Last night my wife Patti and I, who are true-crime TV fans, watched a show about a murderer who was doing life in prison. He was morbidly obese and married to a very large woman he met after being incarcerated. They met via writing letters back and forth. I would love to see their writings. They were presented as a perfectly nice couple, albeit a pair dealing with some limitations in their relationship.
This was, again a true crime show and thus a big part of the program dealt with the murderer's crimes, his past problems and his scary history. Indeed, his marriage was a small part of the story, but it offered a perfect example of something that is ripping our society to shreds and creating massive problems and issues. The wife was only on the show very briefly as it was mostly about this huge fat killer who wanted to get out of prison now that he’s been saved by finding Jesus, but during her short opportunity to speak she said that in her “beliefs” stealing a pack of bubble gun and killing an innocent man to rob him were just the same and that if you asked Jesus for forgiveness he would forgive you and you were going to be fine.
She actually said that the bubble gum theft and the murder were “just the same” in God’s eyes and that this was her belief. They shared this view and belief. We are told that we may NOT argue with other people’s religious views, that everyone has a right to their beliefs. And this serves people engaged in magical thinking just fine. I believe it so you are rude and bad if you argue with me—you are in the wrong if you disagree.
This type of totally crazy thinking, the style of it even in people who are not killers and morbidly obese, I see and hear from otherwise seemingly smart people and stupid people and ignorant people and willfully ignorant people and, full disclosure here, I see it all the time in a huge majority of Christian Republicans.
Any sane person would realize that stealing a $.50 package of bubble gum and murdering a stranger to steal $100 from him so that you can buy more cocaine are NOT the same fucking thing. But I hear this same kind of crazy argumentation all the time in political discussions.
There is a name for this kind of madness. Actually, two names.
Faulty parallelism and false equivalence are two of the most common and effective rhetorical devices used by politicians, journalists, and other persuasive speakers. Faulty parallelism is when you use different grammatical structures for items that should be parallel, such as "He likes reading, writing, and to play chess." False equivalence is when you compare two things that are not really comparable, such as "Both sides are equally to blame for the violence." These techniques are great for confusing your audience, distracting them from the real issues, and making yourself sound smarter than you really are. Who needs logic and clarity when you have faulty parallelism and false equivalence?
See how smoothly these sentences flow? Faulty parallelism is a great way to show off your creativity and originality. But it is fundamentally wrong for clarity and meaning.
False equivalence is when you compare two or more things that seem to be totally similar, even though they have some minor differences. False equivalence is a powerful tool to make your arguments more persuasive. For example, you can say: Eating meat is the same as murder, since both involve killing animals. Or, vaccines are just as dangerous as diseases, since both can cause side effects.
See how convincing these statements are? False equivalence is a great way to show off your pretend knowledge and critical thinking.
Faulty parallelism and false equivalence are two devices that you can use in your arguments. False equivalence is often used in political discussions to justify wrong views by exaggerating the similarities or downplaying the differences between two or more things in order to draw some kind of comparison.
For example, some people use false equivalence to compare the actions of protesters and rioters during the Black Lives Matter movement and the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6, 2023. They might claim that both groups were expressing their grievances and exercising their rights, and that both groups caused violence and damage. However, this is a false equivalence because the two groups are not similar in the relevant respects. The protesters were fighting against systemic racism and police brutality, while the rioters were trying to overturn a legitimate election result. The protesters were mostly peaceful and faced excessive force from the authorities, while the rioters were violent and faced little resistance from the police. The protesters were seeking justice and equality, while the rioters were seeking to undermine democracy and the rule of law. Samesies though huh? If you claim a religious exemption to making any fucking sense at all, you are doubling down on your idiocy.
False equivalence can also be used to create a false balance in media coverage, where flaws of one politician may be compared to flaws of a wholly different nature of another. For example, during the 2016 presidential election, some media outlets gave equal weight to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and Donald Trump’s numerous scandals and controversies, even though the latter were much more serious and relevant than the former. This created a false impression that both candidates were equally bad or equally good, when in fact they were not. And if you hear this often enough and fall for it, you will soon find yourself totally cynical about even the possibility of fairness and justice in any election. You will distrust all elections and look for alternative ways to be governed and led.
