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Canada Closed for Debate 1: How the Ethical Oil Campaign Launders Dirty Arguments

This post is Part 1 of the Canada Closed for Debate Series, a four-part exploration of argumentation in Canadian political discourse. Read the second part on villifying your opponent, the second part on reductio-ad-villainum, and the third part on carrying a concealed motive to get caught up.   

There are certain things that tolerant people should not tolerate.

There is a very peculiar kind of dishonesty in the Canadian political sphere that we see through but seem to tolerate all the same. These are bad arguments made by our public leaders. 

There is a difference between a bad argument and an invalid argument. An invalid argument is one where the speaker has made a mistake in drawing a conclusion from the premises – a sort of logical gaffe. We can argue in good faith but still get it wrong. A bad argument is one where the speaker conceals his aims, misconstrues opposing opinions, and relies on rhetoric to convince the audience. 

Bad arguments are easy to spot and I consider myself something of a zoologist of bad arguments in the ecosystem of Canadian politics. Here is a brief taxonomy I have compiled: a) topic laundering; b) reductio-ad-villainum; c) carrying a concealed motive. In this instalment we take a closer look at the topic launderer in its natural habitat.

Topic Laundering: A topic launderer changes themes and topics of discussion in a debate to hide what the argument is really about.

Consider the case of the Ethical Oil campaign.
[view:in_this_series=block_1] Someone concerned with environmental ethics might ask if it is right to rapidly expand drilling operations, if it is right to permanently alter the landscape in the name of private interests, or if it is right to allow business interests in the tar sands to dictate the nation's environmental policy. In response, Ethical Oil spokespeople would launder the topic and change the theme of debate to the human rights record and environmental practices (or lack thereof) in OPEC countries.

This amounts to not taking the initial questions seriously.

If I am interested in the environmental impact of tar sands-related projects to Canadian and American wildlife, a spokesperson could not answer my questions by telling me about women’s rights in Iran.

Further, if Ethical Oil really wanted to diminish OPEC’s market share because of its lack of environmental regulation, why not do that by investing in technologies that would free us from our dependence on oil altogether, regardless of its provenance? Even dressed up as 'ethical,' oil is still oil.

In changing the theme but keeping the title of the debate (e.g., the tar sands), topic laundering not only ignores the critic’s questions and arguments, it also erodes the very condition in which a sensible political debate can take place in a democracy, i.e., that we are weighing arguments and counterarguments about the same thing.

For that reason, topic laundering is not just a form of spin, it is a form of treachery.

The topic launderer betrays Canadian democracy to which s/he belongs by gnawing away at open debate. Open debate is not just an expression of freedom. As John Stuart Mill tells us: “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action.”

In other words, if the Ethical Oil crowd will not give us the freedom to contradict or disprove their arguments, they are not justified in maintaining them, or building public policy upon them.

To the topic launderer I pose two questions: what does ethical oil have to do with the price of eggs? And did you know that Dante placed the fraudulent and treacherous in the lowest circles of the Inferno?

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Patrick Eldridge is a researcher and writer at DeSmog Canada. He joined the team in February 2013. His research focuses…

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