Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The anticipation fallacy

Given the internet's aggressively robotic policing of hyper-rational discourse, you'd think that we would have by now discovered every fallacy that human language can possibly articulate. And yet somehow, the right once again proves its endless capacity for innovation:


The problem here is embarrassingly obvious: the right thinks that it has contested criticism simply by anticipating it. Sandra Hartle generalizes the first two insane tweets into their logical conclusion: attempts to blame the right for anything are wrong, because they are so predictably what one would expect the critics of the right to do.

It's not all that interesting to notice that the right is making stupid arguments, but I think the form of this one is deeply revealing.

First, it suggests that the right feels a general need to affirm the explanatory power of its ideology. Anticipating criticism is in this case a way of suggesting that everything -- even one's critics -- has been thoroughly understood and dealt with. Epistemelogical closure has taken place, and this is a good thing; the sheer comprehensiveness of right-wing ideology, its ability to reduce any line of attack into an ideologically consistent formula, demonstrates its absolute power (and that of its partisans).

Second, it suggests that the right has become keenly self-conscious about particular points of criticism; they anticipate certain lines of attack, but not others, and they do this for a reason. The right, of course, will insist that they simply see a pattern of mindless talking points. But the anticipation fallacy also leaves them open to a less flattering possibility: they anticipate particular attacks because they're aware of particular vulnerabilities. They expect liberals to "play the race card" in response to criticism of Obama, for example, because they realize that this is a plausible and widely accepted line of attack.

And third, it suggests that the right is looking for rhetorical silver bullets. The anticipation fallacy always entails generalizing specific, circumstantially contingent criticism into abstract "cards" that critics have allegedly played over and over -- that way, all of these instances can be summarily dismissed. If we notice that "reductio ad Somalium" isn't an actual fallacy, all that's left is the attempt to declare any comparisons to Somalia pre-emptively illegitimate. Cooke doesn't just want to rebut the specific point at hand -- he wants to win a final victory, ending any future comparisons to Somalia once and for all. This impulse finds its ultimate expression in Hartle's attempt to strangle in the cradle all potential criticism of the right.

So in general, I think the proliferation of the anticipation fallacy signals a deep insecurity on the right: they sense that their ideology is inadequate (1) and vulnerable to criticism (2), so they hope to win for it a final victory (3). This political psychology isn't latent in every stupid argument the right makes, but it's pretty damn evident in this one.