Fallacy Pairs: For Every Infraction There's an Equal and Opposite Infraction

I have a motto for this work: To name it is to tame it.

I search for terms that enable us to label the common psychological “moves” we make, especially the ignoble ones. If you have a name for the move you’ll be better able to identify it when it flies by in thought and conversation. In this respect my work here and at Mind Readers Dictionary is comparable to writing a bird watcher’s guide.

Ever since Aristotle, philosophers and logicians have been naming particular forms of invalid or weak argument (fallacies) and the names they’ve come up with really can help tame sloppy thinking. And still most people don’t know these names.

Yes, a few of such terms get translated into every day common language, for example, pot calling the kettle black, egotistical, damning with faint praise, using a straw man argument. Still, a remarkable number of common moves don’t have common names and I wonder why. It’s like not having a name for the common sparrow. And these terms can be so useful. They can stop a dumb but seductive argument in its tracks, saving whole populations from costly distractions and terrible choices. I wonder why we have so much less jargon in this universally important field of social interaction than in other fields. We are all pros in that all of our livelihoods depend on reading minds accurately-both reading our own and other people’s.

I suspect that one reason is that these psychological terms are kind of dangerous. They can backfire.

Take “Projection, ” Freud’s term for a defense mechanism whereby a person’s unacceptable or unwanted thoughts emotions or attributes are ascribed onto another person or people.

Projection describes something people sometimes really do but shouldn’t do because it’s unfair to blame other’s for one’s own weaknesses. It’s a scientific sounding term for scapegoating or being hypocritical. Having words like these in the language help us police and control a nasty human tendency.

Still, spreading such loaded terms so we can all police each other is like giving a citizen police force loaded automatic weapons. With a loaded term like “Projection” out there in anyone’s hands, anyone can accuse anyone of projecting any time they don’t like what they’re being accused of:

Wife: I’ve discovered that you’re cheating on me. Cheating husband: Ah, you’re just projecting. You must just feel guilty about looking at other guys…

I have an idea how to tame this taming-term problem. Fallacies should come in paired opposites on the assumption that for every infraction there is an equal and opposite infraction. For example, there ought to be a term of equal weight for the counter strategy of accusing someone of projecting when you don’t want to hear what they’re telling you.

Take “getting too big for your britches,” another loaded term. There ought to be a name for accusing someone of being too big for their britches when you don’t like the way they’re standing up for themselves. Or take the term “lying.” Again, there ought to be a term for accusing someone of lying when you want to dismiss what they’re saying.

My general point is well illustrated by the example of lying. If I walked up to you and said, “It’s not true that I am the Sun God Ra but you should believe that I am anyway,” it would be a very obvious case of attempting to convince you of something untrue. Lies as blatant as that aren’t interesting to us. We can see right through them.

The lies that concern us are, by definition designed to look like truths, which means when you suspect that someone’s lying, it’s probably hard to tell whether they are or they aren’t. In other words there’s potential for two errors. One, that I’ll guess he’s telling the truth when he really isn’t; the other that I’ll accuse him of telling a lie when he’s really telling the truth.

All slippery moves are like that. They wouldn’t work unless they resemble honorable moves. Lies have to look like honest statements. Projections have to look like reasonable accusations. Egomania has to look like making reasonable claims. This means it’s very easy to mistake an honorable for a dishonorable move and visa versa. And since we don’t wonder about a move’s merits unless the stakes are high there’s a tendency for the accusations to fly out automatically.

You’re lying. You’re an egomaniac. You’re projecting.

At least if we understood this about these loaded words, we wouldn’t assume a declared accusation was a stated fact. Yes they would be loaded weapons but they wouldn’t be automatic. Maybe then it would be safer to have them in use. We’d be more knowledgeable but less self-certain bird watchers.

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