Mr. Brinstar

Fallacy pertaining a parallel to the past

Whenever someone raises a concern or complains about something like how vulgar some songs these days are, it is not uncommon for someone else to chip in and point out that similar comments were made about the Beatles and other bands from the 20th century. Since no one these days would consider those lyrics vulgar, you are wrong about songs today. What exact fallacy is being committed here?

It would probably follow this logical form:


X is considered to be bad.

Y was also once considered to be bad, but not anymore.

X is therefore not bad.


It's maybe something to do with the fact that, because people in the past are wrong by today's standards , you are also wrong.

I hope this makes a bit of sense ;)

asked on Monday, Sep 07, 2020 03:18:21 PM by Mr. Brinstar

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Welcome Mr. Brinstar,

Very good question that leads to some heavy philosophic musings. For example, when Elvis was rockin' his hips, was that "bad" and "vulgar," or were these claims overreactions of a segment of the population? If the former, are they no longer "bad" and "vulgar" or did society's standards stray from what is good and right? Are such lyrics and moves objectively bad or good? Who says?

On the one hand, arguments such as the one you references do point out changing societal norms which suggests that such lyrics were never "bad" to begin with; they were just outside societal norms. On the other hand, one could argue that our changing norms is due to a "moral decline."

Using your example, I would say there is no fallacy, because comparing today's music with music in the past is a strong analogy. However, if we said something such as "The Beatles' music used to be seen as morally problematic but not anymore, rape is currently seen as morally problematic, so rape is not morally problematic," this would be a weak analogy.

The logical form you laid out is only problematic when X and Y are different enough where the conclusion that X is not bad is no longer reasonable.

answered on Monday, Sep 07, 2020 03:36:33 PM by Bo Bennett, PhD

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Though stretching it, this could be a form of Tu Quoque (ad hominem) "whatboutism"  if phrased in a different way. 

X:  Music lyrics today are vulgar and crass

Y:  Every generation says the same thing about the younger generation's music.

Z: Therefore today's music lyrics are not vulgar and crass.

Apart from being an ad populum/hasty generalization, the mere suggestion that today's music is not vulgar and crass because other generations have had the same complaint is not a valid argument. 

answered on Monday, Sep 07, 2020 03:33:55 PM by mchasewalker

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Bo Bennett, PhD writes:

I would agree with this. We cannot conclude that "today's music lyrics are not vulgar and crass" by referencing yesterday's music. I have no problem, however, with using yesterday's music (more specifically, accusations to its crassness at which we laugh today) as strong arguments to changing norms rather than inherent crassness.

posted on Monday, Sep 07, 2020 03:43:57 PM
mchasewalker writes:

Also, this does not preclude the fact that there were music and lyrics (mondegreens) of the past that were decidedly vulgar and crass by anyone's standard - even today's. In fact, ribald, racist, and scandalous lyrics, poems, graffiti, and literature were extremely popular in ancient cultures to the present. 

posted on Monday, Sep 07, 2020 04:04:14 PM
Mr. Brinstar writes:

You have perfectly summarised my intent. Just because someone in the past was wrong about something similar, doesn't mean that the present-day person is also wrong. Could it be argued that this is also a false equivalence?

posted on Tuesday, Sep 08, 2020 07:02:01 AM
mchasewalker writes:

I think you'd have to be more specific to find a false equivalence.  As Dr. Bo pointed out the original overall claim is more of a reasonable social commentary than a deceptive fallacy in reasoning. Besides, it would be fairly easy to compare salacious lyrics, words, poems, and other vulgarities of the past with modern-day Rap lyrics and come to a draw on which is the more offensive.

Just for fun,

I looked up this old passage from the Torah: (Ezekiel 23:20)

19 Yet she multiplied her promiscuity, remembering the days of her youth, when she had prostituted herself in the land of Egypt 20and lusted after their lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of stallions. 21 

And randomly compared it to A$AP Ant's

 "Killin bitches sniffin' panties/Willy Wonka candy semen" -

I suppose you might say this is a false equivalence since one is a bawdy tongue-in-cheek passage from scripture with a very decided moral imperative, while the Rap lyrics are intended solely for shock and humor. 

Considering there are 2,600 years or so between them and that the biblical writers would have no clue about Willy Wonka - I'd say it's pretty much a toss-up. 

posted on Tuesday, Sep 08, 2020 12:09:33 PM

Perhaps I'm being overly sticky about definitions, but it seems that using somewhat global and subjective generalizations (e.g., "good" or "bad") can easily weaken an argument ... not necessarily making it false but certainly making it weaker.

Rewording the argument to:

  • X is considered vulgar by today's standards
  • Y was considered vulgar by the standards 50 years ago but is no longer considered vulgar by today's standards
  • Therefore, X is not vulgar today

makes it sound less convincing -- although the content is essentially the same.  

The most logical conclusion following from the initial two re-worded statements above would seem to be something like Therefore, (even though it is considered vulgar by today's standards) X may not be considered vulgar in the future .  

The best conclusion one could draw from would be that societal standards have changed in the past and are likely to continue changing into the future so it's reasonable to think that what is considered vulgar today might not be thought of in the same way in the future.

answered on Tuesday, Sep 08, 2020 09:54:34 AM by Arlo

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