Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” rarely resulting in pregnancy have made the Missouri Senate candidate a household name. The content of the statements was, of course, ridiculous and offensive. But the comments struck me most as a rhetorical move, one that’s in wide usage but rarely gets this kind of attention. When asked to defend a difficult and extreme position—his opposition to abortion in all cases, even rape—Akin chose not to explain the values and thoughts behind his position, but to push aside the question with a bogus fact.
Rape is rape. Fear isn’t spermicide. But I don’t think Todd Akin really ever believed that violent rapes can’t lead to pregnancy. Or if he really did believe this, it could only be because he needed for it be true in order to hang on to his other beliefs. The statement was a red herring, a way to get out of having to state what he really holds true: that women do not have a right to reproductive self-determination under any circumstances, even rape. But that is hard to swallow, difficult to say aloud. Much easier to cite a fake piece of information and say the question doesn’t matter because real rape pregnancies never occur.
It’s not an accident that these moments of nonsense are most likely to happen when the underlying belief is most extreme. Even the best of principles start to blur when pushed to their edges.
I never understood why the term ideologue was used as a negative in politics—surely politicians should hold their ideologies close and feel them deeply; isn’t that what it is to be principled? Then I started teaching composition to college freshmen. Freshman comp is about learning how to defend a position convincingly, how to harness the power of rhetoric. But it isn’t just about winning an argument, it’s about doing so in a particular way: by appealing to logic, using information responsibly, and honestly considering the merits of the other side. In my classes I noticed a pattern. Students do a great job of stating clear and cogent arguments, supporting their claims with logic and evidence—until they come up against something unpleasant or inconsistent in their own beliefs, something they’d rather not commit to paper or say aloud.
For most students I’ve worked with, clashes of logical thinking and deeply felt ideals lead to epiphanies, restructured world views—the kind of macro learning that makes college a time of real growth and not just a time to amass drinking game skills and debt. For true ideologues though, belief simply isn’t subject to reason. Students whose ideologies have already hardened—even the smartest and most passionate ones—begin to jump through the same rhetorical hoops as Akin: dismissing challenging questions and calling upon uncitable “facts.” They will, like Akin, work backwards from their belief and invent the truths they need as they go.
It’s not an accident that these moments of nonsense are most likely to happen when the underlying belief is most extreme. Even the best of principles start to blur when pushed to their edges. (Think of that old moral philosophy chestnut: it’s wrong to kill, but what if killing one person saves ten, or a thousand?) But that’s OK, the world is complicated. That’s why God invented exceptions, caveats, and all the other bits of nuanced thinking that escape Todd Akin.
When we hear our leaders make claims in which reality has been so massaged it came out in a totally different shape, these are good times to stop to ask: I know that isn’t true. So what is?
In an essay, these moments of nonsense are great opportunities. They’re easy to see, so you can use them as a kind of divining rod to try to get at what’s underneath. Press on the nonsense, and you usually get one of two things: an articulation of that underlying belief (here, something like “the rights of the fetus trump the rights of the mother in every situation” and “women blow rape out of proportion”), or from the more reasonable and logical sort, you get the acknowledgement of an exception. Either way, it’s progress. You can only engage with unreason once it’s been stated aloud.
These moments are important opportunities in politics too. They point to fissures in the logic and ethics, and we should be on the lookout for them, even when they’re not as incendiary as Akin’s. When we hear our leaders make claims in which reality has been so massaged it came out in a totally different shape, these are good times to stop to ask: I know that isn’t true. So what is?
College freshmen and Republican legislators aren’t the only ones who use this move. The Obama Administration’s decision to classify all military-aged males killed in drone strikes as combatants is an example of the same kind of logical fallacy. It simply isn’t true that being 20 years old and located in a Yemeni village makes one a terrorist. That isn’t true—so what does that counting policy really mean? Again, the unstated belief proves to be a squirmy one: that American lives are worth more than others, innocent or not, and murder is whatever the state says it is. If you’re uncomfortable with that statement, you should be against the drone war, or at least skeptical of the way it’s being conducted. That’s why it’s important to state values out loud—when we skip over that step we reach wrong conclusions, often to terrible effect.
It’s good that Akin’s comments are getting so much attention. They are particularly offensive and they deserve the scrutiny they’ve been getting. Yesterday was the deadline for Akin to withdraw from the Missouri Senate campaign, and he will stay in the race, albeit without much of the financial support he was getting from the RNC and Super PACs before Sunday’s comments. But not every ideological evasion and logical fallacy will have the media alchemy of a single sentence that contains rape, abortion, and a statement of medieval science (from a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology!). Others will be quieter, more boring. Now that we’re all fired up, let’s remember not to let them slide.