If you know anything about fallacies, you’ve probably heard of false equivalence. This fallacy occurs frequently in casual arguments and formal debates. False equivalence is when you compare two unlike things to make a point.
While usually you want to avoid fallacies, let me explain why this one might actually be a useful tool.
Let’s start with an example argument about gun control.
Affirmative: States that have more guns have more gun suicides. So we should get rid of guns.
Negative: Yes, but bridges cause suicides too, because people jump off them. And surely you wouldn’t get rid of bridges.
Affirmative: That’s illogical, though. That’s a false equivalence. We shouldn’t get rid of bridges because they cause less suicides and are more necessary than guns.
Of course, the Affirmative speaker is correct—it’s a false equivalence. But is there any validity to it? Any benefit for the negative side?
Well, the Affirmative speaker agreed that we shouldn’t get rid of bridges solely due to suicides. This tells us something: there is a certain point where the necessity of something overrides human life. A line has been drawn in the sand.
If both people can agree on this, it’s easier for the Negative speaker to prove his point now. All he has to do is convince the judge/audience that the necessity of guns, like bridges, outweigh life lost. That’s by no means easy, but it’s easier now that he has created common ground and drawn a line.
Another way to draw a line relating to gun control is to say: “well, alcohol kills more people annually than guns do, and yet we don’t ban it because we know it wouldn’t work and would do more harm than good.” I’m not saying this argument is necessarily true, but now you’ve drawn a line where the other side has to agree that the practicality of a law should be considered (not just the theoretical benefit if everything goes well).
At this point, I should note that there’s an even more obvious argument to make: it’s possible that gun/bridge suicides would only shift to another type of suicide if they were unavailable. In other words, people might commit suicide anyway. But this post isn’t about which argument is right, it’s about this line in the sand technique.
One more example
Affirmative: This surgical procedure has a 25% failure rate, so we should ban it. It’s too risky.
Negative: But the potential benefit is quite high, and people are aware of the danger when agreeing to it. Abolishing this procedure would be like getting rid of college because not everyone who goes eventually graduates and gets a job.
Again, this is a ludicrous comparison. The surgical procedure could cause bodily harm when it fails, while dropping out of college only means you wasted some time and money. But the point is that failure rate alone can’t dictate whether something is a good idea.
How to use this technique
- When you present the analogy/equivalence, immediately explain that you know it’s not a fair comparison. Explain that the reason you bring up the comparison is to prove a principle. Then explain which principle you’re proving and why it’s proven.
- Don’t take the analogy too far or too seriously. If you keep bringing it up, the other team will just make you look dumb for suggesting that they’re alike at all. If the other team spends time saying that the comparison isn’t fair, just say “I agree the comparison isn’t fair, they’re missing the point”. Then explain what you talked about under point #1 again.
- If possible, use cross-examination to set this up. Ask the other team about your hypothetical example without revealing the connection that you plan to make. Ex: “Guns kill [x] people every year, right? > And alcohol kills [y] people every year? > Would you describe the prohibition of alcohol to be a success? > Should we consider the potential for failure when passing a law to save lives?” Be careful not to take a step too far in this cross-examination. If you ask the other team to compare the two, they’ll immediately start working against you. Leave that for your speech.
Enjoy this technique!