So we’re back to MovieBob and The Simpsons.
For those who don’t remember, I started in on a new tag called “On Disagreement” last Wednesday. My goal in doing this is to tie in my various other new projects on apologetics, perspective, and history to a larger concept on how to make arguments. MovieBob afforded me a perfect opportunity to start this off with how not to make an argument.
If you recall, the video in question was called “Why the Simpsons are Still Funny,” but rather than argue that point he set up a strawman argument of Simpsons fans who stopped paying attention and are now just being dicks about it. Because it’s apparently cool to hate on The Simpsons. Or something. We’re all hipsters now, I guess.
Anyway, MovieBob starts out Part 2 on exactly the same foot.
Last week I said that the Simpsons was still funny, a phrase which, on the internet anyway, is right up there with saying, “Y’know, that Stalin wasn’t that bad of a fellow,” or, “Minecraft is overrated,” or offering up for discussion whether Friendship is Magic or Adventure Time is the better show.
That’s right. He got 17 seconds into the video before he Godwined himself. Now the obvious counter-argument to my point is that he was playing off the Stalin reference for laughs. This counter-argument is technically correct. I have absolutely no doubt this was a joke and since it is the internet there is a cadre of people who will immediately compare anyone who disagrees with them to Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot.
Except there’s that corollary to Godwin’s Law that’s basically achieved a level such that it’s indistinguishable from the Law itself: the first time someone invokes the Nazis the discussion is over and that person automatically loses. Invoking Stalin is Godwin by proxy, while accusing you opponents of immediately Godwinning your argument is basically the same as invoking the Nazis by proxy all on your own. Does that make sense? No? Crap.
Comparing someone disagreeing with you about something inherently meaningless to Hitler, Stalin, or Chairman Mao is a failure of an argument. So in immediately saying, “My opponents are undoubtedly comparing me to Stalin apologists right now,” MovieBob starts off his video by saying, “My opponents are unreasonable and should not be listened to.” This is what is known as poisoning the well.
I’m going to ignore the Minecraft and FiM/Adventure Time thing, by the by. There are two reasons for this. First, they’re proportional arguments. Second, I don’t play Minecraft or watch either show and don’t intend to change that any time soon, so I don’t care.
Anyway, now that MovieBob has established that his opponents are unreasonable people, he goes back to his main argument.
Though I stand by my overall premise that the widespread disillusionment with this particular series has more to do with a change in the audience’s habits and expectations than it does with some consistent drop in overall quality I do agree that The Simpsons isn’t quite what it used to be.
I’m going to break my response in to three parts.
1. “Though I stand by my overall premise that the widespread disillusionment with this particular series has more to do with a change in the audience’s habits and expectations than it does with some consistent drop in overall quality…”
This is problematic, since he never actually proved his original premise. This is what is known as argument by assertion. It is also a rare example of an actual case of begging the question.
Begging the question is right up there with ad hominem on the “misunderstood logical fallacies” scale. I tackled the ad hom in the footnotes last time around and DagoodS chimed in with a more directly useful example in the comments. I will refer you to those for that discussion. Begging the question is a similar beast since people tend to get bogged down in the actual name and miss what it means. In common parlance the term “begging the question” has come to refer to what is actually closer to an argument by assertion: Person A makes Unsupported Argument B, so people say, “Hey, that begs the question of where that argument comes from.” This is wrong. Worse, sometimes Person C says, “We’re stuck in this cave without a rope or a flashlight. This begs the question of how we’re going to get home in time for dinner.” This is atrocious. If you do that, stop it. Stop it right now.
MovieBob’s case to make is that The Simpsons is still funny. Or, at least, that’s what he claims. As such, the part of the quote I’ve broken in to part 1 up there serves as MovieBob’s summary of Part 1 of the video titled “The Simpsons is Still Funny.” As such, MovieBob’s argument in Part 1 can be summed up as, “The Simpsons is still funny because it hasn’t actually stopped being funny.” At that point it’s basically a circular argument, which is also often mistaken for begging the question without actually being a case of begging the question. In this case, though, the bit where MovieBob found it necessary to take us through the series of steps about how the fans have changed and expectations have changed in order to argue that The Simpsons is still funny without ever actually offering a single shred of proof that The Simpsons are still funny is why this is a case of actual begging the question.
Or, in plain English, MovieBob went from Point A of “The Simpsons is still funny” to Point C of “The Simpsons hasn’t gone downhill” through Point B of “people just have incorrect expectations of the show.” All three of these are offered as self-evident and mutually supporting facts even though none of the facts can stand on its own or is even remotely shown to be fact.
2. “…I do agree that The Simpsons isn’t quite what it used to be.”
After arguing that his opponents are irrational actors with ridiculous expectations, MovieBob moves to take the excluded middle and become the voice of moderation. This, for the record, is exactly the same tactic I pointed out PZ Myers used in attempting to make his assertion that being an ass is actually a more reasonable position than being polite. It’s a tempting position to take, but it’s also a bad faith argument.
