Arguing badly is, like many skills, something that you can master only through practice. Thanks to the gigantic argument that is the Internet, more and more people have honed their ability to pile up logical inconsistencies until they’ve built a towering masterpiece of misdirection and ill-thought-out conclusions.
What if you don’t have time to practice arguing badly, though? What can be done? Sure, there are big lists of logical fallacies with Latin names like ad hominem tu quoque and argumentum ad misericordiam. But those lists aren’t what you’d call a field guide. It’s no good in the heat of argument trying to decide between an appeal to force and special pleading. Besides, constructing good bad arguments can take more effort than it’s worth.
That’s why I’ve compiled this handy-dandy list of arguments and tell-tales. Many of these are taken from discussions of TV shows, comics, and books, so they’re especially applicable to arguments on the Internet.
Prefacing your statements with one of these will help signal to others that you are a person who knows how to argue badly and who may be trolling.
1. “I know this is an unpopular opinion, but…” This is a great way to begin. It says, “Here’s what I think. Please don’t hit me!” It’s the verbal equivalent of a smilie. More generous people will rush to reassure you that they would never attack you just because your opinion is unpopular. This is especially effective when combined with an opinion that isn’t really unpopular at all, or a purported statement of fact masquerading as an opinion.
2. “This is just my opinion…” A weaker form of the above. Also useful for preempting attacks. How can someone attack you for what you said? It’s just your opinion!
3. “I’m sorry, but…” As dfan pointed out in comments, and Confluence expanded on, this is a fine variant of “This is just my opinion…” with overtones of “This is not really an opinion at all.” For best results, combine with a fact that isn’t really a fact.
4. “I was just…” Pretending to restate what you said earlier while actually putting a better spin on it is so easy, even a child can do it! In fact, my toddler does it all the time. “Take that out of your mouth,” I’ll say, and he’ll reply, “I was just holding it to my lips.” Someone called you on your bad argument? Pretend you were claiming something else entirely.
5. “It’s obvious that…” (See also “Clearly…” and “Everybody knows…”) Use this when you have a hole in your argument big enough to fly a 777 through. If you want, you can use it as a variation on “I was just” by saying something like, “Clearly I wasn’t going to put that in my mouth.” Ideally, though, use it to paper over rough spots in your bad argument.
6. “You’re just saying that because…” Follow this one up with an attack on your opponent or a non sequitur and you’ve got bad argument gold. “You’re just saying that because you used to wet your bed.”
7. “What you people don’t understand is…” This opening salvo really only works in your first message. Ideally you’ve never posted anything to the blog or bulletin board or (God help you) Usenet group before you say this. That’s because saying “you people” or “you folks” in your first message is an excellent way of indicating that you’re a troll, that your argument is flawed, and that any point you have will either be extremely simple (and already discussed at length) or dead wrong. In fact, using “you people” or “you folks” at any point in the argument is a great way to signal that you’re going to be arguing sloppily.
8. “It goes without saying…” A lovely way of driving home that your point is obvious, and that your opponent is an idiot because he or she won’t think of this point. If your point is especially non-obvious or, ideally, flat-out wrong, all the better. “It goes without saying that pigs can fly.”
Signifying that you know how to argue badly is a fine start, but eventually you’ll have to deliver the goods in the form of a bad argument. The following one-sentence statements are tiny gems of poor thinking. You can pad them out into longer paragraphs, but they’ll do just as well on their own.
9. “There are far more important things to worry about.” Pow! Knockout punch! The beauty of this argument is that it is irrefutably true. It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs got together with the Kübler-Ross model of grief to create a leaderboard of tragedy and loss. Worried about how your kid is doing in school? Worry that your kid is on drugs! Saddened by Katrina? Think of the people who died in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Pull this argument out when people are discussing pop culture such as movies or comic books with any seriousness. Who cares that, carried to its logical conclusion, the argument means you should never worry about anything except the hypothetical #1 important worry of all time?
10. “If you don’t like it, don’t read/see/buy it!” This argument reduces all discussion of right and wrong to a matter of exposure. If you can avoid seeing the offensive material, then clearly the wrongness of it seeps away. Think of it as the Kitty Genovese approach to media criticism. It sounds reasonable enough that you can apply the argument even in situations where it’s not a reasonable response.
11. “If you don’t like it, you write your own book/get your own show/fix it!” Mostly useful in discussion of media. This shifts the burden of fixing problems onto the people being hurt. It’s like walking up to someone’s car, bashing in their headlights, and saying, “If you don’t like not being able to drive when it’s dark, you should fix your headlights!” There are times in an argument when you want to say, “SHUT UP!” This is a graceful way of saying just that.
12. “You’re just arguing from emotion.” As Teresa Nielsen Hayden pointed out in comments, this is a great ad hominem attack that doesn’t take much effort. In fact, putting in too much effort can undermine your bad argument. “You’re arguing from emotion, not reason, and here’s why” can be a valid argument when you back it up with explanation. So whatever you do, do not explain why the person is arguing from emotion how that invalidates their argument. Everyone knows that if you show any emotion, you can’t be right!
13. “Let’s stop being PC.” A beautiful apologia for being a jerk. This is an argument full of emotional resonance. Everyone hates political correctness, right? Hell yeah they do. Sure, stripped of the easily-mocked excesses sometimes seen in the 1990s, “politically correct” means “civil and inclusive.” But civility and inclusiveness are for sissies. “Let’s stop being PC” gives you a straw man to punch on before you turn to whaling on others with impunity.
14. “My girlfriend/wife/black friend/gay friend doesn’t have a problem with that!” (Alternately, “I’m black/gay/a woman and that didn’t bother me!”) By trotting out one person and applying their opinion to an entire group of people, you can negate arguments in a flash. This is useful mostly for arguments involving racism, sexism, and the like.
15. “You don’t really feel that way/think that.” When you’re having trouble attacking someone’s argument, attack their inner feelings. To have a truly good discussion, everyone must assume that others are arguing in good faith, and that they’re not, say, arguing just to argue. By moving the discussion to what someone feels and thinks you’re signalling that you don’t think your opponent is arguing in good faith. Even better, you’ve escaped having to have facts to back you up.
16. “You’re censoring me!” Like political correctness, everyone hates censorship, right? So claiming that you’re being censored, when really it’s that your ideas are being challenged, is a great way to bring others to your side. You’ll have to ignore that censorship only works a) when your opponent has the power to censor by banning or blocking your creative output, and thus b) is really the province of governing bodies and their deputies. For variation, you can claim something is a “free speech issue” when really it isn’t.
17. “You know who else thought like you do? Hitler.” You know, I think I’ll end this post right here.