Friday, October 21, 2011

A Logical Fallacy

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Every semester at this time, my class moves away from personal writing to persuasive writing. It pains me to even write that, for what is persuasive writing or speech without a personal touch? What is persuasive speech without risk and trouble.

There’s a class period every semester around this time—yesterday in fact—when I lead my students through the list of “logical fallacies”. We go over the definition: “errors or flaws in reasoning.” I emphasize that while logical fallacies are indeed wrong wrong wrong…actually, they hold great sway over “people”, whoever your people might be.

The truth is, my students don’t need to persuade or convince “their people”. They need help paying for school, getting babysitters, driving off icky people in their lives, paying the rent, catching the bus, and finding time to sleep. But I'm required to teach them this unit, so here we go. It'll matter one day.

As I approach the topic of logical fallacies, I want them to know that these are bad weapons, but weapons nonetheless.

We go through the list and I pick out my favorites, the ones I think my students will respond to. Remember: we are in an overly warm classroom and it’s 3:30 in the afternoon. I only have my body and brain to teach with.

And it’s a tough crowd.

“Either-Or!” I shout, running around like an idiot, my regular song and dance. “Have you ever heard ‘it’s my way or the highway?’” I stop running and look to see if indeed anybody has heard of it. Always, somebody has.

“Yeah, that means there’s no compromise. You have to do what the other person says.” Of course my heart sinks with that person’s defeat, but my job is to rise rise rise.

“That’s right,” I say cheerfully. “But that’s kind of like a threat. For the most part, we should always have choices.”

I blather on in on overheated room with disinterested students who are thinking of their one million responsibilities at home and work. My students don’t have a lot of choices.

I wake some students up by shouting, “Personal Attack!” It’s another logical fallacy: It’s not fair to insult your opponent with harsh words.

Everybody in the room understands that. We talk about adult fights vs. what we would say to our children. I say, “It’s okay to get after your partner or your mother with some harsh words to make that person stop doing a drug or hurting you in some way, but you wouldn’t address your three year old child in the same tone if you wanted her to start peeing in the potty, right?”

Everybody looks at me and the room falls silent. The concepts of tone and audience and purpose slowly start seeping into the conversation. They’re getting it. They want to potty-train their children.

We go over my favorite of all the logical fallacies: sob story. “Manipulating readers’ emotions to lead them to draw unjustified conclusions.”

I ask them: “Do you remember the flies that were eating the sick children’s eyes when Sally Struthers asked you for money on TV?"

Students don’t remember this and it makes no impact at all. I make a mental note to never use this reference again.

“Have you ever seen a starved animal in a commercial on the Internet, the bones sticking out, and they are finally receiving medical treatment after the good guys come in?”

“Yes!” My students like to get some things right and for God’s sake I like it too.

“What do you think the commercial is wanting you to do for the sick starving animal?” I shout.

“Give money! They want money!”

My students get it right.

I try to rein in the lesson and make larger sense of it: logical fallacies are not fair ways to argue, but they will win you points in life, and sometimes money too.
I end the lesson because the hour is up. I almost too excitedly look forward to our next class lesson, because—of course—this is just the start.

You can’t reach the moon until you have the correct equipment.


  1. It feels so good when it works, doesn't it??

  2. Sounds very challenging, especially in a warm classroom - the impact of the physical work environment is too often overlooked.

    I'm glad there are teachers like you who do this work. Not many are suited for it.