A Condensed Field Guide to Cuckoo
Birds of the Mind:
Reason Abuse in Public Debte
by John de Pillis (2 June 1996, Riverside, Press Enterprise)
In spite of ever more frequent calls to improve the quality of public debate (especially as the elections near)' examples of Reason Abuse still abound. There are well-used tricks that deprive us of healthy debate as surely as the invading parasitic Cuckoo deprives smaller birds of their rightful resources. Here is an abbreviated catalog of some Cuckoo birds of the mind which fly the skies of public debate:
(1) The Mind-Reading/Motive Analysis Cuckoo:
This bird of counterfeit logic displaces solid analysis with mind-reading and hunches. Here are two examples taken from both the political right and left.
Example on the left: An AP news story dated April 18 describes University of California Regent Ward Connerly's support of the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI). Connerly states that the CCRI is not anti-affirmative action. In fact, Its wording does not even use the term. In opposing Connerly's support of CCRI, Kathy Spillar, representing the No on CCRI Campaign, is quoted as saying, "The reason they don't want [affirmative action] in the language is that affirmative action is popular. They want to use deception to trick people into voting against something they support." (How does she know what Connerly wants or doesn't want?)
Example on the right: Cal Thomas, in his Press Enterprise column of April 26, criticizes the book "Combat Twelve Years in the U.S. Senate" by Warren Rudman. Thomas states, ". . . Rudman cared more about what Democrats thought of him than about promoting principle." (How does he know what Rudman's heart is caring about?)
Fortunately, the phantoms of mind-reading, guessing and motive analysis, all of which pose as fact, have some obvious markings: Look for phrases like ``he wants,,' "she feels" or "he thinks." The interesting point is this: Even if the motive analysis is correct, the listener is rarely told why the adversary's point of view is in dispute. Meaningful discussion of merit or demerit is successfully displaced by hunch and emotion.
(2) The Shameless-Denial-of-Reality Cuckoo:
Example: This don't-confuse-me-with-facts strategy was seen during the April 12 airing of ABC-TV's magazine program, 20/20. John Stossel was interviewing a leader of a boycott against Liz Claiborne. The basis for the boycott was the claim that Liz Claiborne herself, on Oprah Winfrey's show, had made insulting and disparaging remarks about black customers. When Stossel told her that Liz Claiborne had never been a guest on Oprah, and that Oprah never heard such a comment, the boycott leader responded by saying the boycott would continue nevertheless, ". . . because in all fiction there is always some truth.." (Reality denied).
(3) The "Necessary"-Equals-Sufficient" Cuckoo: A very simple trick that can easily derail serious debate. Example: How often have you heard an exchange like this? Charlie: "Spending money is necessary to solve this problem." Harry: "Charlie is wrong when he claims that throwing money at the problem is sufficient to solve it."
Charlie has said that money is necessary. Harry distorts this when he quotes Charlie as saying that money is sufficient. Necessary and sufficient are logically different but they are too often presented as if they were equivalent.
Incidentally, this exchange between Charlie and Harry illustrates another technique of Reason Abuse --- use of the unreliable C-to-to-A information delivery system.
(4) The C-tells-B-what-A-is-Saying Cuckoo:
Example: This bird of false assurance can be seen when politician (C) tells you (B) what opponent (A) means or says. (Would you believe everything Chrysler Corporation tells you about the Ford Motor Company? Accuracy is often a casualty when someone graciously explains the beliefs of an opponent.
This is not to say that comments about a third party are forbidden! It's just that until you hear from third party (A), the C-to-B-to-A information delivery system is just plain unreliable.
(5) The Personal-Attack Cuckoo:
This kill-the-messenger (or, ad hominem) bird of Reason Abuse can be recognized by statements like, "Anyone who believes (such and such) is a moron." You can see how discussion of the issue is displaced by discussion of the adversary's qualifications as a moron.
(6) The Confuse-Means-With-Ends Cuclkoo:
This bird of deception substitutes tactics for analysis of issues, a phenomenon practiced too often by radio and TV news "analysts." Questions on tactics like, "How will you win?" (means) have a corrosive effect on debate whenever they replace basic questions like, "What are your objectives?" (ends).
Example: In the February 1996 issue of Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows quotes Sen. Bill Bradley who is commenting to Judy Woodruff on this very point "Let's stop talking," Bradley says, ``about who will win what race and start responding to one another's ideas." As soon as he finished, Judy Woodruff asked bradley, "Do you want to run for president?"
Now, why all this fuss about a little sloppy thinking? Simply put, today's problems urgently demand solutions. Solutions must be hammered out on the anvil of discourse. Discourse must be annealed with honesty, clear thinking and a sense of moral good- -- qualities we cannot cede to values that celebrate deception, diversion, and fashion. For this reason, we must be able to recognize the markings of these counterfeit ideas --- these Cuckoo birds of the mind and soul.