Weapons in the battle for socialist ideas

May 3, 2021

Give them an Argument: Logic for the Left
By Ben Burgis
Zero Books, 2018

"Facts don't care about your feelings."

This quote is commonly used by Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator. Shapiro, along with other right wingers such as Stefan Molyneux and Jordan Peterson, love to claim they only ever uses logic in their arguments, while leftists always appeal to people's emotions.

Leftists who have spent enough time online will have encountered the “logicbros”. They claim to be above politics and have apparently turned many left-wing people off using logic as a persuasive strategy.

Philosophy professor and Jacobin writer Ben Burgis believes this is a mistake and that, to persuade people to join our political movement, leftists need to learn how to use logic to make better arguments. It is with this goal in mind that Burgis wrote Give them an Argument: Logic for the Left.

In Give them an Argument, Burgis exposes many of the rhetorical tricks and bad arguments right wingers and centrists use against those they label “Social Justice Warriors” or “SJWs”, and exposes their ideologically-driven conservative agenda to uphold the status quo.

Using case studies, Burgis provides the tools to spot bad arguments, starting with the “appeal to authority and the “ad hominemfallacies. These arguments rely on getting people to accept or reject an idea based upon the person making the claim, rather than arguing for a position based on its merits.

Besides taking Shapiro to task for not following through on his own premises on logical arguments, Give them an Argument debunks the "composition fallacy", in which defenders of capitalism highlight individual success stories while ignoring the negative impact capitalism has on people's lives overall.

In exploring the “hasty generalisation”, Burgis takes apart the arguments centrist technocrats like Nate Silver use when claiming to devise non-political “solutions” to the world’s problems, when in fact they are upholding a political project.

For Silver, this was manipulating statistics to campaign for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries against Bernie Sanders.

Silver asks us to imagine that if Sanders and Clinton voted together 93% of the time in the US Senate that must mean Clinton is just as progressive as Sanders, but asks us to ignore the 7% when voting on issues such as the Iraq War, the Patriot Act and bank bailouts. When you consider these votes, it becomes harder to defend Clinton’s progressive credentials.

Give them an Argument is a handy tool for Socialists to spot how conservatives and centrists use the language of logic as a rhetorical weapon to wield against the left. Socialists need to reclaim the use of actual logic to make arguments that persuade people of our political project.

As well as taking apart reactionary arguments, Burgis provides a roadmap to navigate positions that are held to be true on the left — such as the need for socialist redistribution of property, with the goal of creating an egalitarian distribution of wealth and power, as well as the rights of women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities and LGBTI people to be free from discrimination.

Give Them an Argument also helps leftists navigate debates in areas where the issues are not straightforward. For example, in the gun debate in the US, while the NRA and far-right groups lobby against gun control legislation, Burgis also recognises that gun controls unfairly impact people of colour, who are violently attacked by an armed state.

Burgis’ work has been cited extensively by the late Michael Brooks in his book Against the Web 2020, and expands on the way the state has utilised this “intellectual dark web” of pseudo-intellectuals like Shapiro, Peterson and Sam Harris.

This “marketplace of ideas”, which is constantly pushed on us as the frontline of the online Culture Wars, is both a valid area for discussion and debate and, at the same time, a useless space designed to suck the time and energy of activists, while in the real world the US and its imperialist allies continue to evoke real violence on subjugated people around the globe.

While the left continues to organise internationally, we need to be able to concisely explain our positions, while actively engaging in the political project of system change, rather than neoliberal or neoconservative tweaks to a system designed for mass exploitation of life and land.

While written in the middle of the Donald Trump presidency in 2018, Give Them an Argument remains relevant. The onset of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic has been made even more deadly by right-wing governments, which failed to contain the outbreak last year, and those on the right who believe their individual rights are more important than people’s right to live in a safe and nurturing society.

Despite Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election, the rise of far-right movements such as Q-Anon — which inspired the January 6 invasion of Capitol Hill — has made online spaces more chaotic to navigate. With Give them an Argument, Burgis gives leftists the tools to argue against these forces and make the case for why a better world is possible.

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