Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Thank God It's Friday! (Red Herrings, Part 20)

Part 20 of Red Herrings covers still more responses to arguments that distract from the argument rather than address it directly. This week, judgmental language.

Judgmental language

You can’t take a management or communications course without hearing about the dangers of judgmental language, but it’s a red herring fallacy as well. Like all red herrings, judgmental language skips over the actual descriptive part of the argument and rushes right to the conclusion.

“He hates me” is judgmental language, not because it’s necessarily false, but because it cites the conclusion without citing the evidence. What’s the evidence that he does, indeed, hate you? Perhaps he called you names, he told someone else that he hated you, he went to your boss to complain about you, or he let the air out of your tires. Those are descriptions of behavior, and at some point they add up to sufficient evidence to draw the conclusion that yes, indeed, he does hate you. Alternatively, it could mean something else altogether, such as a desire to take your job or win a promotion. It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.

Judgmental language criticizes or praises, condemns or applauds, evaluates or interprets the behaviors (actions, deeds, sayings) of human individuals and groups. “Obama is a Kenyan socialist” neatly avoids the requirement of citing evidence and goes right for the jugular. Political propaganda tends to consist of nothing but.

There are a number of problems with judgmental language. First, your conclusion may be wrong. Second, judgmental language tends to be resisted and to provoke arguments. Avoid “red flag” words and phrases. Try to stay away from “should” and “ought.” Go with the Joe Friday technique: just the facts, ma’am.

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