Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

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Why Juror 8 of 12 Angry Men (1955) was Wrong on Every Conceivable Level

Henry Fonda from 12 Angry Men

Henry Fonda from 12 Angry Men

#2: Violations of Many Informal Fallacies

In Debate and Logic, there are many important principles you must follow in order to draw conclusions that are logically sound. When you don’t, you can violate these principles in two different ways. You can make what is known as a “formal fallacy,” in which case, there’s something wrong with the mechanics of how you drew your conclusion. For example, if you said, “Dogs have four legs,” and, “Cats have four legs,” it would be a formal fallacy to conclude, “All dogs are cats.”

Besides a formal fallacy, you can also make what’s known as an “informal fallacy“, in which the mechanics of an argument are sound, but there’s something wrong with it for other reasons. For example, if you argued that Miley Cyrus is the best singer of all time because everyone likes her, this is an informal fallacy known as “argumentum ad populum.” Another example: stating that passing a law to ban alcohol drinking at city parks will lead to another Prohibition is known as a “slippery slope” fallacy.

Yet another type of informal fallacy is the ad hominem. This is the act of discrediting someone’s viewpoint by attacking him personally. For example, if you said, “Candidate Peters is wrong about the death penalty; he’s a lowlife,” this is an ad hominem because you’re attacking Candidate Peters’s character rather than addressing whatever it was that he said.

A subtle form of ad hominem is known as poisoning the well. This is the act of undermining your opponent’s credibility with a preemptive attack that taints his position before he’s even had a chance to make it.  For example, going back to Candidate Peters, let’s say before he gets to state his position in a debate about the death penalty, you told the audience, “Candidate Peters is a Catholic.” What would happen? If Peters were against the death penalty, some people would reject his argument thinking that as a religious person, he’s too irrational to have a credible opinion, that he was just anti-death penalty because of his religion.

Going back to 12 Angry Men, Juror 8 uses ad hominem and poisoning the well against The Bully (played by Lee J. Cobb). In one particularly heated exchange, he accuses The Bully of being a sadist and a “public avenger.” The reason Juror 8 says this is to make it so that no matter what facts of the case The Bully argues, the less intelligent jurors will view his comments through the lens of a violent sociopath and vengeful arbiter.

Lee J. Cobb-12 Angry Men

Lee J. Cobb (The Bully) in 12 Angry Men

Another informal fallacy that Juror 8 commits is the false analogy. What is a false analogy? Let’s first explain what a legitimate analogy is. When you use an analogy in an argument, you are trying to make a case that people should accept what you’re saying is true because the scenario you’re arguing about is very similar to another scenario. For example, a legitimate analogy would be something like, “Placing a ban on soft drinks for the sake of public health won’t work. Soft drinks are so easy to make that people would make bootleg versions at home or smuggle them on the black market. After all, look at Prohibition.”

A false analogy works somewhat similar to this, except you try to make a case by finding a scenario that’s only superficially similar to the one you’re arguing about. For example, arguing that banning child pornography will lead us to Fascism because it’s the same as when the Nazis banned modern art is a false analogy. The reason why this is a false analogy is that the spirit in which the Nazis banned modern art was very different from why someone might want to ban child pornography. On top of that, modern art is a completely harmless art form. Child pornography isn’t an art form at all, and it’s harmful in that it abuses and exploits children.

Juror 8 commits the false analogy fallacy when he grills The Stockbroker (played by E.G. Marshall) about what movie he saw earlier in the week. When Juror stumbles in recalling the details, Juror 8 uses this to make the case that if he couldn’t remember what he saw days before, it’s invalid to argue that the defendant should have on the night of the murder.

Why is this a false analogy? The Stockbroker was asked to recall what movie he had seen days before; the defendant had been asked what movie he’d seen hours before being questioned by police. In addition, The Stockbroker may have gotten some details of the movie that he saw wrong, but he remembered them well enough to where another juror could even tell what movie he was talking about. The defendant, on the other hand, couldn’t recall a thing. So, although in both cases The Stockbroker and the defendant were asked what movie they had seen prior to being questioned, the circumstances were completely different and therefore weren’t similar enough to where The Stockbroker’s argument could be dismissed as invalid.

1 Comment

  1. Terry

    Many people will believe a slick-talking politician over one who may be harsh but tells the truth. This is basically what this film is about. I think the writer of the movie (and the play) did it deliberately. He was making fools of those who believe the smooth-talking Fonda who has absolutely no facts on his side, over the other rougher men who did have the facts to back up their stance.

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