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Argumentation from Outrage

Were he alive and broadcasting today, I suspect that even Walter Cronkite – whose name is synonymous with dignified, professional newscasting – might be tempted to say on-air the most popular eight-letter word I’ve heard used to describe last night’s presidential debate (one that begins with “S,” and ends with “show”).

We have all gotten used to candidates avoiding answering questions from moderators, opponents and “everyday citizens” at town-hall debates, as well as talking over one another and delivering pre-packaged talking points masquerading as responses. But the three-way shout-fest involving the two presidential candidates and helpless moderator was a new low point for debates once meant as fora for deliberation and discussion (however fiery).

While we could join the fray of deciding who was to blame for last night’s train wreck, as critical thinkers we need a way to understand what went on that does not rest on metaphors for catastrophes (scatological or otherwise).

Fortunately last night’s fiasco took place just as you have been learning about fallacies – errors in formal or informal reasoning that weaken or destroy arguments. And last night’s entire performance is the new reigning champion example of an informal fallacy that’s rocketed to the top of the charts since the start of the twenty-first century: argumentation from outrage.

As I’ve described in the past, argument from outrage works by dealing with any critique, challenge or question one cannot or don't want to answer by flying into a fury. This can involve screaming, shouting, waving your arms in the air or shoving your finger into an opponent’s face while your own face is twisted in demented rage. If such activity takes place in front of a friendly audience, the outraged arguer might recruit them to shout down their foe. If the audience is unfriendly, outrage can be turned on them for being unfair or trying to “censor” the angry speaker by disagreeing with him or her.

The goal of argumentation from outrage is to raise the temperature so high that reasonable debate can no longer occur (assuming it ever started in the first place). Most of us, after all, find shouting and other manifestations of anger unsettling which is why even a couple loudly breaking up at a restaurant eight tables away makes us feel uncomfortable. This is the reason we tend to avoid conflict in our own personal and professional lives, especially conflict driven by bad emotions such as anger and resentment.

Rather than avoiding outrageous behavior, candidates, talk-show hosts, and online controversialists who embrace this informal fallacy tend to explode first, last and always since their goal is not sensible discussion or even heated argumentation, but bashing an opponent into submission while running out the clock so they can avoid dealing with issues about which they have nothing to say. In short, they are interested not in having an argument, but winning a fight.

Ironically, when I wrote about argumentation from outrage in Critical Voter (spoiler alert – news about a new edition of this book will be announced later this week), the example I used to illustrate the phenomenon was Joe Biden’s 2012 performance in a Vice Presidential debate with Paul Ryan. During that debate, Biden spent his speaking time in a perpetual snit, then continued to interrupt and roll his eyes when it was his opponent’s turn to talk, leaving his rude behavior the only thing anyone remembers about what I described then as one of the best-forgotten moments in political history.

While one might be tempted to dwell on the irony of a once practitioner of this fallacy being out-outraged by his opponent last night, it might be better to reflect on how it is that argumentation from outrage came to be considered just another form of legitimate political communication, rather than a way to smother thoughtful conversation altogether.

For instance, how many people reading this like to tune into a cable “news” show featuring that host who loathes the politician you hate as much as you do, someone who routinely subjects anyone who disagrees with him or her (and you) to tsunamis of outraged abuse? How many of us rush to read blogs or Twitter feeds where emotional responses to the latest misstep or misbehavior of the party we can’t stand get ratcheted up to 11,000?

Let’s go one step further: how many of us have terminated conversation about an important political issue because the person whom we are engaged with is raising their voice and making it clear that the costs of continuing on the topic, emotionally and personally, make it not worth the effort? And how many times was it we who raised our voice and turned up the heat to avoid dealing with ideas that made us uncomfortable?

All of that rude, aggressive, hostile behavior from candidates, media personalities, and everyday people falls into the category of argumentation from outrage, a fallacy that can never lead to genuine dialog, much less informed decision-making – only to more outrage.

Watching this fallacy in its purest form last night should send us a message that if we continue to consider argumentation from outrage just another way to argue for what we want, we should be prepared to only have candidates on the ballot who have mastered this technique better than anyone else.


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