Few of us disagree when we hear that 9/11 changed our world forever. Ironically, a young American Muslim named Laila Alawa was taken to task for saying just that: “9/11 changed the world for good; there’s no other way to say it.” She didn’t say “for the good,” she said “for good” – which means forever.
Nevertheless, a sloppy thinker posted on Facebook that Alawa had “praised 9/11,” then been appointed to the Department of Homeland Security by President Barack Obama. Implication? The president conspires with Muslim radicals: more baloney than a delicatessen.
In fact, Alawa was not employed by DHS at all but was selected for a nonpaying advisory position on a 15-person panel with the windy title of Homeland Security Council Countering Violent Extremism Subcommittee. (Ironically, the use of “plain English” was one of its eventual recommendations.)
This attack on Alawa – and Obama – exemplifies a common fallacy called the “appeal to ignorance,” the claim that some condition or behavior or relationship exists, unless you can prove it doesn’t!
Fortunately, a long-ago logic class taught me that nobody has to disprove someone else’s wild claim. Think how absurd it would be if you had to refute goofy utterances like “Donald Trump actually has six legs, but he hides four of them in carefully crafted trousers.” Or “Hillary Clinton is really an agent sent by Amazons to displace men.”
Proof must be provided by the asserter, not the denier.
Some claims are so grandiose, of course, that refuting them is difficult: They are de-facto non sequiturs. Fortunately, common sense warns us away from most ridiculous, “prove-it’s-not-true” assertions.
We saw the apotheosis of “prove-it’s-not-true” during the Red Scare of the 1950s, when Joseph McCarthy suggested that a vast number of communists ran our State Department. The claim fell apart once investigated.
Of course, most folks seem to be willing to believe crazy stuff about their opponents – such as the birther malarkey about Obama. As it turns out, we can be most easily manipulated by those who seem to share basic agreements with us. (We see the conspiracy, but those jackasses don’t.) Beware of the glad-hander and the quick saluter.
It’s much easier to verbally dismiss someone who doesn’t agree with us than to check our information and theirs. So somewhere, you can bet, there’s a zealot already printing a poster about Trump’s six legs or about Clinton’s Amazonian connections or Obama’s Zulu affiliation. It’s only logical. But if you employ a steady standard of proof, you’ll expose the liars.
Gerald Haslam is a California author. His 2006 novel, “Grace Period,” won this year’s Legacy Fiction Eric Hoffer Award. Contact Haslam at firstname.lastname@example.org.