Passing bull 66 – Fallacies in debate

When I started in defamation trials more than forty years ago, there was a fallacy that there was a defence to defamation of ‘gross and vulgar abuse’ – ‘I was full and I didn’t really mean to go over the top like that.’  There was of course no such defence.  The most that you could argue is that in all the circumstances, the words complained of did not bear the meaning contended for by the plaintiff.  Decades later, a young woman starting in politics came to me complaining that on election night her opponent had called her a ‘fucking whore’ in the presence of others.  I suggested that she might cop a lot worse than that before she was finished and that it might be better to get on with her life.  She rang back, and said that she felt affronted as a human being and wanted to sue.  When we did, the other side said he was drunk and that this was merely ‘gross and vulgar abuse.’  The client and I thought this made the libel worse.  So did the court.

Trump has sought to use the same fallacy to excuse his vile sex tape.  You just change the label on the box – a libel becomes mere vulgar abuse; an affront to women becomes mere locker room banter.  It doesn’t work; it makes the original offence worse.  What is ‘locker room banter’?  It’s what men say when there are no women present.  That’s when they are frank, and let their hair down.  That’s when the truth comes out.  Like when they’re full.  In vino veritas.  It is decades since I was in a locker room but the relevant sayings then included: ‘They’re all the same height horizontal.’  ‘They’re all pink inside.’ ‘Hang them upside down and they’re all sisters.’ ‘A rising prick has no conscience.’  So, if this was a locker-room banter, we know that it expresses true feelings.  They are of course absolutely in character here.  What was said was not just offensive to women, but an affront to humanity.  The man is a pig.  And the worst part was the sniggering sycophancy of a member of the Bush family.

A second fallacy was also typical.  The ad hominem response.  ‘She says I’m guilty; she’s more guilty; her husband’s the worst of the lot’.  There was a grotesque parade of complainants.  This fallacy reached the level of insanity.  ‘Yes I exploited a tax loop-hole, but she is also to blame because she was a member of the Senate that failed to block the loop-hole.’  This type of mutual personal abuse is what is killing politics.

The worst fallacy was in calling this televised bullfight or TV ringside a debate.  In a debate, people use rational arguments to try to persuade others of their argument.  A presidential debate would involve trying to persuade others that you have the character, training, and experience to be President.  You hardly see any of that.  All you get is a brawl as part of reality TV.  And the TV stations are up to their necks in promoting it as such.  Why not?  That’s their business.  The result is that there is no meaning to the question who ‘won’ the ‘debate’ because there was no such thing.  If you had a real debate between these two, Trump could never win.  He is morally and intellectually incapable of sustaining a rational argument.  It follows that when people say Trump ‘won’, they are saying that he was the better showman on the reality TV show.  That is of course his real trade.

And that is why Andrew Bolt celebrated Trump’s comeback and denounced the liberal press for not saying enough about the crimes of the Clintons.

Save Our Souls.

Poet of the Month: Verlaine


The moon is red on the misted horizon;

In a fog that dances, the meadow

Sleeps in the smoke, frogs bellow

In green reeds through which frissons run;

The lilies close their shutters,

The poplars stretch far away,

Tall and serried, their spectres stray;

Among bushes the fireflies flicker;

The owls are awake, in soundless flight

They row through the air on heavy wings,

The zenith fills, sombrely glowing.

Pale Venus emerges, and it is Night.

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