The current occupant of the White House in Washington has stated on more than one occasion that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals. If true, it would logically follow that, if your father was an immigrant from Mexico, he was, unarguably, a rapist and criminal.
This is an example of a faulty, nonsensical syllogism, an illogical construct I like to call a silly-gism.
A bona fide syllogism is defined as a formal argument in logic, comprised of two statements—a major and a minor premise—followed by a conclusion. If the two statements are true, the conclusion must also be true. Take this Socratic example: all women are mortal; my sister is a woman; therefore, my sister is mortal. Or another: all daffodils are flowers; I am holding a daffodil; therefore, I am holding a flower. Because both premises in each example are indisputably true, both examples are authentic Socratic syllogisms.
However, if I were to alter that second example—all daffodils are flowers; I am holding a flower; therefore, I am holding a daffodil—the conclusion would not necessarily be true. The flower I am holding might very well be a rose.
True syllogisms abound in literature, in public discourse, and in everyday conversations. Alas, so, too, do false ones, the silly-gisms.
Some of these can sound almost logical, given our habit of reading with a non-critical eye. To wit: all crows are black; the bird in my cage is black; therefore, I have a crow in my cage. Or this one: I ride a bicycle; I am a man; therefore, all men ride bicycles.
Silly-gisms are bandied about by all and sundry, particularly on social media, and especially when controversy surrounds them. The problem, as I see it, is that far too many people fail to distinguish between what is truly logical and what is patently absurd, blindly accepting whatever they read as true. Individuals who are untrained in critical thinking skills—who are used to being told what to do, say, and think—tend to accept what they hear or read from a source they trust.
Major news organizations report the facts accurately; Breitbart is one such major news organization; therefore, Breitbart is reporting the news accurately. In this example, only the second premise is demonstrably true, so the conclusion cannot be relied upon. Nevertheless, it is Breitbart reporting that provides many citizens their news, and it is amazing how many people buy it.
The same might be said of other news disseminators (CNN, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Toronto Star, et al) —that they pander to their audience’s predilections, aiming their reporting squarely at those who automatically believe anything that matches their preconceived opinions on a subject. Except that, responsible news organizations deliberately present opposing points of views in their broadcasts and in their pages, striving for fair balance in these op-ed pieces. The question is, how many viewers and readers actually take the time needed to explore alternative viewpoints?
Given the ubiquitous social media presence in our lives, and given the relative non-regulation of these online sources, it is scarcely surprising that so many of us get our daily dose of news from Facebook or Twitter. And too often, that news is so unverified, uncorroborated, and unsubstantiated, that it might better be called un-news!
The real problem, as far as I am concerned, is not that these silly-gisms proliferate; rather, it is that they are deliberately broadcast and published by unscrupulous agents seeking to influence the public. If I am repeatedly told by an automobile company, for example, that beautiful, young women are attracted to men who drive luxury cars, and if that becomes my primary reason for purchasing such a car, I may (more likely, will) be extremely disappointed with the result. Nevertheless, no lasting harm is being done to anyone but me, and no one else is to blame for my lack of critical reflection before buying. It is a matter of caveat emptor—the buyer must be wary.
As the old saying has it: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
However, when the silly-gisms are widespread and malevolent, maliciously intended to mislead, great harm can be done. Consider this blast from the past, before the advent of social media: people elected to high office are above chicanery and corruption; Richard Nixon was elected U.S. president; therefore, Nixon was not a crook. How did that work out?
But if Nixon were president today, how many people would choose to believe he was above reproach if they read it over and over again on media they trust? Can anyone doubt that would be the message his acolytes would be spreading?
Here is a silly-gism from the current president: Our country used to be great; it is broken now, so badly that no one knows what to do; therefore, only I can fix it!
Only I can fix it! How many times have we heard that mantra from his followers, and from media outlets that support him? More importantly, how many of his country-men and -women believe it? Do they have evidence to support his claim? Do they even seek it? Or, like lemmings to the sea, do they blindly follow the leader?
Here is another example: governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; in the last presidential election, the people consented to be governed by this man; therefore, he has the mandate to fix it any way he sees fit.
Syllogism or silly-gism? Time will tell, I suppose.
In the meantime, it behooves us all to try not to believe everything we are told. For there is increasingly the distinct possibility that the people can, indeed, be fooled all the time.