(Or... what to say when you need an escape hatch)
Argumentum ad absurdum (Latin: argument from absurdity
In the early days of Rush Limbaugh’s radio career, he started claiming to use absurd statements and gimmicks in an effort to illustrate what he deems absurd. During a 1992 interview with Phil Donahue, Limbaugh defends his absurd statements: http://www.youtube.com/...
Following the backlash of his inaccurate and vicious statements against Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke, Limbaugh offered this explanation:
“For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, and five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke.”
What does “For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity,” exactly mean?
This is an idiomatic phrase that can mean to overlay folly with folly, or overlay shame with shame. Its Limbaugh’s attempt to prove someone is being absurd by committing another absurdity. Is the phrase “illustrate the absurd with absurdity” a set phrase, or just Limbaugh special rhetoric?
Reductio ad absurdum (Latin: "reduction to absurdity"), also known as argumentum ad absurdum (Latin: argument from absurdity), is a common form of argument which seeks to demonstrate that a statement is false by showing that a false, untenable, or absurd result follows from its acceptance.
The "absurd" conclusion of a reductio ad absurdum argument can take a range of forms:
Rocks have weight, otherwise we would see them floating in the air.
Society must have laws, otherwise there would be chaos.
There is no smallest positive rational number, because if there were, it could be divided by two to get a smaller one.
The first example above argues that the denial of the assertion would have a ridiculous result, against the evidence of our senses. The second argues that the denial would have an untenable result: unacceptable, unworkable or unpleasant for society. The third is a mathematical proof by contradiction, arguing that the denial of the assertion would result in a contradiction (there is a smallest rational number and yet there is a rational number smaller than it).
This doesn’t seem to fit the statements made by Limbaugh. For example when he claimed that Sandra Fluke: “is asking the government to subsidize her sex life.” That was a falsehood. Then he went deeper into the mire, "What does that make her?" he asks. "It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.” This isn’t reductio ad absurdum. It is out and out slander. He slandered her reputation by making false accusations against her.
Limbaugh’s latest victim was Netflix, whom he claimed was raising rates to subsidize poor subscribers. He quickly withdrew his claim after a break, saying he was just trying to make a point. Subscribers cancelled their accounts and by the end of the day Netflix stocks were down.
It is my opinion Limbaugh’s style is not absurdity to illustrate the absurd. I believe what he does more often falls into the Straw Man Argument.
Straw Man argument
An argument similar to reductio ad absurdum often seen in debate is the straw man logical fallacy. A straw man argument attempts to refute a given proposition by showing that a slightly different or inaccurate form of the proposition (the "straw man") is absurd or ridiculous, relying on the audience not to notice that the argument does not actually apply to the original proposition. For example:
Politician A: "We should not serve schoolchildren sugary desserts with lunch and further worsen the obesity epidemic by doing so."
Politician B: "What, do you want our children to starve?"
Limbaugh lures his audience in by making an over the top statement, reassembling the truth and persuades them to support his thesis. When the truth is found out he bails, claiming he uses absurdity to illustrate the absurd. When that doesn’t work he reminds us he is an entertainer not a newscaster. It’s like the school yard tease who after calling other kids horrid names and playing nasty tricks on them says, “I’m just kidding.”
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