Introduction: In Search for the Graphic Illustrations of Fallacies
In the ideal world where the laws of human nature are inapplicable to political leaders, debates can probably run without any observable instances of fallacies; however, in the world of the present-day reality, winning over a political opponent in a debate presupposes using a number of tactics of logical fallacies, which will obviously represent the rival in the least favorable light possible.
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Taking the recent presidential debates as a source material for all sorts of logical fallacies that can occur during a conversation, one can easily figure out how certain logical fallacies can be applied to practice. Analyzing the conversation which Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had during the October debates, one can see distinctly that the outcomes of the above-mentioned debates depend considerable on the public’s opinion of each of the candidates, which, in its turn, is shaped greatly by the use of the logical fallacies in the rivals’ speeches.
Romney’s Fallacy of Accident or Sweeping Generalization
One of the first fallacies to mention is the fallacy of accident, or sweeping generalization. According to the existing definition, sweeping generalization is “referred to as the fallacy of accident, to emphasize the irregularity of particular cases to which generalizations do not apply” (Engel 72). The aforementioned means that the fallacy of accident stretches a concrete example to the scale of a common truth.
When taking a closer look at the arguments which Romney offers in his speech, one can easily notice that he actually makes a generalization of what Obama said earlier, thus, turning the entire argument upside down:
And the answer is, yes, we can help, but it’s going to take a different path. Not the one we’ve been on, not the one the president describes as a top-down, cut taxes for the rich. That’s not what I’m going to do. (TheNewYorkTimes)
Compared to this statement, Obama’s idea was expressed in the following way:
I think it’s important for us to develop new sources of energy here in America, that we change our tax code to make sure that we’re helping small businesses and companies that are investing here in the United States. (TheNewYorkTimes)
Romney substituted “small businesses and companies” with “the rich”. Hence, the generalization with a fallacy turning the tables on the opponent can be spotted.
An Appeal to Emotion: Mitt Romney’s Teary-Eye Stories
When guided by emotions, people make hasty choices, which the next fallacy makes use of. An appeal to emotion can be described as “a red herring fallacy in which a speaker attempts to persuade an audience through emotional manipulation” (Shabo 96). In the presidential debates, Mitt Romney appeals to the audience’s compassion by showing how he sympathizes with the American folk:
Ann yesterday was at a rally in Denver and a woman came up to her with a baby in her arms and said, “Ann, my husband has had four jobs in three years, part-time jobs. He’s lost his most recent job and we’ve now just lost our home. Can you help us?” (TheNewYorkTimes)
An obvious appeal to the audience’s emotions, this element of Romney’s speech does not bear any significance as from the rest of his argument. Used only to make the audience feel that Romney has the common touch, this part was inserted to stir people’s emotions.
Obama Attacks the Opponent Personally: Touché, Mr. Romney
However, Obama also used a couple of tricks which can be recognized as logical fallacies. He uses the tactics known as “personal attack.” According to the definition offered by Walton, personal attack is a type of fallacy which occurs “whenever we attack a person instead of his or her argument” (Walton93). Personal attack aims to point at the weaknesses of the opponent instead of the opponent’s reasoning.
Indeed, at certain point Obama tends to judge Romney’s personal features basing on the decisions which Romney makes: “The problem is that he’s been asked over 100 times how you would close those deductions and loopholes, and he hasn’t been able to identify them” (TheNewYorkTimes). Questioning Romney’s competence, the given sentence makes it clear that Obama wants to make Romney look silly in the eye of the public and, therefore, reduce his impact on the public’s opinion.
The Power of Fear: Obama’s Terrifying Supposition
In addition to the logical fallacy mentioned above, Obama also uses another tactics of fallacy that helps him control the audience and at the same time make the opponent look bad. There is no secret that the sense of fear is registered among one of the strongest driving forces period, which means that fear is the most efficient method of controlling the audience.
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Defined as the representation of ability to protect people against the threats mentioned by the speaker (Paul and Elder 21), an appeal to fear is very efficient. Making good use of people’s sense of fear, Obama depicts the most dreadful consequences possible that can follow Romney’s politics:
The approach that Governor Romney’s talking about is the same sales pitch that was made in 2001 and 2003, and we ended up with the slowest job growth in 50 years, we ended up moving from surplus to deficits, and it all culminated in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. (TheNewYorkTimes)
Needless to mention, the years of Great Depression still remain one of the darkest times in the history of the USA, triggering complicated economical, financial and social issues. Hence, Obama’s remark makes a truly great impression and serves as a means to make Romney look incompetent.
An Appeal to Ridicule: Romney’s Final Attempt at Winning
As it has been mentioned above, fear has a great power over people; hence, to reduce the effect which the opponent has on the public, making fun of the former and, therefore, making him less significant and, thus, less threatening, is a reasonable, though not quite fair, practice.
An appeal to ridicule is defined as an attempt “to show an utter incapacity for understanding” (Cox, Nicoll and Moffatt 402). Romney uses the above-mentioned tactics in his performance, though not efficiently enough. Trying to make the rival look silly, he pokes fun at the choices which Obama makes:
But don’t forget, you put $90 billion, like 50 years’ worth of breaks, into — into solar and wind, to Solyndra and Fisker and Tester and Ener1. I mean, I had a friend who said you don’t just pick the winners and losers, you pick the losers, all right? (TheNewYorkTimes)
Creating a comedic effect, Romney also attempts at tarnish Obama’s reputation by assuming that the latter makes wrong choices and is highly likely to fail. Still, this attack is too obvious to be effective; instead of damaging Obama’s reputation, it harms Romney, since the audience can sense now his spite towards Obama.
Conclusion: Constructive Arguments without Dirty Tricks Are Possible
As it can be seen in the examples mentioned above, even the fairest and the most transparent debates in the world of politics are meant to incorporate all sorts of logical fallacies, which helps the opponents represent their own arguments in the best way possible, while showing the vis-à-vis to his utmost disadvantage.
However, it is important to mention that in the given case, the opponents do not abuse these methods in order to take over each other. Even though each of them resorts to a certain fallacy now and then, there is no common thread of resorting to false accusations and ridiculing of the opponent. It goes without saying that both Obama and Romney aimed at impressing the audience to win the elections rather to come to a certain conclusion in their debates.
However, taking into account that the above-mentioned was actually the purpose of the debates, it is quite forgivable that both Obama and Romney resorted to using logical fallacies. Hopefully, further on debates are going to be taken to a different level, on which the opponents will represent their ideas without actually trying to get on each other’s throats, which will lead to a better representation of the future leaders’ goals and actions which are going to be undertaken after the elections.
Cox, Nicoll and Moffatt. The Expositor. Hachette, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1894. Print.
Engel, Morris S. Fallacies and Pitfalls of Language: The Language Trap. Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications, 1994. Print.
Paul, Richard and Linda Elder. Thinker’s Guide to Fallacies: The Art of Mental Trickery. Berkeley, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2006. Print.
Shabo, Magedah. Rhetoric, Logic, and Argumentation: A Guide for Student Writers. Clayton, DE: Prestwick House, 2010. Print.
TheNewYorkTimes. “Complete Second Presidential Town Hall Debate 2012: Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney – Oct 16, 2012.” YouTube. YouTube, 16 Oct. 2012. Web. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEpCrcMF5Ps>.
Walton, Douglas N. Ad Hominem Arguments. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1998. Print.