I have spent the past 42 years practicing and teaching principles of rationality. As I learned during my doctoral education in rhetoric, rationality is at the core of our humanity, and it anchors productive deliberation in a democratic society.
In the past few years, the hope by many is that rationality and logical reasoning will be restored, serving as an effective corrective to the untruthful narratives dominating and contaminating our public discourse. However, I have become less sanguine that this will happen, given the current hyperpolarized political environment.
Unfortunately, the absence of rationality and logical persuasive appeals also has intruded on the realm of legal decision making — a place that historically has prided itself on the lack of partisanship. An example from this past week provides a case in point.
In a ruling on Friday that compared the AR-15 to a Swiss Army knife, a federal judge overturned California’s longtime assault weapons ban. In his ruling U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego used this questionable analogy to argue that California’s 30-year assault weapons ban violated the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.
“Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment,” Benitez said in the ruling. “Firearms deemed as ‘assault weapons’ are fairly ordinary, popular, modern rifles.”
Apparently, Benitez never took a course in argumentation and critical thinking, thus failing to understand a false analogy. As I taught my Argumentation and Advocacy students at the University of Texas for over four decades, a false analogy is where one makes a comparison between two subjects that have more dissimilarities than similarities.
Consider this example: Using hairspray every day is analogous to launching a nuclear weapon. Like Benitez’s comparison of a Swiss Amy knife and an AR-15, this analogy is not only fallacious but defies common sense. Therefore, we must ask Judge Benitez: When has a Swiss Army knife ever been used to kill a large number of people in a short period of time? Surely Benitez realizes that had a Swiss Army knife been the chosen weapon in recent mass shootings, more victims would have not lost their lives.
Sadly, Judge Benitez’s spurious reasoning is yet another instance of our nation’s current rhetorical habit of abandoning previously well-accepted standards of rationality and logic. Everywhere you look, partisanship dominates and trumps (no pun intended) our discourse — something that makes deliberation less possible and therefore threatens the survival of democracy. Moreover, as a colleague and friend of mine poignantly observed, faith in humanity is required for a faith in rationality.
For me that faith in humanity is dwindling. Judge Benitez’s ruling, combined with what seems evident from current congressional political skirmishes, leads me to believe that we have reached an inflection point in our nation’s history. As a former scholar and teacher of rhetoric, who on a daily basis monitors and analyzes the country’s political discourse, I feel less confident that America’s great experiment can withstand the onslaught of persuasion not grounded in rationality and logic.
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I hope my pessimism is refuted in the near future.
Richard Cherwitz is a professor emeritus in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.