Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Is “it just makes sense” evidence for an argument?



Political races in Alabama appear to be heating up, emphasizing issues related to immigration and otherness, evolution, and thugs in government. (Thanks to The Faculty Lounge, for calling attention to these ads.) Perhaps one of the strongest attacks comes from gubernatorial candidate Tim James who decries the fact that Alabama driver’s licenses are given in twelve languages:



What concerns me is not any alleged xenophobia or whether English should be a state’s official language, although these are important issues and need to be discussed. Instead, PQED readers may want to ask about the nature of his argument itself. Is there an argument at all? Here is the text:

“I’m Tim James. Why do our politicians make us give driver’s license exams in 12 languages? This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it. We’re only giving that test in English if I’m governor. Maybe it’s the businessman in me, but we’ll save money, and it makes sense. Does it to you?”

The subordinate argument is that giving tests in only one language saves money. Fair enough. That sounds like it could be true, although how much money would be saved is probably minimal, especially compared with the court costs of prosecuting those who drive without licenses because they cannot read the test. The major argument, however, is encapsulated in the phrase “and it makes sense.” This is a classic rhetorical move that sounds like it is saying something but really isn’t. Is there an argument there? I don't think so.

The thing about appeals to intuition is that they attach themselves to possible rather than actual arguments. In other words, whatever the audience intuits the argument to be is the argument that justifies the conclusion. Yet, there is no reason to think that James’s reason for opposing multi-lingual testing is the same as someone else’s.

What could those arguments be? Will English-only testing stop foreign-language speakers from driving? Probably not. Will it force them to go “home” to their country of origin because there they can drive? Probably not. Will it inspire them to learn English faster so they could drive legally? I suppose one might claim so, but I would have to see significant evidence for that position. In fact, what a law like this would do is, as indicated above, promote driving without licenses and increase the poverty and suffering of those who need cars to work, shop, and be good citizens. It would also punish them for not speaking English, and that, in the end, is what James's argument appeals to – the desire to hurt those who are different. Why? because the punishment will likely have no other consequences than the punishment. The suffering is all that there is. Punishment without purpose is retribution; it is not rehabilitation.

Appeals to intuition are inherently conservative – and I don’t mean this in the political sense of Republican vs. Democrat. I mean, instead, that they preserve the status quo. It is my daughter’s intuition that some “new” food is yucky before she tries it, it was the slave-owner’s intuition that slaves were not full human beings long before any of them experienced an equal playing field, and it is most everybody’s intuition that the familiar is more comfortable than the different. Most people who enjoy newness and difference enjoy the adventure, excitement, and intellectual challenges of the new experience. (Unless the familiar is so unpleasant that any change would be better.) Familiarity is easy. As Edmund Burke tells us, change causes tremendous disruption, and thus, there must be a compelling reason for anyone to want to endure it.

I would argue, therefore that James makes no argument, and in the end, he piles on another fallacy, the appeal to the bandwagon. It makes sense to him, “Does it to you?” And herein lies the problem: the audience is not forced to ask why they believe what they believe or whether what they believe is right. Instead, they are only faced with the question of whether his appeal to emotion is enough to motivate them to vote for James. In short, there are a lot of non-arguments here, but very few reasons to support James's position that multilingual driving tests ought to be prohibited. Or am I wrong? Are there arguments in the ad that I have missed? Does James, in fact, make sense to you? I'd like to know.

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2 comments:

  1. this is why I distrust philosophers... or blogosophers

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  2. It is always interesting to see posts from the pan troglodytes/homo sapiens gene ensembles but the post just goes to show that although you can accomplish anything with an infinite number of monkeys, most of the things accomplished would have been better left undone.

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