Archie:"Would it make you feel any better little girl if they was pushed out windows?"
Gloria:"Wow, that's convoluted logic!"
Archie:"Yes, and that's the kinda straight thinking I'm trying to put across here."
--from All in the Family, one of the most striking demonstrations of convolution in television history. Carroll O'Connor, the masterful actor who portrayed Archie (lovable bigot) Bunker, earned an M.A. in English and was as liberal as he was brilliant. Had he not believed the opposite of his startling punch lines, the satire wouldn't have worked.
While convoluted simply means twisted, convoluted logic denotes a kind of reasoning that isn't reasonable at all. In the example above, does it make sense to defend the over-accessibility of handguns, as Gloria was implying, by pointing to another method of slaughter, or would Archie have been more convincing by pointing out that handguns also prevent bad guys from committing crimes when in the hands of the good guys? His reliance on irrelevant distraction set up the joke; not understanding the term delivered the pay-off.
Scripted and executed by experts, and in the harmless (or, arguably, instructive) context of fiction, Archie's rejoinder summons hearty laughter. Unfortunately, one more commonly encounters this rhetorical device in serious essays, in which convoluted logic is cynically employed to persuade the reader of an otherwise unsupportable conclusion. Would "we" really be "fighting them here" if we weren't engaged "over there," for instance? Or, if "we" weren't "there" because no one sent us "there" in the first place, would they have necessarily come "here"? Or, considering recent developments in the terror department, are "they" trying to fight us "here" regardless of whether we are "there" as well? Rather than address the issue or accusation, the practitioner of convolution says no, don't look there, at the charge that's been leveled, but here, where I'm about to make you do the explaining (in this case, literally "there" and "here").
Conflations (guns are the equivalent of windows?) are unfair, misleading, or inept comparisons. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, they reduce the debate to the level of a dismissive shrug. If x number of troops have been killed in Iraq in y amount of time, and an even greater number of people have died in car accidents in Los Angeles (or some other large city) in the same period of time, how does the latter justify the former? Or is the more salient question what connection, other than untimely demise, is there between the latter and the former? Is the writer suggesting that the number of deaths in war isn't as much as it seems because, look over here, even more people have died in a less insidious manner? Is the writer, while not admitting it, actually minimizing the deaths in Iraq, notwithstanding the number, because other people are dying contemporaneously under other circumstances? Just as Archie would be on firmer ground sticking with hand guns as opposed to throwing windows into the mix, the conflationist might do better to argue the righteousness of the war itself than cheapen the discourse by evoking automobiles.
How persuasive are these techniques? Not very if, in order to sustain one's thesis, one must resort to what amounts to changing the subject. The trick is in following the dislogic of the case as it's being laid out. As if convolution and conflation weren't challenging enough, another favorite of dishonest polemicists is the dreaded projection. This one (and no, I have no handy Archie Bunker illustration) is easy to spot. It's simply insisting that the opponent is guilty of the accuser's own characteristics and hopefully making that assertion before the other side can. Is your side ignoring, evading, or circumventing legal restrictions in order to achieve certain goals? No problem. Just call your adversary a law-breaker and stop him dead in his tracks. Or have you been actively disenfranchising minority communities by making it more inconvenient if not difficult to vote? Presto, the other guy is the racist, not you. As he struggles to grasp the absurdity of your declaration, proclaim victory in the debate and beat a hasty retreat.
That's all for this installment of how to win enemies and influence gullible readers. Stay tuned for the next edition, in which I will discuss name-calling and preposterous proposals, such as America-haters, the fragging of retired colonels, bombing newspaper headquarters, revoking women's right to vote, and converting unwilling nations to Christianity. In other words, the kind of "straight thinking" worthy of a present-day Archie.