The Worst Argument In The World

I declare the Worst Argument In The World to be this: “If we can apply an emotionally charged word to something, we must judge it exactly the same as a typical instance of that emotionally charged word.”

Well, it sounds dumb when you put it like that. Who even does that, anyway?

I propose that an outright majority of the classic arguments in American politics, and no small number of arguments in religion, philosophy, et cetera, are in fact unmodified examples of the Worst Argument In The World. Before we get to those, let’s look at a concrete example.

Suppose someone wants to build a statue honoring Martin Luther King Jr. for his nonviolent resistance to racism. An opponent of the statue objects: “But Martin Luther King was a criminal! His policy of ignoring segregation restrictions clearly broke the Alabama laws of the time, and his protests violated a legally-obtained injunction against civil rights demonstrations. He was arrested and jailed, and although no doubt the judge had strong emotions the conviction was totally in keeping with the letter of the law.”

A criminal is defined as a person who breaks the law; Martin Luther King was objectively and incontrovertibly a criminal. But here the objector is making The Worst Argument In The World. She’s saying that because King was a criminal, we should treat him as a perfectly typical criminal. A typical criminal is someone like a bank robber; obviously we wouldn’t build a statue to the average bank robber. But King was not a typical criminal, and the unusual circumstances in his case exactly explain why he deserves a statue after all.

.. When the supporter says “King courageously violated the unjust segregation laws at great risk to himself,” and the opponent objects “But King was a criminal!” it sounds like the opponent is adding information. But she’s not: that King was a criminal is already implied by the supporter’s sentence. The opponent is actually urging us to subtract information; to ignore every facet of King’s actions except that they broke the law.

.. When the opponent says “King was a criminal!” you respond “Yes, so what?”

Notice how this is one hundred percent contrary to instinct; the urge is to respond “No he wasn’t! You take that back!”. This is why the Worst Argument In The World is so successful. As soon as you do that you’ve fallen into their trap. Your argument is no longer about whether you should build a statue, it’s about whether King was a criminal. And since King was a criminal, you’ve instantly lost.

.. “Taxation is theft!

.. I’m not trying to make a pro-choice argument here; there are several perspectives from which one could argue that despite the fetus’ lack of development killing it is still morally wrong. But saying “Abortion is murder!” doesn’t illuminate any of those perspectives. It just tries to get us to subtract the information

.. When somebody, let’s say, publishes a study that says minorities commit a disproportionate amount of crime, and somebody else responds by saying “That’s racist!”, they are taking something that no one could possibly object to on its own merits – a social science study, maybe a relatively well-conducted one – and telling us that our opinion of the study must be closely correlated with our opinion of Hitler killing ten million people. Yes, the study is racist, if by racist you mean “It says bad things about minority groups,” which seems like a reasonable definition. But it’s the okay kind of racism, just like taxation is an okay kind of theft and abortion is an okay kind of murder and Martin Luther King was an okay kind of criminal. The fact that you can’t even say the phrase “an okay kind of racism” without being torn to pieces so viciously it makes Bacchus’ death look merciful is exactly what gives The Worst Argument In The World its power.

.. suppose King told a group of racists “You should treat black people better; after all, we’re all human.” This seems on the face of it like an example of the Worst Argument In The World. King is using an emotionally charged word (“humans”) and asking the racists to ignore information about these particular humans (that they are black) and treat them exactly as typical humans (to the racists, presumably white people). But isn’t this a good argument?

It is a good argument, but it has one big difference from the Worst Argument examples above. King is using the argument to ask the racists for an explanation for their double standard; the examples above are using the argument to shout down an explanation for the double standard.