Some Brexiters have suggested that June 23rd should become celebrated as Britain’s Independence Day. Simon Richards, head of the so-called ‘Freedom Association’ and a prominent Brexit campaigner, justified this just now on Radio 4. Apparently, Britain needs a national day to bring its people together. The fact that Brits don’t have such a day apparently makes us jealous of Indians and the African nations who all have national days of independence!
One of the argument techniques that I found most frustrating is the etymological fallacy, the idea that the meaning of a word or a symbol is determined completely by its origin, with no regard to its current usage or the particular context of the conversation. It is related to another common fallacy, which is to give a word a non-standard definition and then not sticking to that definition.
Like most fallacies, it is employed by people on all sides of an issue (and I welcome any further examples that you can think of). Etymological fallacies are often committed by self-identifying ‘rational’ people, who otherwise delight in picking flaws in other people’s reasoning. These people tend to see the world in black-and-white terms, and perhaps think that their arguments are impervious to criticism because they take an axiomatic approach. Such an attitude is nothing more than a cousin of Biblical literalism.
(Aside: Think of Professor Dawkins. Even their use of the self-label ‘rational’ is an example of the fallacy in action. I might rant some more about so-called ‘rationalists’ in the future. In the meantime, here is a caricature.)
The etymological fallacy does not only helps one invalidly arrive at a conclusion. What makes it particularly frustrating is that it can also shut down conversation completely. It is not possible to have conversations about complicated issues when the terminology are restricted to narrow definitions.
On the other hand, claiming that one uses words and symbols only according to their literal meanings is particularly insidious, because it is used to appeal to racists, without explicitly admitting that one is a racist. As such, it is a form of dog-whistling.
The Manchester incident last night (reported on in detail here) was tragic, the attacker(s) deserve condemnation, and all those who sought to help (emergency services, but also hotels, taxi drivers and such) deserve praise for their humanity and love. That much should be clear. The Queen’s response was dignified and speaks for many of us.
In the wake of such a horrible incident, it would only be human to express solidarity for the victims. Indeed, many public figures with prominent voices have done so. Not all of them were equally well-received: Jeremy Corbyn’s tweet has received replies that accuse him of ‘[making] political capital out of people’s death under the guise of praising emergency services’. (See also Another Angry Voice‘s post on this.) The fact that his tweet is actually apolitical, and not fundamentally different in content from (albeit much shorter than) Theresa May’s statement is not important. (His later and longer statement is likewise uncontroversial in content, yet received similarly poorly.)
There is a popular attitude that ‘liberals and the left like to virtue-signal‘. This is applied at people who stand up for groups that they themselves do not belong to, such as male feminists, or people who don’t support black people being disproportionately wrongfully arrested and shot by police. Such people are only there to get attention, and don’t really care about the cause.
The snarl term ‘virtue signalling’ hasn’t been prominently applied to Jeremy Corbyn yet today, but that’s the implication. Why should one get so much flak for saying basically the same thing as Theresa May and the Queen? Few think that the Queen’s statement was a cynical move to exploit this incident in order to increase public support for the monarchy.
Why does ‘virtual signalling’ only apply to some causes, and not others? When Theresa May took the time out of her very busy schedule to join the Church of England in condemning the National Trust’s Easter egg hunt for not referencing Christianity, why was that not dismissed as merely ‘virtue signalling’, but given so much coverage?
Jumping to conclusions
As of the time of writing, very little is known about the attacker(s). This does not stop people from going ahead and assuming that they were Islamic terrorists, for example, in the Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan’s statement. ISIS has claimed responsibility, although their involvement has not been confirmed by any authorities. To get to the conclusion that ISIS is responsible, given the information currently available, you would have to say that ISIS is your most reliable source of information, more so than the police.
Tim Farron, current leader of the Liberal Democrats, once said that he thought that homosexuality was a sin. This led to a lot of anger in some circles, and the fear that the Liberal Democrats would not fight sufficiently strongly for (or could even oppose) LGBT+ rights.
Farron has more recently clarified his position by saying that his ‘views on personal morality [didn’t] matter’ and that this was not party policy. The right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes has spun this as: ‘Tim Farron has his beliefs and he seems willing to compromise them for political gain.’
