Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Alternative Facts, Feminism, and the Phantom Distinction

There are many rhetorical debates happening at any given moment, some of which may be riddled by logical fallacies.  

But I would like to be clear that I’m not opposed to fallacies, I’m just opposed to arguments with faulty reasoning.  That statement in itself is a fallacy and it’s a fallacy that can be found in many heated discussions.  Also known as distinction without a difference or sham distinction, the phantom distinction is a logical fallacy that occurs when people spend time arguing about phrases and terms that, in essence, have the same meaning.  The form of the fallacy usually looks like this:

X1 is preferable over X2
X1 is true
X2 is not true

However, X1 and X2 mean the same thing.  For example, in many family TV shows when a parent has found out to be lying to their child, the parent generally explains in some way that they didn’t lie, they just stretched the truth.  In this instance, the parent doesn’t want to admit to lying, so they use the phrase "stretching the truth" in an attempt to make their actions appear milder to their child. Being accused of lying may result in many people trying to create a phantom distinction, such as when Kellyanne Conway insisted Trump's staff didn't lie but offered "alternative facts." No matter how you twist or stretch the truth, these terms have the same meaning.

This fallacy can also be seen in pressing arguments today, such as feminism.  Articles and blogs can be found of people stating they support equal rights for men and women but they’re not a feminist.  The term “feminist” has taken on a negative connotation in some circles, making people believe that there is a distinction between feminism and equal rights.  Feminism has been twisted in the mass media to have connotations of radical women who hate men, making people hesitant to proclaim themselves feminists.

These phantom distinctions can hurt causes like feminist movements because people are focused on categorizing and defining terms rather than working towards goals like gender equality.  Articles result in people trying to explain feminism is about equality not superiority.  Arguably, the parameters of the term get more attention than the issues at hand.  As William M. Keith and Christian O. Lundberg suggest in The Essential Guide to Rhetoric, when there's no clash over the issue of gender equality, people are "not actually engaging the other side and are unlikely to make progress."

At the same time, using terms that appear to have the same meaning may not always be a phantom distinction.  In issues like abortion, the terms "baby" and "fetus" may refer to the same thing, but the emotional connotations of the terms represent the debate of people who are pro-life and those who are pro-choice.  As discussed in Rhetoric in Civic Life, each of the terms "selects, deflects, and reflects reality in a particular way, and calls forth different clusters of terms that flesh out the contours of the screen."  The distinction here represents the clash of the two sides - whether it's moral to have an abortion.

Overall, we use these phantom distinctions to present ourselves in a positive light to an audience.  Drawing a distinction separates ourselves from a negative term, and, if an audience accepts our alternative, we appear more favorable.  Yet, no matter our alternative, the essence of the words remains true, and our argument becomes faulty.


Keith, William M., and Christian O. Lundberg (2008). The Essential Guide to Rhetoric
Palczewski, Catherine Helen, Richard Ice and John Fritch (2016). Rhetoric in Civic Life.

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