After Trump’s attempt at insurrection failed, Biden was sworn in as President. Since he entered the race in response to extremism, it is natural that his inaugural address included appropriate words. “And now a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” Biden also said, “there is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit.” Given the recent insurrection and the seemingly endless flow of lies, these remarks seem eminently reasonable. But Rand Paul and Tucker Carlsen took issue with them immediately.
On Fox News, Rand Paul asserted that Biden was engaged in innuendo (suggesting something deprecatory). As Rand heard it, Biden was “calling us white supremacists, calling us racists, calling us every name in the book.” Rand also took issue with Biden’s remarks about lies, saying, “ ‘And going forward we’re not going to have manufactured or manipulated truth.’ That’s another way of saying ‘All of my opponents manufacture or manipulate the truth and are liars.’ ”
On the face of it, this seems to be a straw man of Biden’s claims. He focuses on extremism and calls for unity, something that would make little sense if the entire right was his target. Biden is also well known as a centrist with moderate views. As such, Paul seems to be making use of a common tactic in making a straw man, which is referring to an unknown fact. While Biden’s words and history are clear, Rand seems to be claiming to know the real meaning of Biden’s words—yet provides no evidence beyond his mere assertion. That is, Rand seems to be making a straw man. Then again, perhaps Rand is making a straw man of the right by assuming they are all extremist racists (something that is not true).
One interesting contrast is to compare how Rand interprets Biden with how he has defended Trump from accusations of racism. While interpreting Biden’s words in a very negative way, Rand did his best to cast Trump’s racist claims as not being racist. Naturally, this defense of Trump does not entail that Rand is wrong in his interpretation of Biden (though he is wrong) but it might illustrate the in group bias. This is a cognitive bias that leads people to interpret the actions and words of members of their own group positively and those of other groups negatively. It would be natural for Rand’s brain to interpret Biden negatively and Trump positively. Alternatively, Rand could understand he is lying and simply engaging in an intentional straw man to attack Biden.
As would be expected Tucker Carlson has attacked Biden for his remarks. Carlson was already constructing a straw man attack on critics of the attack on the capitol, alleging that these criticisms were directed at the entire right. This attack could also be a hasty generalization (drawing a conclusion from a sample that is too small) in that there are certainly some on the left who generalize from the extreme right to the entire right. That is, Carlson could be attacking the left for making a hasty generalization by using a hasty generalization. This could also involve the fallacy of anecdotal evidence (supporting a general claim with an anecdote rather than having an adequate sample). Biden and most Americans do seem to understand the difference between right wing extremists and conservatives, Carlson’s claims to the contrary.
Carlson has also expressed the concern that the term “white supremacist” is too vague, and this vagueness will be exploited to justify attacking innocent people. Carlson is right to be concerned about the misuse of vague labels. After all, he himself constantly attacks “the left” and applies this vague term across a vast swath of people—not caring much or at all about distinctions in beliefs and actions. As such, Carlson and his ilk provide a cautionary tale of the very thing he is warning about: broad attacks based on vague terms are harmful.
There are grounds to be concerned that charges of racism could be used as political weapons and, somewhat ironically, racism is extremely diverse. Defining “racism” and “white supremacy” can be challenging—there are distinctions and nuances. However, Biden seems quite clear in what he is talking about: he means the sort of people who attacked the capitol when he is talking about extremism. And while philosophers can agonize over fine distinctions in the shades of racism, the paradigm cases of white supremacy can be quite clear. While we cannot draw an exact line defining white supremacy, insisting that we must, or we cannot recognize it would be to fall into the line drawing fallacy.
There is also the moral argument that the errors made in honestly combating racism that will hurt innocent non-racists will be vastly outweighed by the harms addressed by doing so. To insist that the efforts must be perfect, or we can do nothing would be the perfectionist fallacy. This does seem to be what Carlson is pushing: efforts to address racism could result in some harms and we do not have perfect definitions, so we should do nothing.
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