Classical education required students, before anything else, to learn the basic building blocks of thought. In the ancient trivium, students learned grammar, logic, and rhetoric, or how language, argument, and persuasion work. As emphasis on these arts has decreased, so has our society’s capacity to think. And where thought decreases, emotion increases, so that we are led around by our appetites rather than our intellects.
This is clearest in the types of arguments we use, or rather, in the types of fallacious arguments we use. Our errors can be most revealing, showing our weakest points. One of the most prevalent errors in our day is pure assertion, the argumentum ad lapidem. It’s a cry against reason, a straightforward refusal: “It’s not because I say it’s not!” It is essentially a response of “whatever” to your interlocutor. It’s the intellectual equivalent of throwing a rock at your opponent—which is a fitting analogy.
The name for the argumentum ad lapidem (“appeal to the stone”) comes from a story of England’s foremost man of letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson. In response to George Berkeley’s philosophy that reality is immaterial and that being only exists in its being perceived (esse est percipi), Dr. Johnson reputedly said “I refute it thus!” and kicked a stone. Dr. Johnson’s display was intended to show (to his foot’s dismay) that the stone existed independent of his perception, but it hardly addressed the substance of Bishop Berkeley’s argument. Rather, it was a merely theatrical performance meant to ridicule the idea.
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Such an appeal is not logical because it does not address the content or form of the argument. It is a rhetorical maneuver, appealing to the hearer’s desire to appear respectable and not ridiculous. The ad lapidem is an end-run around logic straight toward the hearer’s feelings: “This argument is simply foolish—and you don’t want to look like a fool, do you?” And there are few things we are quicker to protect than our pride and self-esteem.
This kind of argument by scoff is a favorite of users of social media. Facebook comments and Tweets are largely composed of sarcastic dismissals and sardonic belittling. News stories and opinion pieces are shared and their points of view allegedly defeated simply by posting the eye-rolling emoji above them. Jon Stewart made a career on The Daily Show by playing a clip of George W. Bush speaking, and holding a quizzical look on his face to the delight of his sympathetic audience before letting out an expletive. Videos of cable news interactions go viral with headlines like “X being wrong as usual” or “Z DESTROYS Y!” yet inevitably feature strawman arguments and logical fallacies galore. The point is not to demonstrate a counter-position. The point is to persuade others that the position is obviously wrong and not even worth hearing.
We have to distinguish between this logical fallacy and its more respectable cousin, the tactic known as the reductio ad absurdum. They can appear similar at first glance (as cousins often do), but one is a valid argument, while the other is not. A reductio ad absurdum demonstrates that the logic of a given argument necessarily leads to a conclusion that is self-contradictory, false, or unacceptable.
To use a recent example, cable news host Tucker Carlson was discussing the issue of transgender bathroom usage with senior Democratic National Committee advisor Zac Petkanas. (Yes, I know the title of the link includes the “DESTROYS” label previously lamented. Let that pass.) Mr. Petkanas made the categorical statement, “A person’s gender identity determines a person’s gender, period.” Mr. Carlson then took extended the logic of this proposition to a necessary conclusion, asking whether he could simply declare himself a woman and thereby be eligible to play on a collegiate women’s field hockey team or apply to a federal program for women starting small businesses. Mr. Petkanas attempted to dismiss the argument by saying, “That’s silly, that’s not what we’re talking about.” It is telling that Mr. Petkanas did not introduce an additional principle to distinguish between the two cases, to say, “No, of course not, here’s the difference between the two.” He does not give a reason why the two are different; he simply asserts that it is so, and quickly moves to deflect, seeing how devastating the point is to his position. This is solid argumentation, whereas Mr. Petkanas, by calling the point “silly,” uses the ad lapidem fallacy to try to side-step the point.
This kind of argument is especially destructive to social discourse because it is inherently divisive. It is rarely effective against someone who knows his own mind and understands the reasons for his own position. It can be quite effective against the person who is undecided on an issue, appealing to his desire to appear intelligent to others. It is extremely effective in solidifying and whipping up an audience that is already in favor of the point being defended. To laugh at the opposition breeds a feeling of superiority over the poor benighted fools who have the misfortune of believing as they do. Thus, the feeling of superiority, the ego involved, becomes tied to the position held, so that to attack the position is to attack the ego of the one holding it, which will provoke a visceral response, for the attack is perceived as personal and not principled.
When a man feels that to give away his position is to give away himself, he is much more likely to hold fast to his place, no matter how strongly reason attempts to dislodge him. When we are no longer open to letting reason lead us somewhere new because our feelings have entrenched us in place, we risk turning the public square into No Man’s Land, a place where intellectual life is mowed down, not with bullets, but with stones.