Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Deciphering and Responding to Loaded, Complex Questions

Vyckie Garrison at posted a response to one of the many frequently asked questions she hears in response to her website and those who participate there.  Though she now rejects the alleged wisdom offered by the whole of the Quiverfull Movement (QF) and its theology, she loves and celebrates her children, often mentioning the new joy and freedom that the kids enjoy since the family abandoned the legalistic standards it demanded of them all.  Vyckie’s latest response and “FAQ” concerns the defensive questions that Christians still involved in QF ask her, though I really don’t find them to be questions at all.  Her excellent response is quite moving and should not be missed.

Which of your 7 children would you go back and kill in order to not have lived the life you lived up to this point?

Vyckie immediately asks in the blog post what kind of logic produces such a question!  I’d like to respond to her rhetorical question with an answer.  The short answer which I’d like to describe in greater detail is that such a question interweaves several informal logical fallacies that seem logical on the surface.  Before your eyes glass over and roll back into your head from sheer boredom, stick with me for awhile and I’ll make an attempt to explain this complicated trickery in less complicated terms.

Part of understanding what people say involves deductive reasoning, essentially just stripping down the separate elements of the argument to look at them separately.  It reminds me of my piano lessons when my teacher would stop me and have me write in the timing in pencil on the score when it was complicated.  Slow down the speed and get the technical stuff right first, and then practice until you can come up to tempo.  I’ll write in the details for you as I understand them to help you understand and explain what exactly goes wrong in this kind of statement.  There are many things wrong with the question.

Black-and-White Fallacy

One of the first problems with this question comes from the faulty premise held by the person asking the question.  In looking at fallacies and logic, the tradition surrounds the writing of syllogisms, or two things we know so that we can arrive at what we want to know.  Ideas are assigned letters for the sake of simplification ("If p then q").  The syllogism for the matter at hand, as indicated by the person posing the question could be stated like this:

Love of children is central to QF.
Vyckie rejects QF because she feels overwhelmed and inadequate as she tries to meet all of the needs of her children.

Therefore, Vyckie loves her comfort more than she loves her children.

Anyone looking at the syllogism can pick out the problems with the question from this perspective.  I think that part of the problem classifies as the Black-and-White Fallacy, what can also be called “all or nothing” thought.  The leaders within QF paint all matters of life in extremes, reducing everything down in absolute all or nothing terms.  If Vyckie finds that QF misled her and she now rejects the ideology, it is assumed that Vyckie must reject every aspect of QF which involves loving one’s children.  For the black and white thinker, no one aspect can be separated from the whole package.

Think of it this way.  If you say it is not cold outside, does that the extreme opposite of coldness describes the weather and temperature outside?  It can be cold outside or not cold outside, but not cold outside can mean a whole range of different temperatures and conditions.  It might be comfortably temperate, or it might mean that it’s warm, not windy, or that the humidity is low.  By denying that it is cold does not necessarily mean that the temperature feels hot.

The question asked of Vyckie is much like saying presuming that if it is not cold outside, it must be unbearably hot!  When you mix up “if it’s not cold, it has to be hot” with “it’s either cold or not cold,” then you are arguing based on a black and white logical fallacy.

Vyckie can reject elements of the QF lifestyle but still absolutely embrace children as blessings and love her children as much as she did in QF.  She might even love them more now that she does not view her children as “signs of opulence” and proof of holiness as some QF ministers preach and many followers understand.  It’s Vyckie’s great love for her children that compels her to honestly admit her limitations and fears about adequately providing for them to the degree that she desires.   Her rejection of the legalism of performance that was packaged up and sold to her as faith and power for living that she could earn does not mean in any way that she wishes that she did not have her children nor that she wishes to part with any of them. 

Her rejection of the QF ideology means exactly what she intends and states that it means:  (1) she does not have the resources and magic that the QF ideology promised would appear to help make life fulfilling and enjoyable, the rewards that faith should bring; and,  (2) she’s decided to stop lying to herself about how good QF is in order to tell the truth about the difficulties of the lifestyle, even while she was fully committed to it.

Loaded Language as a Red Herring to create Guilt by Association

Loaded Language is actually a subtype of “Begging the Question,” but I have separated it out here as its own type of fallacy.  Robert Lifton identified Loading the Language as a vital element of thought reform, and it plays a huge role in shaping the thinking of followers in an ideological system.  Words have primary meanings, but when they have a secondary connotation that communicates another subtle meaning, they are said to be loaded.  I can talk about plants, but if I call a plant a weed, it connotes something quite negative and is therefore loaded, just like the bullet in a loaded gun.

Loaded language can be very valuable, and its use is not exactly a direct fallacy in and of itself.  It is a more of a logical booby-trap which promotes the making of logical leaps into fallacy because it is leading and gives way into manipulation through emotional hooks.  People tend to get stymied on the emotional element which dulls critical thinking.  People easily mistake the loaded language for a viable and logical argument, ignoring the merit of the argument itself.

In the example of the question posed to Vyckie, “go back and kill” conjures up lots of emotion.  I think it’s interesting to note that the person asking the question does not come right out and say “Which child do you want to get rid of today?”  “Go back and kill” implies something quite specific that Vyckie does not identify when she writes the FAQ phrase as “never been born.”  But the person posing the question does not ever mention a wish that a life never existed.  To me, this implies abortion – to go back to before a baby was born, making a choice to kill that baby in the womb.  This question is loaded with all sorts of assumptions, but the most clear for me that communicates suggests that Vyckie somehow now embraces abortion.

