Logical Fallacy #1: Shifting the Terms

Once upon a time, I was a philosophy major.  It lasted a single year, partially because I loved the Chinese language more and mostly because I detested Sartre and Heidegger. However, I came away stocked with a solid layman’s appreciation for how to argue properly.  This has stood me in good stead, as I now (among other things) teach would-be lawyers how to pass the LSAT.  For those unfamiliar with it, Logical Reasoning is exactly 1/2 of the LSAT.

However, it is very rare that I am able to spot one of the exact logical fallacies we discuss in class in its most naked form coming from a nationally syndicated radio host.  Yes, that is exactly what I have today.

(Warning: Despite being nationally syndicated, this man has a history of saying horribly offensive things about Muslims, gays, and other groups.  None of that is present in this particular video, but if you search for more, you are warned.)

Bryan Fischer is, according to Wikipedia, “the Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association (AFA), hosting the talk radio program Focal Point on American Family Radio and posting on the AFA-run blog Rightly Concerned.” Despite being the “head of analysis,” he has constructed an argument that is almost the text-book case of “shifting the terms.”  Let’s break down his argument:

Premise: People have been fined or otherwise punished for vulgar and profane speech.

Conclusion: We can thus enforce laws against vulgar, profane, and blasphemous speech.

The shift in this case is large and egregious.  Mr. Fischer tries to hide it by using the passive voice to avoid stating who fined Kobe Bryant or punished Ed Schultz. In both cases, the employers punished the star, not the government. (Mr. Fischer specifically tries to obscure this by saying “we” punished Mr. Bryant and Mr. Schultz.) This shift, equating “punishment by employers” and “punishment by government”, is unsupportable and fallacious.  Accepting that one is legal does not establish that the other is legal. One is not like the other. Both Kobe Bryant and Ed Schultz have contracts with specific clauses allowing for punishment by their employers in the case of misconduct, including saying stupid things that damage their employers’ brands. If these men had said things equally offensive against Christians, they would have been punished as well.

The First Amendment, in contrast, specifically forbids the government from imposing any such penalty. This is settled law. In no way is government sanction against vulgar speech the same as employers disciplining employees for public speech that degrades the employers’ brands.

Done properly, this logical fallacy can be very subtle and can be very persuasive.  When the shift is minor, it can be very easy to overlook entirely. However, in this case it was done very poorly.  Hopefully, this egregious example will help others better spot similar shifts in the future.

I should add that it seems likely that Mr. Fischer himself does not believe his own rhetoric.  The last sentence in this clip makes it obvious that he does not give his own argument much credit, because he is over-selling the idea that it is irrefutable. The repetition of “do not” is unnecessary.  The more emphatically someone blares that their opinion is “obvious” or “irrefutable,” the weaker that person knows the opinion really is.

One important side-note: This particular shift illustrates why editors are so aghast at passive voice.  By using passive voice, Mr. Fischer never needed to say who fined Kobe Bryant or who punished Ed Schultz.  It is often said that the only proper use of passive voice is “mistakes were made,” as the only good reason for passive voice is to obscure who did something.  (Notice that  by saying “it is often said,” I did not write who in fact says it. That’s the power of the passive voice.) There are, in fact, other uses for it, but you should never use it reflexively; if the passive voice is to be used, it must be used with forethought and intention.

(h/t to Joe. My. God.  Some of what is on that blog, particularly the comment section, is rather NSFW.)