Sticks and Stones: The Problem With Deductive Logic in the Public Discourse

Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority.” (Doctor Who, Whitaker 1968)

Deductive reasoning is a powerful mental construct. It can lead to brilliantly simple conclusions that offer clarity to complex issues. However, it can trap itself in it’s own logic when the deduction forces an answer that is patently false due to its exclusion of outside fact. For instance, one might make the assertion that Rick Santorum is an asshole. Rick Santorum is also a Christian. Therefore Christians are assholes. But the truth of the matter is far different than this deduction. Christians are not always assholes as evidenced by Desmond Tutu, Jay Bakker, or that lovely old couple that you see at the grocery store Sunday afternoons. So the exclusion of outside facts leads to a conclusion that is logical but false. In essence, it “makes sense” to believe the conclusion when outside considerations are removed from view. This presents a clear danger for our public discourse. As Vogelstein states, “Deductive certainty is…too high a standard to impose when evaluating our knowledge of facts about the world (Copi and Cohen, 1998: 470).” Unfortunately for you and I, this course of reasoning tends to infiltrate our discourse and force bizarre outcomes to otherwise “obvious” rationales. This happens on both sides of the political spectrum.

While the liberal sentiment is most often arguing from a perspective of “lets just look at the empirical facts” and the right tends to say “I know this in my heart because God said so,” they both use deductive reasoning at inopportune times to justify their claims. The left may say that religious persons believe in a theology that you can’t see, touch, or test scientifically. Things that you can’t test scientifically can’t be proven. Therefore, religious claims have no validity because they can’t be proven. While this is not far from true, it is far from fair and a little off center from accurate. Perhaps it lives two houses down from the truth and across the way from inclusive; pen pals with valid if you will. Anyway, it disregards the very real empirical impact those beliefs have on the believers. That obviously leads to derision between the sides when a “rational” debate would seek to find the in-between spaces they could both argumentatively occupy as common ground. But that would mean learning to play nice, and neither side wants that. Conversely, the right often will make claims along the lines of: Male pedophiles often molest young males. Gay men have sex with males. Therefore, gay men must be pedophiles. This argument, when you bring even a pinpoint of outside information to the table, falls apart and is shown to be absurd. But, it truly holds the sway of the uninformed and leads to a great many harms in the public discourse just as the liberal sentiment previously stated. Uninformed leads to gullible and as the famous Forrest Gump says, “Stupid is as stupid does.” Neither deductions can hold as truths when contextualized. And that is the problem. Context has all but become a lost art.

Our public sphere is loaded with “instances” and “moments” as I like to refer to them. Ads, blurbs, headlines, buzz words, and talking points all flood our ears and eyes with reckless abandon each day. These snippets offer small bursts of information that make deductive reasoning prevalent and lead directly to broad stroke assessments of complex issues that need the time and space to be deconstructed. The reactionary discourse and emotional jumpiness of the public is fueled by a swirl of “right now” tidbits that offer surface level academics. Our public sphere is like a giant internet search engine that pushes the top ten most likely links to the top where the effort to dig deeper is becoming a burden rather than a need for the average person. Essentially, our old time belief that the cream rises to the top is leading to a reinforcement of deductive rationalities that are less cream and more like the trash that gets tossed on the heap most often. This trash isn’t a full a meal and is usually just pieces of the crap that once had a use in context.

In his work Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, Slavoj Zizek says of systemic violence, “..[W]e should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ‘subjective’ violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive…the background which generates such outbursts (Zizek 7).” Truly, we need to take the public discourse away from such easily asserted views to a place where we observe the systemic circumstances and factors that create a discourse which leads, as Zizek would assert, to violence. Our system of base deduction has born a society that would schizophrenically believe the voices that whisper such “truths” and put those beliefs into action in ways that would breed injustice and fear. It is exactly what a power structure would want if it were unbalanced in the favor of the few. Oligarchy faces little resistance from those who believe to be fighting for themselves. Essentially, make them (citizens) believe they came up with the idea, and they will think and act however you please.

Language is a far more important and powerful tool than we might imagine. For thousands of years, words have held mystical qualities, sometimes magical. This goes beyond words like abracadabra and bootylicious. In the Christian and Jewish tradition, the Genesis story involves naming the world with God as a sign of dominion and stewardship and this type of naming occurs in creation stories from many of the mythologies of the world outside this tradition. And the New Testament Gospel of John starts with all life stemming from the Word. In this account, God spoke and all things were. Throughout history, words like heretic, witch, king, sinner, man, woman, gay, child, crazy, enemy, terrorist, and a great many terms of the demeaning and derogatory persuasion have held vast amounts of cultural power. They have been used to change the very course of human history. Words are an extension of the human will. They are a force, and when used in ways like our current discourse would promote, they are a violence committed against our neighbor and ourselves. You might say surface level information about Beyonce’s labor room army, Kim Kardashian’s fake marriage, Rush Limbaugh’s poor manners, or the Republican party’s obsession with NFL football and vagina is nothing more than useless prattle. Perhaps you are right, but only on the surface. These moments assert violently the same narratives told in the undercurrent of our nation. These narratives are the stories that shape us as a culture and help form our identities when we aren’t paying attention. If we don’t reflect on this language, then we will mindlessly become reflections of it. Mirror, mirror on the wall…

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