quite right to expose our barefaced, national hypocrisy in chanting “black lives matter!” as we blissfully ignore the 5,250 black lives destroyed since the Charleston shooting last week. All forms of racial discrirmination are to be addressed; how much more so the practical genocide against black children in America through the abortion industry? With such blatant hypocrisy among us (including, shamefully, evangelicals), one might be forgiven for wondering whether the tears shed by so many in the public square aren’t more reptilian than humane.
In the meantime, the kind of Christian leader who gets worked up over a decal on a pick-up truck belonging to the sort of good old boy who spends half of every paycheck at Cabela’s, but who has no visceral reaction whatever to that big Planned Parenthood logo which he drives by every day, where today’s horrors are actually being perpetrated, is not, apart from repentance, going to be part of the reformation we so desperately need.
Amen, brother Wilson! Nevertheless, the overarching bent of his argument slopes downward. In sum, he argues: to yield to the demands of “take down the flag” will only take us further down the path of destruction. The justification he offers for this appeal to a slippery slope is a supposed “false principle.”
If you admit a false principle into the settlement of public disputes like this one — and I hate to be the one to bring you the sorrowful tidings — the false principle does not disappear when the dispute does. It remains there, propped up in the corner, cocked and loaded, waiting for the next dispute. And because of the times we live in, there will be a next dispute, probably in about three weeks.
I find his reasoning here sound. If “a false principle” is admitted into the settlement of a dispute, we should not be surprised to see this false principle re-applied, with perhaps greater authority, in the next dispute. Precedent. But the question I have is whether the premise is true. Has a false principle been admitted into the settlement of this dispute? What is the principle in question?
If you want me to believe that the flag in South Carolina should come down because of sins x, y, and z, then I am simply inquiring why another flag should not come down because of far more heinous sins X, Y, and Z.
But here I think Wilson is guilty of a fallacy of ambiguity, namely equivocation. The other flag he refers to here is the American flag, under the banner of which, Wilson points out, many atrocities have been committed. This is true enough. But the comparison collapses at the critical point. To equate the American flag vis-à-vis the varied sins of our republic “for which it stands,” to the peculiar significance of the Confederate flag(s) - particularly the battle flag as it’s been used in the Post-Civil War South - vis-à-vis the American institution of slavery and its attendant racism, is an equivocation. The particular history of the flag and its use bears this out for any honest inquirer.
Later, Wilson articulates the supposed false principle in this way:
…what matters is [one’s] feelings and not the facts as understood and processed by millions of other people, and scores of subcultures…
But isn’t the case being made that the flag is so “understood and processed by millions of other people, and scores of subcultures”? No doubt, some are arguing for the flag’s removal on what amounts to the subjective grounds of private interpretation, and this would be a poor argument, even if the conclusion were true. However, the facts appear to justify the predominant understanding regarding the flag’s negative, racial connotations.
But perhaps more importantly Wilson’s slippery slope argument is bound up with a significant ad hominem fallacy. The problem isn’t primarily the flag and its placement; it’s who wants to take it down. Though he does “want to replace the flag” – why, I am not sure – his concern is that such action will only collude with and further confirm the cultural hegemony of them. As he puts it, “to simply go along with what they are currently demanding is to help establish their authority to demonize.” And who’s “them”?
…the people behind all our symbol controversies are the same people. Their fellow-travelers change, as do their tools and patsies, but they are relentless about the same thing, over and over again. They say that a “heritage not hate” sticker really “is too” hate. But do you really want to put them in charge of what is “really hate”? They are the same people who say that bakers who will only put hetero-figurines on top of their cakes are driven by hate too.
It gets worse from there. Here I cannot follow Wilson. To throw everyone who’s making a case for the removal of the flag into one category - particularly this category - is clear guilt by association (and perhaps a bit paranoid). But when we group together the proponents of a position into one, monolithic entity, we blur what each is actually arguing. Moreover, when we assume such motives and agendas behind each proponent’s stance, we literally become prejudiced.
Because Wilson carries this “conspiracy reading” of the events and their significance, he cannot avoid the slippery slope fallacy. Give an inch to “these people,” and they’ll take a mile! It loses the particulars of the issue at hand in zooming out to the broader issues of the culture war. He’s missing the trees for the forest. Wilson is not wrong about this war. But I’m afraid he’s overlooking the battle before us. This is a frequent mistake in ideological warfare – one that, ironically, militates against our Christian duty to stand for truth, especially when it’s found on the lips of “them.”