In Part I ofthis post, I discussed why family members hate to discuss their chronicrepetitive ongoing interpersonal difficulties with each other(metacommunication), and the problems that usually ensue whenever theytry.
I discussed the most common avoidance strategy - merely changing thesubject (#1) - and suggested effective countermoves to keep aconstructive conversation on track. In Part II,I discussed strategies #2 and #3, nitpicking andaccusations of overgeneralizing respectively. In Part III,I discussed strategy #4, blame shifting. In Part IV,strategy #5, fatalism.
This post is the fourth in a series about strategy #6, theuse of irrational arguments (previously: non sequiturs;post hocreasoning; begging the question). Descriptions of this strategy havebeen subdivided into several posts because, in order to counter irrationalarguments, one first has to recognize them. Until this post, I have heldoff describing the basic strategy to counter irrational arguments until after Ifinished describing some of the most common types. Today’s post will be the last concerningthese irrational arguments, and will also describe the basic countermeasure.
Irrational arguments are used in metacommunication to throw other people.Listeners either become confused about, or unsure of the validity of, any pointthey are trying to make or question they are trying to ask. Fallaciousarguments are also frequently used to avoid divulging an individual's realmotives for taking or having taken certain actions.
Today’s post will describe arguingfrom worst case scenarios, and adhominem or personal attacks.
An argument is often madethat a particular course of action is ill-advised because of difficulties thatmight arise in a worst-case scenario. In other words, one asks the question,"If I did so and so, what would be the consequences if everythingpossible went wrong?"
Posing a worst-casescenario does not always mean that the poser is engaged in an illogicalmaneuver. Indeed, for certain questions, such as whether to build a nuclearreactor near an earthquake fault, looking at worst-case scenarios can be amatter of life and death. Residents of Fukushima, Japan,will know exactly what I am talking about.
The worst-case argument becomes logicallysuspect if it is being used as anexcuse to avoid some action when either of two conditions is present. Thefirst is when the worst case is so unlikely to occur as to be almostmeaningless. The second is when the worst case is preventable.
The mostcommon usage of the maneuver in psychotherapy cases occurs when patientsattempt to suppress some aspect of themselves by frightening themselves withthe thought of dreadful consequences should the characteristic of self ever beexpressed. One of the most often seen examples of this involves the questionof whether or not to express anger.
I once was the therapist for a group where everysingle member was in complete agreement that anger should be kept to oneself.They all painted a most shocking picture of the dire results that might ensue iftheir anger were ever unleashed. The anger would be destructive to the nthdegree.
Everyonepresent said they had so much anger inside that if some of it got out, a dam would burstand a flood of violent fury would come pouring out. They might murder all oftheir loved ones and bomb government buildings. Theywould all suddenlybecome completely crazed, and each might end up in a mental institution orworse. They might tear the objects of their rage limb from limb and end up ondeath row.
If thoughts like that did not scare them into keeping their angerquiet, nothing would.
Theworst-case scenario that was proposed by the group members is illogical forseveral reasons. First, it is based on the non sequitur "If I let out someof my anger, I'll let it all out." Forgetting for the moment theunlikelihood that the rage they fear is as extensive as they believe it to be,how did they come to the conclusion that they would have more difficultyrestraining themselves once some of the anger had emerged than before theprocess started? They were each masters at self-restraint.
While it is often true that people who have been stuffing their anger may suddenly explode when there is a "last straw," this usually occurs in the heat of the moment, not when one is planning how to bring up for discussion anger-provoking behavior. For this reason,
thesituation is not really analogous to the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.One can always catch oneself.
Indeed, the extra guilt these people probablywould feel for having exhibited angry feelings might make it even easier forthem to restrain themselves in the future. This worst case, in which all of a limitlessamount of anger would come out in a deluge is a highly unlikely worst case.Furthermore, this worse case is preventable.
Actingout the anger is hardly the only way to express it. One can talk to the anger-provoking person in a constructive attempt to get them to knock off the provocations.
The use of terrifying imagery to scare oneself out of a course of action is a very clearexample of what I mean by mortification. In this case, an aspect of self, theemotion of anger, is suppressed by frightening oneself with worries about horrific consequences.
One lastfallacy that I would like to briefly mention is ad hominem. This translatesfrom the Latin as "to the man." This fallacy is based on the nonsequitur "if a person is reprehensible in some respect, then everythingthat person has to say is incorrect." This fallacy is frequentlyencountered outside the metacommunicative realm in the area of politics.
Politicianscan have repulsive views on certain issues or may be self-serving liars.Nonetheless, any single assertion that they make might still be true orcorrect. One cannot reason logically that because their views are unpopular orbecause they have lied in the past, then any current assertion they make is false.
From the standpoint of inductive reasoning, one can be highly suspicious oftheir statements because of their past behavior and motivation, but in orderto actually disprove their thesis, one needs corroborating evidence. Justbecause Castro is a Communist autocrat, for example, one could not conclude that he is always lyingwhenever he made accusations against the United States government.
In metacommunication,family members will frequently discount an idea because of the allegedmotivation of the person making it, without addressing the actual merits of theidea. The metacommunicator might beaccused of being insincere or having some sort of ulterior motive for making anobservation while the target completely ignores the merits of the observationitself.
Invalidation is a form of an ad hominemattack. The person bringing up a pastevent is accused of distorting it, or even making it up. This situation usually leads to a fight orflight response on the part of the metacommunicator, which stops the effort tosolve interpersonal problems in its tracks.
And now at long last, what does themetacommunicator do when faced with a person who uses illogical arguments toavoid dealing with an uncomfortable interpersonal issue.
The basic response is what many therapists referto as the Columbo style of response.Columbo was a TV detective played by the actor Peter Falk who often gotsuspects to incriminate themselves by, in a sense, playing stupid. He would point out discrepancies in thesuspect’s story and kind of scratch his head, acting if he were the one who wasnot bright enough to figure out the explanation.
|Peter Falk as Columbo
He would never act as if he believed that thesuspect were purposely misleading him, although he obviously knew that wasreally the case. The suspect would then tryto “help out” the hapless cop by clarifying the apparent discrepancy, much tohis own detriment.
In metacommunication, the object of this strategyis of course not to make the otherperson incriminate himself or herself, but to get past the block to appropriate, metacommunicative problem solving.
In response to a logical fallacy, the metacommunicatortactfully expresses confusion about what the target is saying, or points outseeming contradictions. This is done in an almost apologetic fashion. Rather than accusing the other of purposelybeing misleading or confusing, metacommuncators try to indicate that theythemselves are taking responsibility for any lack of interpersonalunderstanding.
In addition to decreasing the target’s need to becomedefensive, with this strategy the target often feels obliged to clear up thepatients’ confusion. In order to do so,he or she must drop the logical fallacy. When this happens, it is important that the metacommunicator seemgrateful for the new clarity, and not have a kind of “I told you you wereirrational” attitude.
Now maintaining this bemused, self-effacing sort of style isoften particularly difficult to do if there is an ad hominem component to thetarget’s irrational argument.
In thatcase, as mentioned above, it is the metacommunicator who usually becomes defensive, andwho derails the effort for problem solving. In this case, learning and practicing many of the strategies described in my series of posts onhow to disarm a patient with borderline personality disorder, such as givingthe other person the benefit of the doubt and acknowledging one’s owncontribution to the problematic past interactions, come in very handy.