Nobody seems to think that the vegetarian Jeremy Corbyn would ban meat-eating if he got into power, or that it he’d be compromising his moral stance by not banning meat-eating. Why should LGBT+ issues be any different?
The classical Chinese philosopher Confucius and his disciples set out a vision of a society in which people aspired to become junzi. The term translates literally as ‘noble’s son’, more figuratively as ‘superior man’ (cf. Nietzsche’s Übermensch), and embodies ‘gentlemanly’ virtues: honesty, sincerity, good manners, a love of learning, selflessness, and, most importantly, humanity, putting the lives of human beings before pursuits for wealth or pleasure. In such a society, the people would value principled leaders, whose policies would benefit all and whose words would be just.
Society has changed massively since Confucius’ time, much for the better: it is difficult to justify returning to such a patriarchic, feudal and superstitious time. However, the ethical principles of his school are still hugely relevant, and leaders, as well as we the people who elect them, would do well to read the Analects, even if we do not agree with everything in there. In light of the upcoming general election, I would like to draw attention to two quotes in particular.
The Master [Confucius] said, “Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.”
Someone said, “Yong [a disciple] is truly virtuous, but he is not ready with his tongue.” The Master said, “What is the good of being ready with the tongue? They who encounter men with smartness of speech for the most part procure themselves hatred. I know not whether he be truly virtuous, but why should he show readiness of the tongue?”
As a bonus, here is an account from the Book of Mencius of Confucius’ disciple Mencius with a king of a city-state:
‘Your dogs and swine eat the food of men, and you do not make any restrictive arrangements. There are people dying from famine on the roads, and you do not issue the stores of your granaries for them. When people die, you say, “It is not owing to me; it is owing to the year.” In what does this differ from stabbing a man and killing him, and then saying – “It was not I; it was the weapon?” Let your Majesty cease to lay the blame on the year, and instantly from all the nation the people will come to you.’
King Hui of Liang said, ‘I wish quietly to receive your instructions.’
‘Is there any difference between killing a man with a stick and with a sword?’
The king said, ‘There is no difference!’
‘Is there any difference between doing it with a sword and with the style of government?’
‘There is no difference,’ was the reply.
Mencius then said, ‘In your kitchen there is fat meat; in your stables there are fat horses. But your people have the look of hunger, and on the wilds there are those who have died of famine. This is leading on beasts to devour men. Beasts devour one another, and men hate them for doing so. When a prince, being the parent of his people, administers his government so as to be chargeable with leading on beasts to devour men, where is his parental relation to the people? Zhong Ni said, ‘Was he not without posterity who first made wooden images to bury with the dead? So he said, because that man made the semblances of men, and used them for that purpose – what shall be thought of him who causes his people to die of hunger?’
Trident has once again surfaced as a political issue. Enough has been said to criticise it on strategic, military, financial, ethical and diplomatic grounds that I find it unbelievable that the majority of people still that it’s a useful system. Nonetheless, I’d like to propose the following argument:
Whether as a first strike or a retaliatory strike, any use of weapons of such destructive power as Trident would set humanity back hundreds of years by destroying so much (social as well as physical) infrastructure. If (like me) you believe that humanity collectively has an eventual purpose to work towards, then such destruction should be extremely unpalatable. If moreover (unlike me) you believe that this purpose is set by Heaven, then by committing this damage, you would be intentionally and directly going against Heaven’s purpose.
Or alternatively: Presumably your use of Trident would have some aim in mind, however unsavoury or misguided; Clausewitz defines: ‘War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.’ This would be far worse, because you would essentially be saying ‘Humanity doesn’t need to exist if I can’t get what I want.’ Or, more blasphemously: ‘Heaven’s motives are my motives.’
Theresa May, David Cameron, Tony Blair and George W. Bush all profess to be Christians, and are very public about it; they often allude to it in their speeches. But, to properly reconcile a belief in a God-given cause for humanity with a willingness to destroy it–even as a deterrent–requires a Deus Vult attitude, and it would be called religious extremism if it were practised by leaders of any other country.