People sometimes try to win a debate by playing “trump cards” that allegedly overturn any other argument, instead of practicing reasoned arguments based on logic, common sense, and evidence. One attempted “trump card” is that an “authentic” member of group X is in favor of a certain policy towards group X. The hidden assumption is that any “authentic” member of group X can speak for all other members of group X, and knows what is best for group X. When these hidden assumptions are clearly stated, they are clearly silly. I was authentically born in West Virginia, but I would not dare claim to know what’s best for Appalachian poverty based on my accident of birth (or speak for my fellow “Appalachians.”)
A recent use of this “trump card” was UNHCR’s statement defending its “Refugee Run” at Davos, which we debated on this blog last week: “The exhibit received a seal of approval from a genuine refugee, Raphael Mwandu from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” I have every respect for Mr. Mwandu’s opinion, but I don’t approve of UNHCR’s using him as a trump card. What did it mean that one refugee was “genuine” – did they disqualify some other refugees that were not “genuine”?
Another example of this was the article this weekend in the Financial Times about Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo and her new book Dead Aid. Again, there seemed to be the idea that Dr. Moyo should win the argument because she was born in Zambia. This is unfair to Dr. Moyo and unfair to other African intellectuals. It also seemed very unnecessary because Dr. Moyo’s opinions are fascinating on their own merits. About celebrities working on African policy, she says “Americans would be put out if Amy Winehouse went to tell them how to end the housing crisis. I don’t see why Africans shouldn’t be perturbed for the same reasons.”
The FT article continues, “Moyo says it is easy for the western media to paint a doomsday scenario – one which depicts Africans as helpless – to justify the delivery of yet more aid.” I can’t wait to read her new book (it comes out February 5 in the UK and March 17 in the US).
Another very popular “trump card” is to dismiss your debate opponent as being “ideological” (variants on this trump card are to attack the research financing or think tank affiliation of your opponent). This has shown up quite a bit in comments on this blog. Now it is certainly true that some people make arguments based only on ideology and not on legitimate grounds like logic, common sense, or evidence. How can we tell who is being ideological? By doing what we should have done in the first place: debate the argument using logic, common sense, and evidence.
“Trump cards” are out, reason is in.