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Avoid false equivalence: You can critique Elon Musk without derailing the discourse

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I don’t care much for Elon Musk. There. I got the mandatory mantra out of the way before stating the following: As far as I know, some people have unjustly and groundlessly used fallacies to connect Musk to a far-right movement in the US, a false equivalence.

The other week, Musk fell victim to a so-called informal fallacy. It’s hard to track all the drama Musk’s been involved in lately, but one of his tweets caught my attention. Not his tweet, maybe, but some of the public’s reactions to the tweet were a bit over the top. If you’re not part of Twitter, you might have missed it. Elon wrote “Follow,” followed by an emoticon of a rabbit.

The Musk–QAnon connection 

Of course, my first thought was, “Oh, he’s riding the Matrix wave now.” In the movie’s introduction, the overworked and bored protagonist, Neo, wakes up to messages on his black computer screen. The last message reads, “Follow the rabbit. Knock, knock, Neo.” A second later, someone knocks twice on his door. “Knock knock.”

Following the rabbit introduces Neo to a reality that transforms him and his surrounding society. The rabbit symbolizes Neo’s first step to discovering the Truth.

So, Musk’s tweet might be referring to that scene when he invites the audience to follow the rabbit. He might also have been high, watching Alice in Wonderland. Who knows for sure? He might.

Still, some of Musk’s adversaries drew an immediate parallel between him and QAnon, a far-right and conspiratorial political movement in the US. QAnon supporters apparently invite people to “follow the white rabbit” to find the Truth.

The false equivalence fallacy

One of the most disingenuous moves you can make with someone you disagree with is to use misleading information, especially if it can hurt that person’s reputation. This dishonesty can take the shape of informal fallacies, which are errors in reasoning with flawed content or structure of arguments.

You’ve probably experienced informal fallacies during disagreements, where your opponent (or you) doesn’t address the argument at stake but instead shifts the attention. For example, attacking the opponent’s characteristics and not their arguments is an example of an informal fallacy called ad hominem.

These accusers may be right. Musk might be involved in fringe political organizations. But, until someone truly connects the dots between Musk and QAnon by direct links, such accusations may fall under a type of informal fallacy called a false equivalence.

A false equivalence occurs when two seemingly similar things are treated as if they are equal or equivalent when, in fact, they’re not. It’s often used in discussions to diminish an opponent’s credibility or deceive the audience to make an argument seem more reasonable or plausible.

According to this reasoning, “Musk and QAnon must be related because they both invite their audiences to ‘follow the rabbit’ to find the Truth.” This reasoning intentionally or unintentionally disregards the two pop-cultural examples in which following a rabbit opens the protagonist’s eyes. In fact, I can also add a third example, Jefferson Airplane, whose epic song White Rabbit invites you to chase your curiosity – with some added symbolism to spice things up.

So, until associations between Musk and QAnon contain solid evidence, the “follow the rabbit” link remains exceptionally loose.

Avoid the temptation of using fallacies

Let’s be real. I know hating Elon Musk is trendy now. We saw it coming as soon as he started uttering the words “free” and “speech” consecutively, which is beyond this post’s point and a topic for another time. The truth is some people saw the opportunity to gain points by prematurely accusing Musk of affiliations he might not have, accusations that might taint genuinely good causes.

To appreciate the seriousness of such accusations, imagine it happening to you. I’ll start. I’ve referred to several pop-culture references during my career as a writer. Is it fair to accuse me of having connections with criminal groups because these also use, let’s say, “Say hello to my little friend.”? Not at all. You’d need more robust connections between these groups and me to make such a claim.

Unless you’re willing to accept others misrepresenting your ideas, tread lightly and be careful not to draw hasty parallels. Although these fallacies might be easily accessible and tempting to share to support your point of view, they risk reducing your credibility and, by extension, your cause. If you believe you advocate just principles, you’re hopefully in it for the long game. In other words, don’t let these short-term fallacy treats distract your long-term goals.   

Regardless if you agree or disagree with someone, no one deserves to fall victim to informal fallacies. 

Final, slightly related thoughts…

  • Why would you even use loose connections as a gotcha? You can rightly criticize so many of Musk’s other ideas and actions. Didn’t he even invite people to criticize him?
  • Note how Musk’s emoticon doesn’t represent a white rabbit. Does that not make a difference? I’m sure he could have found a white rabbit emoticon if he wanted to. He should be tech-savvy, after all.
  • And lastly, while you boil with anger and react to Musk’s tweets, remember the adage, “All attention is good attention.” Marketers live by it. Just sayin’.

Even though Musk is resigning as Twitter’s CEO, I recommend you avoid these fallacies altogether.

Anyway, the king has resigned, long live the king!

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Santiago

Santiago Gisler, PhD, is a freelancing scientific and medical writer with a research background in cancer research, gene editing, and molecular genetics (genes and their regulation.) Santiago helps researchers, companies, and organizations to communicate engaging and clear scientific content.

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