Rules of Engagement: Thanksgiving Edition
A helpful guide for avoiding rhetorical pitfalls over the holiday dinner table...
Joel Bowman, appraising the situation from Buenos Aires, Argentina...
Welcome to another Sunday Session, dear reader, that time of the week when we thank Zeus that we weren’t born into immense wealth, power and status, and so retain some vague hope of living a decent, honest life... (in vino veritas).
Our American readers are preparing for a Thanksgiving of their own this coming week. Twenty score and one year have passed since the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest of the New World, back in 1621. The holiday has been commemorated, on and off, since George Washington declared it a national day in 1789, but it wasn’t official until Honest Abe made it so, proclaiming...
“Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” calling on the American people to also, “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience .. fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation...”
On the subject of perverseness and disobedience, just while we’ve got you, your Australian-born editor has always had a special affection for this most American of holidays, known to him as the day when families come together to flesh out irreconcilable political differences over too much cider and victuals.
Though our quasi-American wife assures us this behavior is not exclusive to Thanksgiving (“some families drag their frivolous disputes on until Christmas, or even beyond...”), we recall with fondness many a fracas in which tipsy uncles clashed with college student nephews and nieces over the controversial topic du jour.
Of course, there are certain ways of getting one’s point across that are more helpful than others... and some that are downright harmful. And so, with the holidays just around the corner, we thought it might be fun to examine a few of the dos and don’ts of artful dinner table rhetoric. Please enjoy a light-hearted guide for Turkey Day veterans and newcomers alike, below...
Rules of Engagement - Thanksgiving Edition
By Joel Bowman
The first, and perhaps most obvious, rule for maintaining civil discourse (even within the family) is to never resort to ad hominem. Essentially, this means turning to personal attacks, rather than sticking to matters of logic. “Playing the man and not the ball,” as sportsfolk are heard to say. It’s just bad form, mate.
So even if Aunt Joan is a prattling old windbag with decidedly dated views... and even though Cousin Charlie is a well known charlatan who deserves to have lost his money on scammy meme stocks... and even if Uncle Jeffrey is a dipsomaniacal bore whose third wife is even more insufferable than the previous two... best not to say so.
Also steer clear of labels like “fatso,” “dunderhead,” “moron,” “millennial,” “skinflint,” “feckless pest,” “half-wit,” “jackass,” etc. Oh, and if Niece Elly decides she now identifies as a fern and asks to be referred to using gender/species neutral neopronouns, just nod along and go with it. You can lament the downfall of Western Civ and traditional values at the Chick-fil-A drive through on your way home.
Now that you’ve holstered the nasty slurs, a close second on the “Logical Fallacies to Avoid on Holidays List” is the Hasty Generalization trap. This occurs when one interlocutor summons a few, often anecdotal instances to make loose and sweeping claims, often on a subject they know precious little about. For instance, just because every single person you’ve individually encountered with blue/pink dyed hair happens to have proven themselves a brainless weirdo, that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out there eager to establish themselves as the exception to the rule.
Recall Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan analogy: while a thousand sightings of white swans is not sufficient to prove once and for all the statement “all swans are white,” a single sighting of a black swan is adequate to disprove it. In other words, you are just one friendly, witty, well-informed, empathetic, self-aware, blue-haired Starbucks barista away from having all those harmful and triggering stereotypes disproved. Rejoice!
Pot, Meet Kettle
Next we have the notorious Appeal to Hypocrisy tactic, wherein the speaker defends himself against a particular charge by pointing out the obvious and demonstrable fact that the accuser is similarly guilty. Also known as the “pot calling the kettle black” gambit.
For instance, don’t say “Well, Republicans also lie, cheat and steal” as a way of defending Democrats from doing likewise (or vice-versa). Simply agree that both political parties are chock full of ratbags and that anyone who seeks office ought immediately to be disqualified from holding it on reasonable suspicion of hubris and delusions of grandeur. You and your new ally may wish to commemorate this novel common ground with a toast to liberty and apolitical enlightenment.
Next up we have the popular Circular Argument ploy, a favorite of cutesy, tag-teaming couples (think honeymooners, newlyweds, college sweethearts, etc. who don’t yet know what they’re in for). Infuriatingly, this often occurs when said saccharine duo completes one and other’s sentences.
“Smoking pot is wrong because it’s against the law....”
“... exactly, babe, and that’s precisely why it’s against the law; because it’s wrong.”
