You Don’t Believe That!
You’ve probably encountered the “appeal to disbelief.” The person who uses it claims that his or her interlocutors don’t really believe what they say they believe or that they believe something they claim not to believe.
An obvious example is abortion. Some pro-choicers say pro-lifers don’t really believe their stated assumptions about the unborn. Some pro-lifers suggest that pro-choicers actually deep down believe or act as if they believe the unborn might really be a life.
But the third-rail topic of abortion is not the only example. I’ve seen atheists claim that Christians don’t really believe in sin or heaven or hell because if they did, they’d act differently, with more urgency about their final end. I have sometimes suggested most atheists deep down believe in things that contradict their own atheism–that deep down they’re not really atheists. I’m not here defending that proposition, but I confess that I have advanced it.
Abraham Lincoln used the appeal, too. In his Peoria speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, he said,
But while you thus require me to deny the humanity of the negro, I wish to ask whether you of the south yourselves, have ever been willing to do as much?….The great majority, south as well as north, have human sympathies, of which they can no more divest themselves than they can of their sensibility to physical pain. These sympathies in the bosoms of the southern people, manifest in many ways, their sense of the wrong of slavery, and their consciousness that, after all, there is humanity in the negro.
(Of course, I could forgive someone for thinking that Lincoln himself didn’t really believe his own claim. Lincoln stated in the same Peoria speech that he would never seek political and social equality for freed slaves.)
The appeal to disbelief might be a fallacy. It can be a straw man argument because it imputes to others a (dis)belief they don’t have. It can be an ad hominem argumen because it imputes to others hypocrisy and questions their sincerity.
It can also be an anti-fallacy, a handy way to police others’ inconsistencies. If someone walks like a duck and talks like a duck, but claims to be a goose, you can call them out on their canard.
Uses true and fair
I cry foul when others use the appeal against a position for which I have sympathy. But as I said, I do it, too. And even when I don’t, my conviction that another person doesn’t really believe what he or she claims–or believes it just when it’s convenient for the point they’re making–often informs how I engage that person.
But the appeal is almost always a bad idea. Even if someone doesn’t “really” believe what they claim, they likely believe in it enough to vote for that policy you believe is horrible. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be motivated to unmask that person’s “disbelief” in the first place. Relying too much on the “you don’t really believe that” argument will likely fail to change minds and encourage people to hold faster to their allegedly non-belief belief.
If you don’t really care about any of that–if you don’t care whether the appeal to disbelief actually works–then maybe you don’t (ahem) really believe it’s important to point out disbelief. Maybe you really want to do something other than demonstrate another person’s disbelief.
“I’m just pointing out inconsistency,” you might say. If that’s what you’re doing, then have at it. Consistency is a good thing and a cousin to that other good thing, intellectual honesty. By all means, point out inconsistency. But if that’s why you’re using the appeal, though, why not just skip the appeal altogether? “Well, that’s what you believe, but consider where that belief might take us” does the same job better.
And I suggest we don’t always want consistency. Consistency can lead to fanaticism. Most of us hold beliefs that in undiluted form and taken to their logical conclusions would justify all sorts of horrible actions. The same inconsistency that signals flaming hypocrisy can also make us better than our principles.
I concede that sometimes people don’t really believe what they claim to. If someone makes the accusation to you or me, maybe it behooves each of us to consider in what ways the accusation is correct. And if you’re the kind of person who already lives peaceably in a society, then chances are you don’t really believe some of what you claim on a given controversial issue.
A way out: the appeal to shared belief
Maybe I have it wrong about Lincoln’s speech above. Maybe he wasn’t trying to expose slaveholders as liars. Maybe he was trying to stake out some common ground, to keep up a conversation that was already about to descend into violence in Kansas.
Perhaps that which marks us as hypocritical and disingenuous also serves as the potential for common ground. Perhaps instead of “you don’t really believe that.” we can say, “here’s where you and I already agree.” That is what I call the appeal to shared belief.
There’s a lot that appeal won’t solve. Lincoln in 1854 may have swayed some of his fellow Illinoisans who were on the fence about the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but I’m not sure how many slaveholders he won over. And some problems–slavery was one of them–are so urgent or have such high stakes that there’s no time for an appeal to shared belief.
But in those cases we’re beyond rhetoric altogether, if rhetoric is to mean the art of persuasive speaking. If the situation is urgent enough, words fail us, or are demoted from rhetoric to sloganeering. Not that slogans are never appropriate, but they are a contest over who is wittier, or mightier, and people then cease to be interlocutors or adversaries and become instead enemies.
I vote for holding on to the hope of persuasion for as long as possible. And I believe the appeal to shared belief works much better to that end than the appeal to disbelief.
Image credit: “Teapots,” by acute_tomato. Creative Commons 2.0: Attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).