“Now a lot of people may not agree with what I’m about to say, but you know, there’s a time to speak truth to power, even if there’s a price to pay. . .”
That invented quote illustrates a popular rhetorical tactic that permeates our political discourse and finds its way into chatter about various social problems and even the arts. It ‘s distantly related to the logical fallacy known as the Straw Man, but needs its own name. I’ll call it The Inflated Invisible Enemy for now. The real enemy may be the size of a raccoon, but the IIE is pictured as a starving Tyrannosaurus– and only our guy has the cojones to stand against the snarling beast.
The IIE fallacy allows politicians, activists, bloggers, artists and others to pose as gutsy li’l battlers against some allegedly formidable and censorious Death Star of Conventional Wisdom. Hey, baby, I’m gonna speak my mind and damn the consequences!
By inflating the enemy, comfortable, otherwise quiescent people living middle-class lives can mount to the (purely rhetorical) barricades in defense of their cause. They may even convince themselves (the vanity of paranoia) that they have something to risk or lose at the hands of the IIE, which is in fact largely impotent. I recall when Rush Limbaugh, a prime self-inflater, raved about the depredations of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), as if this small pressure group was an ominous army massed just outside Washington, D. C. But he was gonna take ’em on, folks!
You see the Inflated Invisible Enemy tactic quite often in the bogus outrage summoned up by TV and movie writers and directors who have grown wealthy and powerful by coarsening the culture with sadistic slasher/cannibalism fare. One such director said he would consider it a crowning moment if he could make a movie so nauseatingly violent that people vomited right there in the theater. (“I give it four spurts, Bob!”) The same auteurs love to talk as if they are just truth-loving artists following the polestar of conscience, forcing hidebound society to face the raw, unadulterated reality only they can portray. They speak of their mission with grave purpose, as if there is any organized force in society that will stand up and call their trash trash.
Just as irresponsible as the IIE is a related tactic in which the writer or speaker baldly asserts, without offering any evidence, that his version of things goes against the conventional wisdom, and damn the torpedoes. Here’s an example from an Atlantic Monthly review of the new Russell Crowe flick, State of Play:
In a climate in which reporters are expected to be as detached as jurors, and against the backdrop of a flailing industry, State of Play dares to suggest that journalists, like the people they cover, have messy and complicated personal lives that affect and interact with their work.
“Dares to suggest?” As if there’s some large bloc of opinion to the contrary? Boy, you do have to have some guts to suggest that reporters, bless their chaste, milk-drinking and Sunday-School-attending little hearts, might be stalking smoky bars at midnight rather than checking a bill’s status in the Federal Register or chasing down Mayor Smith’s 1987 tax return. (And I’ve even heard that some reporters are actually divorced! )
Gosh, what’s next? Maybe books and movies “daring” to attack the impregnable colossus of American religion? Anyone who does that might wind up forced to write for prestigious national magazines and draw fat fees on the lecture circuit–a fate worse than that death which, we are told, has lost its sting. And so has whacking what once was called, long ago, “the Church,” the establishment, etc.