MovieBob is basically setting a dichotomy. There are people, he’s saying, who say that The Simpsons are still funny and, by definition, they’re saying that The Simpsons are still as funny as they’ve ever been. There are also people, MovieBob is saying, who say that those people are total assholes who probably loved them some Josef Stalin. MovieBob, however, is not one of those extremists at either end of the spectrum. No, Sir. MovieBob still enjoys The Simpsons because, goshdarnit, they’re still funny, but he wishes they were still as funny as they used to be because, hey, wouldn’t that be great?
The subtle trick here is that he’s ascribing both extremist positions to his opponents. The assertion that anyone who disagrees with him is being irrationally prejudiced against new Simpsons episodes puts all his opponents on one end of the spectrum. He then creates a space at the other end of the spectrum where they have put him that is, “Person who thinks that The Simpsons hasn’t changed at all.” How do I know this? Is it because I think I can read MovieBob’s mind?
Nope. It’s that, “…I do agree…” See, everyone? Your old buddy MovieBob is totally reasonable here and he’s willing to listen to your assertions that The Simpsons is terrible and meet you somewhere in the middle in the, “Yeah, they’re not quite so good anymore.” In short, MovieBob is saying that you are not making a reasonable argument and, further, you are ascribing an unreasonable position to MovieBob, making you a big ol’ poopyhead.
This doesn’t work, though, since MovieBob’s original premise is fallacious question begging based on a strawman argument. How do I know this? Because MovieBob hasn’t even bothered to defend his thesis and instead attacked a ridiculous position he ascribes to every single person who no longer likes The Simpsons. I’m just re-stating this in order to keep myself honest and remind everyone of why I’m talking about this, lest someone accuse me of doing exactly what I’m accusing MovieBob of.
Oh, man, that one will never get old. Unless it does. And, actually, it kind of is getting old. Ah, well…
3. In the overall context of the video, MovieBob isn’t actually making an inherently consistent argument here. His supposed reasonableness at the end with the “…I do agree…” clause is also not actually as reasonable or agreeable as it would seem. This requires me to unpack a bit.
“I do agree that The Simpsons isn’t quite what it used to be,” sounds, at first, like MovieBob is acquiescing to the point that The Simpsons isn’t as good or as funny, for whatever values you want to use for “good” and “funny” as it used to be, for whatever value of “used to be” you want to use. However, with this statement in its contextual place as the fulcrum between Part 1 and Part 2 it becomes readily apparent that “isn’t quite what it used to be” is not synonymous with value calls on “funny.” In the context of Part 1 what he’s actually saying is, “It isn’t quite what you think it used to be,” since he’s already argued for a nostalgia-tinted look back on the part of everyone who doesn’t like the show anymore. In the context of Part 2 what he’s actually saying is, “It doesn’t quite occupy the same market niche it used to occupy and, as such, has changed.” That’s not a value judgment at all, but an argument for modified utility.
I do believe, however, that I will have to punt that argument in to a Part 3. Why? Because I managed to spend over 2,000 words dissecting 41 seconds of video that contained two run-on sentences. In case anyone is wondering, this is why I can never finish a goddamn series on this goddamn blog.
And it’s not even creative. C’mon, people, choose Slobodan Milosevic more often. Or go with Caligula, for the lulz.
The absolute closest he came in Part 1 was to say that Season 14 had some good episodes. Season 14 aired nine freaking years ago. How “a decade ago” and “still” are even remotely congruent in the internet age is beyond me.
And I now know why it’s so hard to distinguish begging the question from a circular argument. Basically, if MovieBob’s argument was that The Simpsons is still funny because The Simpsons’ writers still write funny jokes that would be a circular argument. Moreover, it would not be a logical fallacy, since the circular argument isn’t actually a fallacy, it’s just an argument that relies on its own inherent truth to be shown to be truthful. At least, for the value of The Simpsons actually still being funny due to the quality of the writing.
Or, to put it another, another (another?) way, MovieBob is making a circular argument with a logical fallacy thrown in the middle and it’s the fact that his entire premise relies on a faulty argument that anyone who disagrees with him is acting in an irrationally prejudiced way that makes this a begged question rather than a circular argument. I think. I’m still not 100% sure I’m making the correct argument here.
This is one of the problems with any sort of argumentation. It’s really easy to lose track of why you’r doing it in the first place. In this case I don’t have to show that MovieBob is wrong, I just have to show that MovieBob isn’t making an appropriate argument. However, in order to make the argument that, say, he’s projecting a fallacious position I have to show that he’s both making a projection and that the position isn’t one that’s reasonable. In order to make a correct assertion that, yes, he’s begging the question I have to show that the premise itself is a self-supporting argument built on a fallacy. That does require me to show my work.