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Op-Ed

Colorless Red Ideas Sleep Furiously

November 13, 2020

Many Republican arguments today are category errors: They’re not true, and lack the sense even to be wrong.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

In a recent London Review of Books article, James Meek explained why it is so difficult — or impossible — to argue with conspiracy theorists today. People who claim, for instance, that Covid-19 does not exist, or is a nefarious plot devised by George Soros and other Jews.

Describing an argument he had with one such pamphleteer in a park, Meek wrote: “As soon as I opened my mouth I realized it was pointless to pick out this untruth or that misunderstanding in his leaflet. To treat it as amenable to critique was a category error.”

A category error is more easily demonstrated than defined. Typical examples are “the theory of relativity is eating breakfast,” or “the number 2 is sleeping.”

“(O)ne of the reasons it’s so difficulty to argue with conspiracy theorists,” Meek wrote, is that “you’re faced with a choice between challenging limitless errors one by one, or denouncing an entire edifice of belief, which usually means calling the conspiracy theorist mad or stupid” — in other words, argument, even conversation has become impossible.

Once you try to argue against a category error, you have lost: forced into statements as meaningless as those of the conspiracy theorists. Forced into arguing that there are two sides, and only two sides — about anything, or everything.

What are you going to say: “The theory of relativity is not eating breakfast”?

Or “The number 2 is awake”?

This goes a long way to explaining the futility of reason — rational argument — against Donald Trump. I was about to add, “and all he represents,” but that too would have been a category error: to assume that he represents anything. 

The latest proof of this came this week. While the world celebrated that an effective vaccine against Covid-19 may have been found, Trump groused that it was all a plot against him — because Pfizer didn’t announce it before the election.

Category errors are grammatically correct but meaningless. The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy calls them “truth valueless.” They are not even wrong.

You cannot disprove them because they are neither true nor false — they are meaningless.

Take for example the Republican Party’s claim that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris “stole” the election.

As we all know, Republicans picked up a few seats in the House, and held onto several key Senate seats.

Trump and his gruppenfűhrer Mitch McConnell celebrate these election returns, but claim that the names at the top of the ballots were somehow twisted, changed, aborted — in the very states they claim to have won, on the same ballot.

In other words, they claim that only parts of the 150 million ballots cast were illegitimate — just the ones they don’t like.

Well, I’m sorry: To claim that the same ballot that was legitimate and illegitimate at the same time sounds to me like a category error — a deliberate one.

Here are other category errors that have been foisted upon us for four years:

• Insults are diplomacy

• People who plotted to kidnap and execute the governor of Michigan are “patriots”

• Four colored members of Congress, U.S. citizens and Democrats, should be deported to … where?

• Taxes are de facto oppression, rather than necessary for public works

• The only way “democracy” can survive is through threats of gun violence

• Government can’t do anything about a lethal pandemic or police murdering Black people

• Government is the enemy — at virtually all levels

• The fall of the Berlin Wall was good, but we need a wall now

• Counting votes is election “theft,” but suppressing votes is not

• The word “conservative” means anything anymore in the United States

• People who disagree with us are enemies

Colorless red ideas sleep furiously.

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