It has often been said that you can learn a lot from listening to a child talk. People tend to mean that you can learn a great deal about the beautiful simplicity of life and the importance of innocence. These are valuable lessons, but certainly not the only things children can teach you. What I have found from listening to my children is that they have an amazing understanding of how political communication works. It’s not that I am one of those parents who think their children are so smart they can handle molecular biology in the first grade, but my two year old and four year old have given me remarkable examples of arguments that are popular in the realm of American political discourse. Carter could have gotten a third term with some of the things my kids say in passing.
Fallacy of Extension or The Strawman Argument
My 2-year-old daughter looked at me yesterday and announced, “It’s not night daddy, it’s the morning.” She was certainly correct, it was 10 o’clock in the AM and the sun was shining brightly. The intriguing part about her statement was that I had never said anything about it being nighttime. She had ascribed to me a position that was both irrational and, more importantly, not mine. She had used this to make her own case for the fact it was daytime. Somewhere, Roger Ailes was smiling. This argument is the backbone of much of the political debate that goes on today.
In the “non-toddler world” it works like this. I accuse you of saying something you have never said and do not believe and then make my case in opposition to the illogical premise that now belongs to you. You look like a lunatic and I look like my argument is not only correct, but a common sense response to the weird stuff that you have said at another time (even though you never said it!) Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech is the most famous example. The man was accused of misusing 18 thousand dollars and ended up making an argument over how his political enemies were asking him to give a dog back that his children really loved. No one had said anything about the dog except him. Even my two-year-old couldn’t pull that off with a straight face.
Misdirection or The Old Red Herring
This one is common among children when the subject of bedtime comes up. My four-year-old son has this down to a science. He is a naturally curious boy, but this curiosity comes in spades right around the time he’s looking to stall the natural forces of parenthood.
Me: “It’s bedtime.”
Son: “Why do the leaves fall off of trees?”
Me: “Let’s talk about it tomorrow, it’s bedtime.”
Son: “Where do the stars come from?”
Me: “We can talk about that first thing tomorrow, it’s time to go to sleep.”
Son: “Why do people sleep?”
Politicians often use this one when they get in trouble. The same sort of change the subject magic can be seen at many a press conference. Here’s a made up example that should look familiar to anyone who spends more than a half hour a month watching the news.
Reporter #1: “Is it true that you took illegal contributions from the law firm of Screwed, Over and Often?”
Politician: “The question of what makes a contribution illegal is an important one. Political contributions have been the bedrock of our great political system. Without them, many great Americans wouldn’t have had the chance to become President. Lincoln took contributions from great Americans like Cornelius Vanderbilt. Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents. He took a stand against the evils of slavery.”
My son hit me with this one yesterday and nearly ruined what was left of my barely usable brain.
Me: We’ll be here for 18 more days.
Son: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11…uhm. Daddy, it can’t be 18, 18 isn’t a number.
Basically, he was saying that if he doesn’t know what it is then it simply can’t be true. In politics, there are many bizarre variations on this hustle. The most surreal is the use of the absence of something to prove its existence. Future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren ran this one out back in the early 1940s to justify some of the post-Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment in California “I take the view that this lack (of enemy subversive activity in the west coast) is the most ominous sign in our whole situation. It convinces me more than perhaps any other factor that the sabotage we are to get, the Fifth Column activities are to get, are timed just like Pearl Harbor… I believe we are just being lulled into a false sense of security.”
If you observe children enough, you’ll see all sorts of interesting political communication going on. The argument from personal charm is another standard. “I’m cute and harmless, therefore, even though I have a chunk of my brothers hair in my hands, I couldn’t possibly have done that bad thing you are thinking I did.” This explains much of the political career of Ronald Reagan. The argument ad infinitum is a common tool used when politicians repeat the same expressions thousands of times to try to cement them in the minds of voters. When your 4-year-old asks you for the six thousandth time for the Thomas the Train Misty Island Rescue Set, understand that they are exhibiting traits that may one day allow them to lead this great nation.
If you are interested in more of the great strategies used to obfuscate truth and contribute to the further cheapening of language, check out this link…http://www.don-lindsay-archive.org/skeptic/arguments.html
#1 by johncerickson on July 8, 2011 - 6:24 PM
The noble person in me says that of course these arguments span all age groups, as certain truths are universal, and therefore cross all barriers of time and space.
The cynical person in me says, “Of course a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old can wield these arguments since, in the political arena, they are used by folk with average intellect of a 2 to 4 year old.
The responsible person in me says it’s time to go mow the lawn.
I’m getting a drink and am tuning in “The Outer Limits”. That’s the majority opinion. The persons on vacation in me are incommunicado behind the left lung, so they don’t count.
Schizophrenia means you always have someone to talk to! 😀
#2 by johncerickson on July 8, 2011 - 9:07 PM
Aw, rats, the responsible guys won out. So I had to mow the lawn, but they let me quit once the front was done and watch “Family Guy” and “Frasier”. (There’s a pair you never thought you’d see together, eh?)
By the way, the cynical folk have won out. That’s the American populace’s problem – we’re OVER-thinking while our politicians are UNDER-thinking. (When they aren’t UNDER the influence or UNDER investigation. 😉 )
#3 by Keith Spillett on July 9, 2011 - 9:17 AM
“The persons on vacation in me are incommunicado behind the left lung, so they don’t count.” I’ve thought about this quote for a while now and I have decided to endorse you for President.
I subscribe to the over-thinking thing with 200 percent of my being. My wife thinks I’m nuts because I continue to claim that their is Nazi imagery in one of my son’s train videos. I’ll be writing about that soon, but until then, I’ll be left to ponder it at 3 AM lying in bed.
The Outer Limits is a wonderful show. I’m a Twilight Zone freak myself. Have you ever seen the 80s Twilight Zone episode “Wordplay”. I’m pretty sure it’s a gateway into another dimension. I watched it once and the next thing I know I was collapsed on the side of the road 2 miles from a rest stop in Arizona. They have it on YouTube now, but I’m sure once THEY realize the purpose of that episode it will be shutdown immediately. I mean YouTube and possibly the entire internet.
#4 by Jim Wheeler on July 9, 2011 - 8:56 AM
Treating this subject from the perspective of your children is brilliant. I had recently dipped my toe in this subject, but you blew it away. I would ask every politician to make this post required reading, but they would just, well, take one of fifty options in the Don Lindsay archive.
Love the picture. It’s perfect!
#5 by Keith Spillett on July 9, 2011 - 9:08 AM
Thanks Jim! That Lindsay archive is a blast. I am going to make a checklist out of the thing and see how many I can get in the first Presidential debate. 50 sounds about right.
To be completely honest, I’m not sure that this was a fair sampling. I have forced my children to recite the Checkers speech in it’s entirety since they started speaking. They have posters of Spiro Agnew on their walls and are not allowed to play with toys until they can explain the entire Southern Strategy. They could simply be latching on to the bizarre Nixonian neuro-linguistic training I am subjecting them to.
#6 by Joshua Ryan Kidd on July 10, 2011 - 3:31 AM
And let us not forget historical revision.
#7 by Keith Spillett on July 10, 2011 - 1:08 PM
A popular technique used by toddlers!!!!
#8 by Keith Spillett on June 3, 2012 - 3:40 PM
Certainly. My apologies. I will credit you immediately.