A Philosopher's Blog

Trump, Treason and Joking

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 9, 2018

During President Trump’s first state of the union address, the Democrats were clearly not interested in praising him. Trump took this slight very seriously and rushed to hold a rally to sooth his wounded pride. At the event, he accused the Democrats in Congress of committing treason: “They were like death and un-American. Un-American. Somebody said, ‘Treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not.” Since treason is one of the worst crimes and not applauding a president is not treason Democrats and many Republicans condemned Trump’s remarks. The response from the Whitehouse was that people, especially in  the liberal media, need to get a sense of humor because “the President was obviously joking…”

As should be expected, the view people hold on this depends on their feelings about the president. His detractors believe that he was serious or at least did something very wrong. His proponents think he was joking and that the snowflakes in the liberal media and Democratic party need to man up. His most devoted fans might believe that he was serious and see this as a good thing.

Since Trump seems to have no respect for truth and faces clear challenges with grasping reality, it is difficult to tell what he means when he says words. If he was serious, then he is clearly wrong and is wandering deeper into the territory in which dwell would-be authoritarians. If he was not serious, then he was also wrong—accusing people of treason is nothing to joke about. As many have said on many other occasions, Trump is able to grossly violate norms of behavior and simply keep on going through what would be career enders for almost all other human beings. Imagine, if you will, what the response would have been on Fox News and elsewhere if Obama had “jokingly” said Republican Representative Wilson was committing treason when he yelled “you lie” at the president. I am certain they would not have chortled in appreciation at his little bon mot. They would have been, rightly enough, outraged at such behavior.

While President Trump’s behavior is morally problematic, it does provide an excellent example of a rhetorical device that could be called an “appeal to joking.” Rhetorical devices are intended to sway people’s feelings and thus influence their beliefs. Being rhetorical in nature, they lack logical force—they do not actually prove or disprove anything. The gist of the method, as noted above, is to defuse criticism by insisting that the awful thing a person said was but a joke. The method can also be developed into a fallacy by making it into a full, but bad, argument. The appeal to joking has the following form:

  1. Person A says B, which is something horrible.

  2. There is criticism of or backlash against B.

  3. A (or A’s spokespeople) insist that A was joking.

  4.  Conclusion: Therefore, A should not be criticized or held accountable for saying B.

The reason that the conclusion does not follow from the premises is that merely claiming that the horrible thing was a joke does not entail that the person should not be criticized or held accountable for saying it. One reason for this is that merely making the claim does not prove the person was, in fact, joking. A second reason is that even if the person was joking, this does not entail that they are thus free from criticism or accountability. After all, a person is still accountable for their jokes.

Like many fallacies, there are good arguments that resemble it. If a person can show that they were, in fact, not serious in their remark and intended it to be a joke, then they can advance a good argument that they should not be criticized or held accountable as if they were serious. The challenge is, of course, making a convincing case that it really was a joke rather than an attempt to walk back something awful by pretending it was a joke. This form of reasoning, which is good, would be as follows:

 

  1. Person A says B, which is something horrible.

  2. There is criticism of or backlash against B.

  3. A (or A’s spokespeople) provides credible evidence that A was really joking.

  4. Conclusion:  Therefore, A should not be as strongly criticized or held as accountable for saying B as A would be if they were serious.

From a moral standpoint, it is sensible to accept such reasoning since saying something awful as a joke is not as bad as actually meaning it. This is not to say that jokes are not without moral consequences of their own. For example, while joking about assassinating the president is not as bad as seriously planning to assassinate the president, it is still morally wrong.

Not surprisingly, defenders of a person who uses the appeal to joking will tend to think that credible evidence has been provided that the person is “just joking.” In some cases, the alleged evidence might be that the claim is so absurd or horrible that no one could be serious about it. For example, Trump’s claim that the Democrats were treasonous for not applauding for him is so absurdly over the top that one would have to either believe that Trump is joking or that he is some sort of deranged authoritarian who believes that his whims should be law and that a failure to praise him is the act of traitors.

 

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11 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on February 9, 2018 at 7:31 pm

    It’s almost like the Dems want Trump to be a one term president.

    But it is unacceptable to want that and to work for it, right Mike?

    • WTP said, on February 9, 2018 at 11:49 pm

      For example, Trump’s claim that the Democrats were treasonous for not applauding for him is so absurdly over the top that one would have to either believe that Trump is joking or that he is some sort of deranged authoritarian who believes that his whims should be law and that a failure to praise him is the act of traitors.