“You got it, babe!” (*Breaks for conspicuous canoodling*)
Textbook circular argument. Rather than getting between the pawwing pair, better to just annoy everyone present by saying something like, “While not a smoker myself, I happily defend every same-sex couple’s right to guard their personal weed stash with their firearm of choice.”
Which brings us to the popular False Dilemma ruse, whereby the speaker offers (always generously) two equally poor options as if no others existed. (We covered this in last week’s Sunday Session, The Illusion of Choice, which garnered quite a number of, ahem... enthusiastic responses.)
Recall George W. Bush’s classic line, “We will fight them over there so we do not have to fight them over here.”
Boy oh boy did they misunderestimate Dubbya! Never mentioned was the apparently ludicrous idea that “we” might not fight “them” at all, something one might have expected to occur to a man who also said, “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”
Umm...? Moving along...
Another classic holiday ploy is the Argument from Authority. Someone out there, possibly one of our dear readers, will find themselves this year seated across from a man recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. When the subject of the economy inevitably comes up, likely introduced by the faux-modest laureate himself, you may be sure the Argument from Authority is lurking close by. (So too the aforementioned False Dilemma.)
“It took a certain ‘courage to act,’ I freely admit,” Mr. Bernanke will hold forth, “but our economy was on the brink. In fact, were it not for my deep knowledge of financial meltdowns, and of course the bravery with which my name has since become synonymous, we may not be gathered here today, enjoying this sumptuous feast, brought to us by Julia and Maria in the kitchen. Gracias señoritas. In fact, we may not have an economy at all...”
If, by some twist of fate or punishment, you do happen to be seated at the above table and on the receiving end of said sermon, please do us all a favor and refuse to accept such balderdash. Call the man out. Herewith, some suggested notes:
“Facts do not care for your prizes and positions, my dear man. Fortunately for us all, reality is not subject to opinion. Your tenure as Fed Chairman, unblemished by a single instance of success or real insight, was objectively disastrous. Indeed, your much lauded actions led us into the mess in which we presently find ourselves mired. True courage would have involved thoughtful inaction. Now, unless there is another round of those delicious cookies... thank you Julia and Maria for a delicious meal, thank you Mrs. Bernanke for the invite, and good evening to you all.”
Although there are a great many more Rhetorical Weapons of Mass Destruction (too many to cover in one pithy Sunday Sesh), we would be remiss if we didn’t conclude with the oft-misquoted Godwin’s Law, or Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies. Always a cheerful party favorite, especially after a round or two of Moscow Mules, you’ll hear this one invoked when one or another dinner guest inevitably falls to reductio ad Hitlerum to prove a point. It is usually then said that “the first person to bring up Hitler loses the argument.”
But this is a misnomer. Introduced into the common vernacular by American attorney and author, Mike Godwin, back in the early ‘90s, the eponymous law simply asserts that, as online discussion forums grow, the probability that someone will veer into Nazi territory increases, eventually approaching a near certainty. Crucially, this tendency was observed regardless of the group’s participants and regardless of the topic under discussion.
So when Aunt Molly calls Cousin Mike a “facist” for his views on the midterm elections... or Grandpa labels Gramdma a “Nazi” for insisting that the menfolk eat leftovers at the table instead of on the couch in front of the game, know that it’s nothing personal. It’s just Thanksgiving.
P.S. Have you a favorite logical/rhetorical fallacy you’d like to share with your fellow readers? A holiday highlight you look forward to every year? A favorite memory involving heated exchanges over apple pie? Let us know your tips for navigating the dinner table discussion in the comments section, below...
And now for some more Fatal Conceits...
Last week we caught up with value investor, student of life and author of Soul in the Game, the Art and Meaning of Life, Vitaliy Katsenelson.
Vitaliy generously offered his thoughts on the US real estate sector (“worse than most people think”), Ben Bernanke’s Nobel Prize (“a joke”) and where stocks might be headed over the short to medium term (listen in…)
Enjoy our hour-long conversation (or read the transcript, lightly-edited for clarity) right here...
And that will do us for another Sunday Session, dear reader. Over the coming holiday week, we’ll offer something of a “lite” publishing schedule, with a smattering of classiques from Bill, some unlocked paid content from Dan and Tom and a few words from your weekend correspondent to tie them all together.
As always, feel free to like, comment on and share our work with friends and family (preferably before the upcoming Turkey Day feast). While we don’t always get time to respond to all the comments, we read and appreciate them just the same.
Whatever you’re up to this fine weekend, be good... or be good at it.
Until next time...