Sometimes I come across things on the Internet that are so bad that I realize I’m going to need to devote two articles to them. In fact, this one is so bad that I worry I’m falling into some sort of trap I can’t yet perceive by trying to make sense of it all.
However, you don’t have too many opportunities to kill two birds with one stone and I would be remiss if I let this one slip by.
The article I’m discussing today is “NRA supporters can’t debate the facts on assault weapons, so they use this dumb argument,” by Adam Peck, over at ThinkProgress.com. It’s on the topic of guns and gun control, and the ostensibly unreasonable objections 2nd Amendment supporters have to further restrictions on guns. Which means I think we need to talk about guns because there appears to be a lot of questionable claims made in the argument. But, I’m going to save that particular line of inquiry for tomorrow because I think there’s a bigger problem.
Peck’s argument fails.
While I could just give you a set of criteria that makes for a good argument, I don’t need to stack the cards in my own favor like that. I can show you the standard he lays out in his own article.
Peck writes, “[a]ny attempt, made in good faith, to debate the issue of gun control and limiting access to deadly weapons like the AR-15 . . . will quickly be derailed by gun nuts who drag the entire conversation into a war of semantics.”
This is his thesis. But, it also makes a judgment about arguments: they should be made in good faith.
Now, I could tell you what I think that means, but, even though it feels like a cop-out to just put in someone else’s definition, I’m going to give you Merriam-Webster’s definition.
Good faith is defined as “honesty or lawfulness of purpose.”
He continues, “groups have used broad terminology to describe the weapons they are targeting, often referring to “military-grade weapons,” “assault rifles,” “semi-automatic” and “automatic” guns, and more.
For most Americans, those terms can — are are [sic]— used interchangeably to describe the same thing: guns, like the AR-15, that allow mass shooters to fire off dozens of rounds in a matter of seconds.”
These sentences present the first problems with Peck’s argument. Whether or not you think he’s right when he writes about these phrases and their definitions, he’s made a mistake in framing it so strongly.
There are two ways you could challenge what he just said.
The first is to challenge that “most Americans” define the word that way.” Had he hedged and said “many,” instead of “most,” we probably could have written him a pass. But, as written, the claim lives or dies on what is, in theory, a testable and provable claim, for which he provides no evidence. For all we know, the counterclaim is just as strong and just as likely.
The second way to challenge this is to suggest that even if most Americans defined the phrase that way, they could be wrong. Perhaps the experts would use more precise language, or perhaps a mistaken definition has gained common popularity.
But, even if neither is true, I still think there’s some ambiguity about the phrase, which limits its usefulness in debate about legislation, where both sides need to use common terms in order to make sure they’re not talking past each other. Ignoring this problem means that Peck may not be as committed to a “good faith,” discussion as he seems to want to be able to have.
There’s further evidence for this.
Peck has a habit of insulting people who disagree with him, calling them “school shooting apologists,” “gun zealots,” and “the people who continue to fight on behalf of these weapons and their manufacturers are paying for their work with the lives of other people’s children.”
I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but don’t insult the people you disagree with. Attack the argument, not the person delivering it.
Why? So that they extend the same courtesy to you.
Furthermore, you don’t want people to dismiss what you have to say out of hand because you’ve called them nasty things. When you start doing that, people stop listening, and if you’re actually after change you need to be a coalition-builder, not a discord-sower.
The last part of his argument that I find weak is his analogy about movies and mass shootings. Peck writes, “from the beginning, the argument itself was incredibly dumb. It is analogous to telling someone their criticism of a recent movie is invalid because they don’t know the make and model of the camera used to shoot it on.”
This is a false analogy.
Here, the movie is a mass shooting, and the movie camera, a gun.
But, here’s the thing: He’s not talking about criticising the movie. That’s not what he’s after. He wants to start banning movie cameras.
And why would you let someone who knows nothing about movie cameras start banning movie cameras? Should we not require them to explain why certain models need to be banned and others still allowed? Even if you want to ban all movie cameras, you still have explained why that’s the best course of action.
That’s how the lawmaking process works, after all. You have to be able to defend the changes that you want to make. And saying that other people asking you to explain your reasoning is absurd is, well, absurd. If you don’t know much about guns, why would your solutions be more effective than someone who knows a lot?
Given the weakness in the central tenants of the argument, the name-calling, and the suggestion that it would be wrong to disagree with a vague position, does it seem to you that Adam Peck wants to enter into a good-faith discussion of gun control?
Or, is it possible that given the same pieces of evidence, he is actually doing something else? Perhaps writing a piece with a questionable argument and relationship with facts in order to appeal to a certain segment of the population?
You tell me.
Either way, avoid these mistakes and your arguments will be much stronger.