      TJ, two questions:
      1). Which of these two positions do you think Mike believes?
      2) Which of these two positions do you think most of non-STEM academia believes?

      • TJB said, on February 10, 2018 at 10:54 am

        Trump was clearly using hyperbole as he so often does. The left, including Mike, deliberately misunderstands him, much like Cathy Newman deliberately misunderstands Jordan Peterson in the interview.

  2. CoffeeTime said, on February 9, 2018 at 7:54 pm

    What a great week for jokes! In the same week we have Justin Trudeau “mansplaining” correct gender-equity usage to a woman, replacing “mankind” with “peoplekind”. Of course, he was just joking too.

    I really feel that the modern obsession with recording and nit-picking and parsing every word that comes out is completely destructive. It can serve as a mechanism to attack someone you don’t like. That’s all. It has no informative or constructive value. The immortalisation of off-the-cuff comments or actions on web sites and YouTube and Twitter is also destructive, and has, AFAIAC, no value.

    In a recent interview, Jordan Peterson said that since becoming famous, he lives in “existential terror” of saying something stupid. Or, I presume, something that can be re-framed in a way to make it look stupid.

    Trump talks wildly. It’s a habit of his. He knows that there is all the difference in the world between what you say and what you do. He knows that there is all the difference in the world between the negotiations leading to the deal and the final signed deal itself. And so, since we all know this, we don’t pay so much attention.

    There is nothing to this, and it wasn’t worth writing about.

    People don’t always

    • WTP said, on February 9, 2018 at 11:46 pm

      Or, I presume, something that can be re-framed in a way to make it look stupid.

      Yeah, I’m thinking this. Hell, much of what he has already said has been re-framed, taken out of context, etc. Already a done deal.

      • dh said, on February 11, 2018 at 11:24 am

        Maybe the incorrect word is “joking”. For example …

        Person R: “oh, man – X makes me so mad I could KILL him!”

        Person D: “Murder is a heinous crime! You must be a murderer – perhaps we should have you arrested and investigated for plotting to murder X”

        Person R: “Oh, come on. I was only joking!”

        Well, no, not joking per say. But not expressing a real desire to commit a crime, either.

        Person D: “No you weren’t! I know you don’t like him! You said the words! You clearly meant it – and besides, what the hell kind of joke is that anyway? Murder is no joke!” I’m going to post on Facebook that people need to stay away from you – you’re a dangerous person capable of anything! And you try to pass off your sociopathic behavior as “joking” OMG!”

        Meanwhile, no one asks WHY person R is so mad at X, or what might be able to mitigate that anger. Nor does anyone ask why Person D has decided to take the words the way he does, and to make no attempt to try to understand why Person R used them in the first place.

        “If a person can show that they were, in fact, not serious in their remark and intended it to be a joke, then they can advance a good argument that they should not be criticized or held accountable as if they were serious.”

        Maybe what needs to be done here is just reword the phrase “intended it to be a joke”. How about, “Did not mean it in the strict, legal sense of the word “treason”, but rather as a hyperbolic metaphor for their apparently premeditated demonstration of their total disdain for anything the President has to say, regardless of his words or their context?”

        And to be fair, the President did not say, “I accuse them of Treason! Hang them!” He said, “Someone called this treason … well, yeah, why not?”

        Maybe “sedition” would have been a better word. After all, it was organized and premeditated, and the act of sitting quietly overrode any possible expression of agreement by an individual on that side of the aisle. What if that memo were to be discovered? “Whatever you do – just sit there. Show no support. We have to be united in this!” Is there a name for that?

        • WTP said, on February 11, 2018 at 11:40 am

          If a person can show that they were, in fact, not serious…

          Can anyone spot the glaring philosophical flaw in this line of reasoning? Anyone?

          Perhaps it’s asking too much of someone to understand Economics 101 when they still seem to be struggling with Logic 101. I mean, if we’re gonna get all nit picky and stuff.

  3. dh said, on February 11, 2018 at 10:33 am

    Ho-hum. American politics as usual.

  4. TJB said, on February 11, 2018 at 1:16 pm

    This is how Obama did it. Smoother, but same message.

    • WTP said, on February 11, 2018 at 4:27 pm

      But it’s different because he’s black….or something…Nuance!!11!!! Because that’s not who we are.

  5. TJB said, on February 11, 2018 at 6:18 pm

    Not applauding historically low black unemployment—that’s not who we are.


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