John McCain is currently in a bit of hot water for… potentially maybe getting in hot water for a quip he recently made about how he “stopped beating my wife just a couple of weeks ago.”
Simply put, the controversy is nonsense. It’s the unnamed people who “found the subject of McCain’s joke — wife-beating — inappropriate” who deserve a smackdown here.
McCain was simply responding to a loaded question from a reporter with the classic logic-school response. As the example goes, a reporter asks someone if they’ve stopped beating their wife. The point of the fallacy is that whether the person answer yes or no to the question, they are still implicitly admitting to wife beating. It’s a trick question, and McCain was simply calling the reporter out on it.
For the life of me, I can’t imagine how anyone could justify getting upset about this. Yes, wife beating is terrible. But that’s exactly the point of the phrase: it’s extremely dishonest to use a question to backhandedly accuse someone of doing something horrible. Sometimes we use certain terrible things as examples of… terrible things. Get it?
The embarrasment here is not that McCain used the phrase. The embarrasment would be if any educated American citizen was so foreign to basic concepts of logic and argument that they had never encountered this classic example of a logical fallacy before.
And stop me before I start sounding too much like Bob Somerby, but this is just another example of how our dysfunctional “Press Corps” covers politics. In this case, journalists are basically exploiting the possibility of a remark being wrongly interpreted (or the fact that some are wrongly interpreting it) to justify spreading and insinuating what they know to be the wrong interpretation.
It gets even more ridiculous when Jake Tapper, the journalist linked above, tries to tie the remark into a supposedly “unfortunate” political context. It’s not even close: the Governor of the state McCain was in at the time was divorcing his wife after apparently cheating on her. But that’s not even close to the same thing as beating her. If anything, making that thin connection is what trivializes physical abuse. Likewise, the allegation of a cocktail waitress that the Governor grabbed and propositioned her in a parking lot isn’t wife beating either: closer, but still not enough to make a connection appropriate or justified (McCain didn’t do any of those things, and his remark wouldn’t make him even the least bit more responsible for them or relevant to them even if it was a tasteless joke).
Next time anyone laments the way our political discourse is dominated by incoherent wars over the meaning of soundbytes and gaffes, you know who to blame.