Such arguments are called red herrings, something that can be used to distract a bloodhound away from a scent it is tracking.  The powerful stench of the fish overwhelms the scent that the bloodhound can detect and can no longer hunt.  Using such a strong association of abortion offends the target, but it also helps the person who issued the red herring to feel better about themselves by devaluing their opponent.  If there are others around to hear the argument, the red herring through loaded language and association with something so terrible as abortion will also stop their critical thought as well.  Subtly, Vyckie is associated as someone who supports abortion (something she did not even do before she became a Christian, choosing to give birth to her daughter instead of aborting her).  For those listening to the argument, if they are not closely evaluating what is being said, they will perceive that Vyckie is guilty by association, casting her in a very negative light in the hope that Vyckie will be seen as a disreputable person that should not be trusted.

Complex, Loaded Question

As was pointed out in the NLQ Forum discussing Vyckie’s post, the question has been constructed so that there is no way to correctly answer the question without affirming something negative and untrue about the issue.  It is a no win situation, much like asking “Do you still beat your wife?”  No matter the answer, the respondent has to affirm in some way that at one time, they did beat their wife.  The presupposition of wife beating is false, so any response to it is loaded with the presumption.  You cannot answer without affirming some falsehood or denying something under suspicion.  The question is as loaded as is a loaded gun.  It is the wrong question to ask.

A question is not an argument, but it is a logical booby-trap that baits people into saying something that they do not mean and do not intend to say – then it can lead into an actual fallacy.  It is very much akin to the black-and-white fallacy, as there is a false dilemma and forces the person responding into a position that favors a dilemma of only two choices, neither of which is adequate.  This technique is used very frequently within patriarchy and QF, so it does not surprise me that followers of the group parrot these same types of loaded arguments and salacious questions.

(I laugh when I hear these spontaneous questions from people in QF, because they hear this used as manipulation against them, they learn how to ask these same types of questions.  It reminds me of a scene from “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”  A history teacher asks the protagonists about Joan of Arc.  One kid responds with “Noah’s wife?”  But later in another scene, the other kid ponders this and asks, “Who was Noah’s wife?”  People in QF seem to me to ask many questions about “Noah’s wife.”  Noah’s wife is immaterial, but they’ve been taught to ask the wrong questions about peripheral matters!)

Begging the Question

In this fallacy, “begging” means “dodging” or “avoiding” the question.  “Begging the question” fallacies appear to be working toward a logical conclusion, but they rely too much on the ideas that are presupposed and relied upon in the beginning.  In other words, the person who is arguing doesn’t really commit to working toward new solutions or understanding.  They are only interested in proving that they are right and were right from the beginning.  Information only travels in one direction, and there is no bilateral exchange of ideas.

If two people are discussing and debating something, they presume to start out with some basic assumptions.  If we agree on A and B, we can work together toward some reasonable statement or new understanding about the nature of A and B.  Sometimes, it just involves understanding the different perspectives of the other party.  In cultic mindsets, people who ascribe to the dogma of the group are not permitted to think and they don’t want to arrive at a reasonable statement or new insight.  New ideas cause them to think, and independent thinking is very painful and anxiety provoking because it is punished by the group and by the confines of the thinking permitted by the group.  The system of a cultic religion is a “closed system.”  It is static and suppresses the personal growth and independent insight, so thinking is also “closed.”

The person posing this question to Vyckie does not really want an answer to the question, and it is not reflective of any kind of debate or apologetic.  This person does not want Vyckie to explain herself but rather is looking for reasons to reinforce their own sense of security within the closed system of the cult and the closed thought it requires.  This “begs the question” because it dodges any possible and reasonable answer that Vyckie might give, discounting any possible response that Vyckie might offer.

Well, I hope my description of what I see at work in this question is a bit clearer than mud!  Many such statements and arguments that come out of patriarchy and the Quiverfull Movement are very complicated and mind-boggling.  In many cases, there are so many things wrong because they’ve woven so many fallacies and propaganda techniques together, they are difficult to pull apart and evaluate.  Many times, I have to think about what’s being said, long after the statements have been made because they are so complicated to evaluate in the moment.  And often, the language is so emotionally charged, the cognitive dissonance it generates does stifle thought.

I hope the reader here feels more confident about how some of these types of manipulative techniques work through this very sad example.  Most people are not lawyers or logicians, and life is so complicated and busy, many people do not have time to sit down to figure out what’s wrong with a particular statement.  I would encourage the reader to pay attention to their emotions and their own sense of confusion when faced with this kind of complicated and loaded argument.  Quite often, the first indication that I have in response to a blog post or an article contains more complicated fallacies presents as my own inability to pay attention to the article.  It doesn’t make good sense, and I can’t pay attention or can’t get through it, though it may actually be well written.   I will set such writing aside and will come back to it, and I find that it is generally the fuzzy and flawed logic that accounts for my inattention.

You don’t necessarily need to know how to tear apart an argument, but you can learn how to identify your own response to dissonance and the confusion that writings like this bring up for you.  Pay attention to your emotions and how your body feels.  Do you feel like you are in a broad place with your feet firmly on the ground as you read, or do you feel as though you are in a confined space that is dark and cramped?  Do you get a headache or a funny tightness in your stomach?  These all might be cues you can use to step back from information or situations that put you at risk for manipulation.  Always consider that you should have time and room in which to make decisions and evaluate arguments (or questions!), and you should have the right to ask your own questions to arrive at clear understanding.  If you don’t understand what is being said, and you feel uncomfortable, step back and get understanding.  If information feels wrong to you, then there’s a good possibility that it is wrong!  Trust yourself.