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Logic and the Rudeness Rebuttal

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One of the trickiest needles for libertarians to thread in public policy discussions is what I call the rudeness rebuttal. And today’s explosion in microaggression accusations just makes it trickier.

The rudeness rebuttal arises from logic.

The logical structure of an argument is from premises to conclusions—A implies B implies C…implies Z. Correctly structured, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. However, if a premise or step in an argument is false, factually or logically (e.g., involves a self-contradiction), even if every succeeding step is logically valid, the conclusion need not hold.

This is particularly important when the pivotal step involves the exact reverse of the truth, which can not only invalidate the conclusion, but confirm the opposite conclusion. That is, while A may imply Z, not-A may exclude Z from possibility). For example, something like “capitalism is survival of the fittest” is a common part of statist attacks on freedom. It is false. However, it often characterizes government actions. Consequently, survival of the fittest arguments point to government as worsening any such problem, not solving it, as they conclude.

So when you observe a false premise or step in a statist’s argument, logic and a desire for better real-world results both seem to imply a need to immediately focus on where and how premises depart from truth. After all, if people can come to some resolution with respect to the contested step, we can move on in our discussion (and potentially even agree, in the end). But without that step, conversation will be futile—all the effort in the world will not change your counterpart’s views one iota in the desired direction.

Unfortunately, interrupting during the course of an argument can reinforce someone’s dislike of, and unwillingness to listen to or trust their counterpart.

For example, what would happen if I interrupt at some point when someone else “has the floor” with “What you just said is false, and logically invalidates whatever conclusions you draw?” Even if I am correct, it will not elicit a response dealing with the factual or logical question at issue. It will trigger something more like, “You are being so rude and dismissive of me. Why should I even bother talking to you if you won’t believe me or listen to me until I am finished?” Logic could well suicide out the window, replaced with hurt and anger (often escalated by further rebuttals) that reinforces your disagreement and frays the bonds that might allow people to “reason together” openly and honestly.

The emotional reactions triggered by what may appear the most obvious, logical approach makes the rudeness rebuttal something that can make defenders of liberty right but unconvincing to others. I have not only experienced that problem directly, but I have often heard my students return from political internships with stories of people who view libertarians as rude “know-it-alls.”
The rudeness rebuttal imposes a substantial constraint on logical argumentation for liberty, threatened daily by expanding government reach. How well do we remember precisely what our counterpart said at step D, where disagreement began, several steps (potentially also in question) and minutes later? How well will our recollection match our counterpart’s version? What was said why we disagree can be easily lost.

Unfortunately the bar set by the rudeness rebuttal, which allows resentment about being interrupted to dominate logical disputes, is being raised by the current proliferation of asserted microaggressions. They dramatically expand the number and variety of reasons to call you rude rather than engaging in rational discourse.

Disputes can now go beyond facts and logic to anything that might make someone feel bad, unappreciated or judged, rather than embraced, extending the rudeness rebuttal into an all-purpose response to every argument you don’t want to dispute on a logical basis. And it is only a short extension from there to taking your perceived rudeness to imply that “you are rude because you are privileged and so you don’t care about others,” which can trigger a “watch your privilege” door-slam to further conversation.

For example, even pointing out that America offers great opportunity has been called a microaggression, because some have not done as well as they feel they deserve and “blame the claim” rather than luck, circumstance, efforts put forward, etc.
Of course, it also puts discussion of the far superior opportunities freedom makes possible through what Jefferson called “the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it” off-limits.

Such responses mean that the “rudeness rebuttal” now extends to anything that can be twisted into an interpretation that can hurt someone’s feelings. This provides an almost infinitely elastic source of perceived slights. And of course, it can include statements like “that premise is incorrect” and “that logical step is invalid,” because they can easily be taken to mean “you are saying I am stupid,” which can transform any logical disagreement into felony rudeness.

It would be nice if the rudeness rebuttal had an easy solution for those who advocate for freedom. Unfortunately, with rudeness, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, there is none. No approach guarantees a particular person can be convinced of the possibilities and beauty of what free people can accomplish with and for each other, even with truth on your side. But while dealing with the growing modern minefield in the path of “straight and narrow” reasoning is frustrating and difficult, and involves a far greater burden than political correctness imposes on statists, ignoring it will only reduce how many can be led to recognize the truth and cherish freedom.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.


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