In a time where demonstrations of preachy over-sensitivity are a daily affair, I fear that soon enough the idea to cut an essential rule of formal logic from logical writings may cross the minds of editors. The rule: reductio ad absurdum.
Howbeit, it can really come in handy and is the perfect ally for a reasoning strategy among the most effective. Reduction to absurdity consists, among other things, of demonstrating the false nature of a proposal by showing that its outcome would be absurd.
Without breaking it down into a mathematical equation, this is something we all do — day in and day out — and it’s a potent strategy indeed. When you say, “To get there on time, Greg would have to be faster than Superman,” you’re using reductio ad absurdum to say that Greg arriving on time would be impossible. It does more than say he won’t be there on time, it explains why, but without stating it explicitly. That leaves a bit of work for the other person (ok, really a smidgeon in this example) to come to the conclusion, more or less on their own, that it would be impossible for Greg to arrive on time in the given circumstances. Much more convincing than a plain statement. Often spikier than a traditional demonstration by deduction or simple implication, as reduction to absurdity triggers our emotional intelligence too.
It’s the same principle as jokes and humour in general. Its very essence. Nothing kills a joke like having to explain it to the guy who didn’t get it. What makes us laugh, smile, and think at the same time is that small effort it takes to grasp the underlying meaning, an effort of which we’re perfectly capable, yet whose payoff comes as a surprise. Thus, the laugh, or (you don’t always laugh in logic operations) the Eureka moment. Good God! But it’s… of course! (for any connoisseurs of 1970s French television). The Wow effect. Lightbulb.
All of which vouches for reductio ad absurdum being both a binding agent for society and a first-rate educational tool.
Yet it seems the world’s cartoonists and humourists are first in line to bear the brunt of a sort of thought paralysis on the part of certain readers. First the New York Times laying off their editorial cartoonists, including one of our best, and now, though we well know they have been giving the world a lesson about freedom of speech in recent months, Le Monde recoiling, diminishing their reasoning to the point of absurdity and, faced with a tsunami of rage on social media, extending profuse apologies for a cartoon by Xavier Gorce, now saying its publication was “a mistake.”
What is it that Gorce, who has been on-staff at Le Monde for 18 years, is being accused of by shocked readers? Nothing short of mocking victims (of incest) and (LGBT) minorities. I’m sure I won’t make any friends in saying those readers aren’t doing their share of the work.
“Believing the humour consists of mocking victims is quite the opposite, I do what I have always done: I create irony around absurd situations.”
Xavier Gorce, Le Point, January 20th, 2021
If a reader is unable to see that what we have here is a reductio ad absurdum (if they have no sense of humour, really), they cannot understand that the cartoon is actually trying to point a finger at the fact that the issue Alain Finkielkraut tackled on set with David Pujadas regarding the Duhamel Affair, namely “whether or not there was consent” or put differently “in what circumstances can there really be talk of incest?” is a bad and highly dangerous issue. The nonsense of the question raised by Finkielkraut (he too has been harshly criticized on social media and is now banned from LCI airwaves, which could be an article in itself…) is best demonstrated by the fact that trying to answer it would mean envisioning a whole repertory of gloomy and gloomier situations and potentially leading people to believe the notion of incest can be nuanced. Yet it cannot. The message sent by Gorce is that there are no nuances. No shilly-shallying. Today or yesterday, pondering over such an issue in a world where lifestyles, life choices are now free and many would mean straying into absurd vagrancies. What type of Jesuitical line of reasoning might we come up with for blended families, rainbow families? None. They are families, period. That is what Gorce is saying.
If a reader is unable to realize they’re looking at a reductio ad absurdum, that is, if they have no sense of humour, they miss an opportunity to reflect, in this case that it can be worth drawing attention to the irrelevance of pseudo-intellectual issues sometimes raised by philosophers. By means of reduction to absurdity, a war-horse of great philosophers, and humorists too. When Gorce walked out the door, Le Monde lost their Socrates.