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Approaching the Civil War Rationally – Part Two: Avoiding the Logical Fallacy

In our previous segment, we delved into not only how to approach history, but how to understand and deal with our own biases when it comes to studying the Civil War. We learned also that because our brains can’t easily handle two conflicting ideas at the same time, we rationalize away our doubts. In turn, this rationalization leads to logical fallacies made in order to convince ourselves and others that we are correct – evidence be damned. This is, of course, a horrible way to approach history.

What is a Logical Fallacy?

Logical fallacies are what allow us to deal with evidence and twist it to our own opinions. This can be done through a variety methods – from ignoring it, to spinning a delightful word salad around it. The problem with logical fallacies is that our brains are naturally programmed to do just that. We like to think that we’re logical, but really, we’ve not evolved to avoid these pitfalls. 1For the pedantic, I’m talking about informal logical fallacies, of course.

Since there are more logical fallacies than we can easily count, I thought I’d take a look at the main ones that I used to commit when arguing endlessly about the Civil War. For a bit of extra spice, I’ve thrown in some that I’ve had to deal with more recently. The examples I give are from my personal experience. They necessarily lack nuance and detail because this article isn’t about them, it’s about logical fallacies. Let’s go!

Ad Hominem
Not too long ago, when engaged in an online discussion about Confederates kidnapping black Pennsylvania citizens, a commenter referred to me as a “Yankee viper.” 2This was after he said: “Enough with your Yankee viper lies!” Needless to say, I was amused. He also fell victim to false equivalency, but we’ll address that later. See?

This is an ad hominem argument. In this case, he made no attempt to address what I was saying, but discounted it completely because I was apparently some species of Northern snake. 3Perhaps the Northern Ribbon Snake? It’s not technically venomous, but then neither am I, really. Anything that I said before or after was, to him, completely negated by the fact that I wasn’t a Southerner. This could also be an example of “poisoning the well,” implying that I was literally poisoning the well of the comments section with my Unionist venom.

logical fallacies adhom

Another common example is basic name-calling. When you see terms like “libtard,” “Repugnican,” or “sheeple,” it’s an ad hominem attack – a weak non-argument. Unfortunately, it might be best to not engage too much with people who use these terms, whether you agree with their views or not. Hear them out, of course, but if they’re not able to get beyond such verbiage, there may not be anything of substance to discuss.

Appeal to Authority
One of the trickier logical fallacies is the appeal to authority. In its most basic sense, it asserts that because someone apparently knowledgeable claims something, that claim must be true because they’re so knowledgeable. This circular argument comes up quite a bit in Civil War discussions. Most often, it’ll state that something is true because a famous personality – a general, soldiers or politician – wrote about it in a speech or a memoir.

Such an example can be found in a statement Frederick Douglass made about an eyewitness to the battle of First Manassas who claimed to see black Confederates “with muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets.” Specifically, Douglass is used to illustrate that if a revered black man said that there were black Confederates, the “lefty-liberal” historians simply have to accept it.

Of course, this is a logical fallacy. Douglass’ statement and evidence should be evaluated the same as any other. He did not have some greater knowledge of the issue, and was, in fact, using this repeated rumor to illustrate the point that black men should be allowed into the United States army. 4More on this specific story here.

When we use the words or ideas of authorities in our arguments, we must also present their evidence so that it may be more closely examined.

Argument Against Authority
Seemingly more common in Civil War circles is the argument against authority – I had used this one from time to time myself. While the argument from authority insists that the conclusion is correct simply because it comes from authority, the argument against authority claims the opposite.

Often, there is an automatic distrust of academia and university presses, fearing that they have been corrupted by politically-correct, liberal and/or Yankee ideals. As with appeals to authority, arguments against authority pay no attention to the evidence presented. Instead, the very fact that it comes from an academic authority, the conclusion is rejected. 5See much of H.W. Crocker’s Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War. In fact, the entire Politically Incorrect Guide series was created by Regnery Publishing “to tackle a variety of hot topics in our society – issues that have been hijacked by politically correct historians, academia, and media.” This entire series is also great if you’re really into reading strawman arguments.

burden

Burden of Proof
The burden of proof always rests with the person making a claim. If you’re arguing that the Deep South seceded in order to protect slavery, then you better have the evidence to back it up. Where this most often comes into play is when someone is asked to supply a citation for a statement they made, and they respond with “look it up” or “open a book.”

How often have we seen someone make a claim, and then, when asked for some sort of proof, exclaim, “I’m not doing your research for you!” (Or worse, the dreaded “Google it!”) Unfortunately for the claimant, the burden of proof lies with them. 6Though pinning down logical fallacies isn’t always black & white, I believe this tshirt/meme is rejecting the burden of proof.

Cherry Picking
Fairly straightforward, cherry picking is when you present some facts to prove your point, but withhold some incredibly related facts that might weaken or destroy your argument. In the past, when I’d want to offer proof that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, I’d base my argument on the data which states that only a small percentage of Confederate soldiers personally owned slaves.

The data I presented may have been true enough, but other data, such as the fact that soldiers were mostly young and didn’t own any property was left out. I also conveniently didn’t count the slaveholding households from where the soldiers came. Additionally, it helped my position when I failed to highlight the importance that slavery had over the ideals of the general population. From the desire to exercise the right to own slaves to the ability to rent slaves, slavery was, as Alexander Stephens said, the “Cornerstone of the Confederacy.” All of this was comfortably absent from my argument.

