Friday, September 30, 2005

reductio ad absurdum in politics

Why can't we have honest political debate in this country? A big part of the reason is people like John Conyers who will happily take someone out of context and reverse what they intended to say in order to attack and discredit them (link from Queen of All Evil).

Bill Bennet was arguing against utilitarian social policy. In the midst of that argument, he pointed out a grotesque consequence of the policy: "if you wanted to reduce crime, you could - if that were your sole purpose - abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down." He was arguing essentially, "if you really believe what you say you do, then you have to agree with this grotesque statement".

John Conyers took that statement out of context and suggested that Bill Bennet was endorsing it, at least to some degree. This is absolutely beyond the pale.

When you are arguing with someone, can't you point out the consequences of their position without endorsing those consequences? How about this:
If the only purpose of punishment is to discourage crime, then you could just convict anyone of the crime and execute them even if they didn't do it. As long as everyone believed that the executed person was guilty, then the execution would serve the purpose of discouraging crime.
According to John Conyers, I just endorsed the idea of executing innocent people.

But what I actually did was reduce a position that I disagreed with to something that presumably everyone would disagree with. This is a variant of reductio ad absurdum. You argue against a position by showing how that position leads to a consequence that no one would accept. It is an ancient and honorable form of argumentation, and only a mental or moral midget would try to abuse someone over it the way John Conyers has done.

But of course Conyers isn't interested in civil debate. He's just out to get a conservative. And if he can do it by taking a quote out of context and creating a big media stink about it, well that's fine with him.

UPDATE: President Bush should be ashamed of himself.

UPDATE II: Well, this is what happens when you spend your day working instead of reading blogs. It seems that Conyers wasn't the whacko who started this witchhunt, he's just a whacko in Congress who took it to Kos. See this great article at Protein Wisdom for a good background.

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