On political copes, part one: "Groupthink"
Deconstructing the worst rhetorical moves in contemporary political discourse.
It was probably about a decade ago that it became unfashionable to talk about logical fallacies in our political discourse, at some point after a college libertarian accused someone of ad hominem on a message board for the millionth time. And yet: we are still faced with the stubborn problem that fallacies are extremely stupid. They are at least equally annoying, and they are probably as much of an obstacle to public deliberation as the problems of “cancel culture” and “censorship” that have captured most of our attention.
In that light, I’m going to attempt the banal but probably necessary task of cataloguing some of the more common political copes of our age and talking about why they do not actually make sense.
POLITICAL COPE: “That’s groupthink!”
FALLACY: ad populum, also appeal to motive
It is an unfortunate reliable rule of thumb that the sort of person who has heard of the term ad populum, and who makes the most ostentatious show of avoiding it, is more likely to violate it than anyone else. Ask them what they think it means, and they will almost certainly give you something like the Wikipedia definition: ad populum is
a fallacious argument which is based on affirming that something is real or better because the majority thinks so.
There is a subtle but crucial misunderstanding here, and it has wrecked absolute havoc on our discourse. An argument ad populum is one that is based on what is popular, but it does not necessarily conclude that what is popular is good or correct. It can also conclude that what is popular is bad or incorrect, because the problem with an ad populum argument is that instead of considering an idea on the merits, it simply looks at how many people agree.
That is the great irony of the “groupthink” cope: the person who calls his critics sheeple, or insists that they are just a part of some kind of political hivemind, is committing the same fundamental error he sees in them.
Of course, the accusation of groupthink is rarely just a claim about whether or not a certain idea is good or legitimate. It’s also usually a claim about motive: to say that someone is afflicted with groupthink is to say that they want to be popular, or are afraid of being unpopular, or are just reflexively conforming instead of thinking for themselves.
But consider: why is it so easy to turn that line of psychoanalysis around? It is extremely popular to position yourself as brave freethinker throwing off the shackles of conformity, and we have all encountered in our lives people who do this precisely because they want to be liked and approved of. That is why the insult “contrarian” has such bite, and why this species of ad populum is sometimes called the romantic rebel fallacy: all of the obsession with what other people think, the desperation to be liked and approved of, and the intellectual laziness can be found in the conformist and the unconformist alike.
The possibility of both of these explanations should teach us that it is in fact very difficult to understand, on a psychological level, how other people think about things. This is a point I have made before, and that I suspect I will have to keep making for a very long time: most poli-psych punditry, coming from motivated amateurs eyeballing people online instead of disinterested professionals working in a clinic, is just complete bullshit.
But instead of belaboring that point, I’ll conclude with another: even if someone is captured by groupthink or compelled with contrarianism, this has zero bearing on the merits of what they are saying. Pretending otherwise just relies on another fallacy — the appeal to motive. If I am being honest, I have to admit that I absolutely believe that the Mariana Trench exists, not because I have seen any kind of empirical proof, but simply because it’s what all of my friends keep telling me. If you sat me down on a therapist’s couch and looked into my heart of hearts, I suspect you would find that I really only think this because I want the approval of my friends, and I would be deeply hurt if they all decided that I am an insane idiot; you could probably trace all of this even further back to all kinds of crazy psychodynamics that explain when and how my ego submits to the superego. And if you discovered all of this, and somehow proved it in an argument with me about ocean geography, I have no doubt that I would be absolutely mortified. And yet: the Mariana Trench exists.