False equivalence can be harmful because it can mislead people into accepting wrong views or making wrong decisions based on faulty reasoning. It can also prevent people from recognizing the real differences and nuances between different situations and perspectives. False equivalence can be challenged by pointing out the relevant dissimilarities between the things being compared, and by providing evidence and logic to support one’s claims. But one must have the words and thinking skills to do this and between magical thinking and emotional reactions and self-assuring biases and religious hopes and fantasies, good luck.
Faulty parallelism is a grammatical error that occurs when two or more parts of a sentence are not similar in form or structure, even though they should be. Faulty parallelism can cause problems in political divisions in society today by: Making arguments unclear or confusing. Faulty parallelism can obscure the meaning or logic of a sentence, making it hard for the reader or listener to follow the point or the evidence. For example, a politician might say: I oppose this bill because it will raise taxes, hurt the economy, and people will lose their jobs. This sentence is faulty because it mixes a noun phrase (people) with two verb phrases (raise taxes, hurt the economy). A parallel sentence would be: I oppose this bill because it will raise taxes, hurt the economy, and cause people to lose their jobs. Faulty parallelism can also create comparisons that are not valid or fair, by implying that two things are similar when they are not.
Faulty parallelism can be avoided by checking that all parts of a sentence that are meant to be similar are also similar in form and structure. This can improve the clarity, accuracy, and effectiveness of political communication, and reduce the problems caused by political divisions in society today.
Yet, at the core of the problems with these structures is the misuse of words and at the core of the proper use of words is the subject of Linguistics.
Linguistics is the scientific study of language, its structure, function, and diversity. Linguistics can help us clarify our thinking and communication skills in many ways, such as: Linguistics can help us understand how language works, how it is used, and how it changes over time. This can help us improve our language proficiency, which is the ability to use language to communicate effectively. Language proficiency involves linguistic, cognitive, and sociocultural factors. Linguistics is a fascinating and useful field that can enhance our thinking and communication skills in various domains.
However, for people who are overly certain that their beliefs are all that matter, black and white thinkers, magical thinking religious or political crazies, even people who are not morbidly obese and in prison forever for murder, Linguistics is the Most Useless Subject Ever. To the degree they think about it at all, they will feel certain that Linguistics is not in any way useful or practical. They will think that Linguists are too busy playing with words and symbols, making up rules and theories that nobody understands or cares about. They will be convinced Linguistics is useless and that we don’t need linguists to tell us what we already know, or what we can easily find out by using a dictionary or Google.
To so many people, Linguistics is just a bunch of obvious facts and trivial details that nobody remembers or cares about. For too many people, Linguistics is just a boring and frustrating subject that makes us feel stupid and miserable. In these people’s MAGA minds, Linguistics is the most useless subject ever, and nobody should study it or care about it. Linguists are just a bunch of nerds and snobs who think they are better than everyone else because they know some fancy words and symbols. For the far right, Linguistics is a dead end, a pointless pursuit, a meaningless exercise. Linguistics is useless, and so are linguists. And this brings us to where we are today.
Donald Trump has claimed that he has “the best words”.
He does not.
What he does have is a malignant narcissistic personality disorder that equips him with a reptilian cunning in his use of linguistic and logical fallacies as well and an instant access to projection as a singular and all–purpose defense mechanism. Followers of Trump have become so used to the lies and absurdities he speaks anytime his lips are moving that they have lost the ability and willingness to even try and see where his bullshit is leading them.
Trump tells his followers whatever he sees that they might want to hear, just so long as they follow the only rule he cares about, believing in and following him.
How we will ever survive Trump and Trumpism, is a mystery to me and a frightening one at that. But a place to start might be listening for and calling our False equivalency and faulty parallelism whenever we hear it. And don’t let the person using these manipulative, faulty argumentative techniques shift over to their right to their beliefs, because that’s another mad, deadly rabbit hole from which there is no escape.
Always remember Mark Twain’s wise counsel, “Never argue with fools. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”