In my semi-defense, I did this through ignorance, and once learning about the rest of the data, I changed my conclusions respectively. 7More about the percentages and their nuances can be read here.

False Dichotomy
This one is very often difficult to avoid, but we must realize that we don’t live in a black and white world. Just because one thing is false doesn’t automatically make the opposite true. Let’s go back to my post about Confederates kidnapping black Pennsylvanians during the Gettysburg Campaign. One of the respondents decided to counter my entire article by criticizing General Sherman’s Georgia Campaign. It was assumed that since I was noting the cruel behavior of the Confederates, I must be approving of the behavior of Sherman’s troops.

In actuality, there’s no reason to support either. The commenter was disregarding the possibility of neutrality, imagining a reality where there were only two options – pro-Southern or pro-Northern. Too on, in casual Civil War studies, we almost always default to the emotional pro- or anti-Confederate position. This is a horrible way to study anything.

False Equivalency
While this isn’t something we encounter too much in Civil War studies, it does come up quite a bit when period discussions slip into the present era. For instance, the Black Panther Party is sometimes equated with the Ku Klux Klan. There’s no reason or logic or even thought behind the statement, really. It’s just that some people want the groups to be two sides of the same coin, and so they simply believe that they are. In actuality, it robs both the Black Panthers and the Klan of their historical individuality and significance. It’s a lazy argument and purposely ignores history (besides being purposely divisive). 8Such as this tweet by “comedian” Owen Benjamin. Other examples would be white people complaining that they can’t use the n-word when black people use it all the time. It draws an equivalency that isn’t actually there. Such as this incredibly tired meme.

genetic

Genetic Fallacy
Typically the genetic fallacy would be the passing down of positive or negative views from history. For example, it’s falsely argued that since the Confederate flag has been flown by white supremacists, it is perpetually and always a symbol of white supremacy. We are overlooking any nuance that might have occurred between the days of anti-segregation and the present. While this is indeed a genetic fallacy, we also commit a much more literal version of the idea. 9This subject is such a morass of stickiness that it always deserves more analysis, no matter your views of the modern uses of the Confederate Battle Flag. For this, I strongly recommend John M. Coski’s The Confederate Battleflag.

We in the Civil War community are often guilty of engaging in a very literal flavor of this fallacy. Some might argue that if you are “a Yankee,” you couldn’t possibly understand why the South fought the war. It’s also the reason for the existence of things like: “It’s a Southern thang, y’all wouldn’t understand.” 10Ugh… here.

Slippery Slope
The slippery slope argument is almost always wrong. At best, it’s bad style – at worst, it’s a flat out lie. Where I’ve seen it most is when talking about removing the Confederate flag from government buildings and grounds. “What’s next?” they’ll ask, “taking down the American flag?”

This is a slippery slope argument. It’s saying that because one group wants to remove the Confederate flag, they must actually want the most extreme measure to be taken – the removal of the American flag. These types of arguments are meant as diversions from the topic at hand. When these start getting tossed around, it’s a good indication that the discussion has broken down. 11This was demonstrated perfectly here.

The Straw Man
Also a pet peeve of mine is the straw man argument. I see this all over the place, and it’s incredibly difficult to avoid using ourselves. I know that I personally employed it to an embarrassing degree. Basically, it’s when you yourself pose an argument you wish your opponent to make, phrasing it in such a way that makes it easy to defeat. One of the most glaring uses of the straw man argument is nearly the entire book Myths of American Slavery by Walter D. Kennedy. In it, Kennedy poses myriad “myths” supposedly purported by “the conquering Yankees, the liberal establishment, and the Southern scalawags.”

The problem is that the specific myths he “defeats” aren’t actually posed by anyone. They were invented by Kennedy so that he could more easily prove his agenda that “through the institution of slavery, blacks were given real freedom.” 12The quote actually came from the introduction written by Bob Harrison, a black neo-Confederate. You can read bits of the book here.

Kennedy cites zero sources for his “liberal” myths. This is a problem. In academic circles, when historians are critiquing the conclusions of other historians, the original work is cited (if not called out by name) so that it may be examined from all sides by the reader. Kennedy deprives his readers of this essential element of reasoned thought. He instead wants us to simply trust him that the “Radical abolitionists and the modern liberals” really think these things. 13A good example of this being done properly is Disunion by Elizabeth R. Varon.

There is no way to win a straw man argument. If you employ it, you’ve automatically lost (though you probably won’t know it). If it’s employed against you, any reasoning you give in response will be ignored. Sometimes it’s best to just pack up and go home.

You should look up more of these NFL ref memes about logical fallacies!
You should look up more of these NFL ref memes about logical fallacies!

These are only the most common logical fallacies we come across in our daily Civil War discussions. Some of them I’ve used against people myself, and other have been used against me. There are many more that are employed with much less frequency. For a more thorough (yet somehow more brief) overview of the others, you can visit YourLogicalFallacyIs.com.

Which other logical fallacies do you see committed in Civil War discussions? Which do you commit yourself?

In our final segment, we’ll discuss other, more subtle, ways of being better rational historians.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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