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Sophistry as Conservative Bluster – A Primer

September 6, 2017
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Sophistry – n. a method of argument that is seemingly plausible though actually invalid and misleading
–Collins English Dictionary

Initially, I was quite upset with the above statement blaring in my Facebook feed. And I was upset that it was making me upset. Was it that one of my few social media relationships with family and friends from the rural area where I grew up was being frayed yet again by partisan politics? Partly.

Was it that the statement was smug and self-satisfied? Partly.

As I crafted and discarded response after response to the maddening meme, the whole thing came into focus more clearly. There was a slimy residue of intellectual dishonesty that coated the whole thing. There was no one thing to be upset over–there were actually a multitude of issues here that are bubbling right beneath the calm veneer of the statement. And I wanted to yell at all of them.

First and most significantly, the assertion is based on a false premise that even a fairly thoughtful conservative would be tempted to gobble down indiscriminately. Why, yes, it would in fact be ignorant to blame an inert statue for problems we face in the world today! But… let’s find someone, anyone, who stated that our social problems are the result of Confederate statues. I’ll wait here while you look for someone who said that.

Any rabid liberal worth his or her salt would recite to you a litany of causes for the social issues we face today: systemic racism, the Reagan-incited extinction of the middle-class wage earner, the prison-for-profit system, unfettered corporate lobbying and corporate welfare, insufficient support for at-risk populations, housing discrimination, lack of investment in education and infrastructure, and so on. But statues–probably not on anyone’s list.

So Mr. Nichols’ argument is over before proceeding past the first word. No one “blamed” any statues for anything other than being insensitive. They are not the source of our problems, but they are, I would acknowledge, a side effect of our problems.

(Incidentally, since there’s no value in treating side effects, I will be confiscating Mr. Nichols’ Tylenol pain reliever, Kleenex tissue, and cough syrup the next time he gets a cold. Obviously, by wiping his nose, he’s blaming the mucus for making him sick. Leave that snot exactly where it is!)

The second issue with the statement is how oblivious it is to the implications of arguing irrelevance. If the statues are SO old and SO irrelevant, the argument goes, how could they possibly have any impact on us today? Well, fair enough, but wouldn’t the same argument apply to those claiming that the statues hold historical and cultural value? Such impotent, useless slabs of cheap metal in the shape of soldiers and horses could just as easily be recycled for scrap metal. But something tells me the bandwagon for this argument makes a U-turn when discussing the living relevance of the statues for Southerners. Unfortunately, you can’t have it both ways. They’re either old and irrelevant for everyone or they’re not.

Finally, the kicker: “…only highlights the ignorance among us.” This is either ingenious or disingenuous, and I can’t really decide which. It is the point of the post, its only true reason for existing. It’s the cherry on top of the sophistry sundae Mr. Nichols has served up for us. After the fictitious premise builds, expressed with a tone of knowledgeable detachment, it is separated from its conclusion by a thoughtful-looking ellipsis (…), and then concludes with an oh-alas! sigh of resignation at what the state of polite political discourse has come to. “Among us” is a bit of rhetorical genius–it’s a wonderful way to sound non-partisan while really saying only one thing: “Liberals are stupid.” (Or “People who don’t agree with me are stupid.”)

This statement is not part of a real, meaningful dialogue. It’s a soliloquy of hopelessly circular reasoning, where someone contorts a reasonable position (“Confederate statues on public display in shared spaces may be insensitive to certain people and we should consider taking them down”) into an unreasonable position (“We’re going to solve our social problems by taking down some old statues”) and then shaking his reasonable, conservative head at how misguided this position (the one he made up out of thin air, that no one is arguing) is.

The real hat trick here is that the only real ignorance that is being put on display is that of the people who buy this argument in the first place. Nice try, Mr. Nichols, but the ignorance among us, in this instance, is pretty heavily concentrated on your side, and good thing, too, or no one would be sharing your post.

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