The Michael Moore documentary Bowling for Columbine describes in detail the ideological standpoint of gun control advocacy, using Moore’s specific use of editorial and filmmaking strategies to speak about the problems that Moore sees with the nation’s attitude toward crime, guns and capitalism in the wake of the Columbine shootings. Bowling for Columbine uses many different methods to demonstrate his perspective on these issues, using the Columbine shooting as a jumping-off point to discuss the media, America’s gun culture, and more. However, in the process, Moore finds himself committing many logical and rhetorical fallacies, intentionally obfuscating the truth and making specious arguments that feel sensible on the surface, but do not hold up to severe scrutiny. Using red herrings, ad misercordian, and bare assertion fallacies, among others, to prove his points, Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine creates a skewed view of an otherwise sensible perspective on gun control.
One of the most intriguing examples of his use of logical fallacies is the “guns in a bank” sequence of Bowling for Columbine. In this sequence, Moore goes to a bank that had advertised an offer in which people get to take home a gun when they open an account at the bank. However, the actual text of the ad shown demonstrates that account holders do not just walk out of the bank with a gun; the offer comes with various caveats, a delayed grace period, and you have to submit to a background check. Furthermore, the gun is actually not free – the gun comes from a certain amount of money paid into the account. However, Moore’s depiction of the scene, in which he just easily gets a gun from a bank, seemingly instantly, compresses the timeline in an intentionally misleading way to fit the easy argument that you can just walk into the bank and get a gun. This is used as a strawman argument – setting up the bank as an example of one of the easy places Americans can get guns for free, when such a place is imaginary and not real (Pust, 2008). In doing this, Moore intentionally overstates the simplicity of the issues to make his point.
Red herring fallacies are also rampant in Bowling for Columbine, getting the audience to look at other issues in order to prevent the audience from asking real questions about his arguments. One prominent example of this is when he discusses the differences in gun deaths between the US and Canada by talking about the differences in the media and the fear-mongering he alleges of the United States as part of the reason America has more gun deaths. While he also talks about social programs and how they differ between the US and Canada, this also places a lack of emphasis on how differently both countries deal with the poor. This leads the audience to look at different things than the subject at hand: how exactly gun violence is different between the US and Canada. By changing the subject so rapidly and thoroughly, Moore attempts to perform a red herring fallacy.
Argumentun ad misericordiam, or an appeal to pity, comprises some of the chief argumentation for Moore as a filmmaker in general, particularly in Bowling for Columbine (Kinneavy, 1980). Moore uses substantial footage of gun violence, speaking with victims, and the Columbine tragedy itself as an emotional crutch to convince his audience that guns themselves are bad. Moore’s selective editing is a huge component of this, and also comes into play in his interview style – he is confrontational, and frequently holds up pictures of little children who have died in school shootings to appeal to the audience’s emotions and sense of pity for the victims. In this way, Moore believes that, by making the audience feel sorry for the victims of shootings, they will be more inclined to follow his logic in the gun control argument. However, by utilizing such blatant manipulation, he undercuts his arguments by not letting their logic speak for themselves.
Another logical fallacy Moore implements in the course of Bowling for Columbine is the bare assertion fallacy, in which someone asserts something is true because they say it is (Kinneavy, 1980). Throughout the film, Moore makes several points on his own that he gives little evidence for, but rather simply says they are true – grand sweeping statements such as, “The media, the corporations, the politicians, have all done such a good job of scaring the American public it's come to the point where they don't need to give any reason at all” are flatly asserted to be true without a proper exploration of the nuances of the issue. The film itself is a one-sided exploration of the problem of gun culture in America, never offering a balanced view of both sides of the issue and coming out one way or another. Instead, Moore’s rhetoric follows the point he wanted to make from the beginning – that gun control is needed, and that America’s culture of violence is toxic.
Given the constant presence of celebrities within the film, Moore’s Bowling for Columbine is also guilty of appeals to authority (Kinneavy, 1980). Many Hollywood celebrities and entertainers are used as the faces of the gun control debate, most notably Marilyn Manson and Chris Rock – they are cited as the voices of reason and for calm, supporting Moore’s points. However, they do not have any particular authority that is worth listening to, as they are cultural figures and entertainers, not sociologists or scholars on the subject of gun control. However, they are used frequently to make points about gun control that are meant to say to the audience, “If Chris Rock, a comedian I recognize and like, says that guns should be controlled, then they should be.” While Manson’s perspective on the issue is a reaction to the media’s vilification of him in the wake of Columbine, Moore goes on to include his thoughts on the culture as though he was an authority.
Ad hominem arguments are some of the most frequent in Bowling for Columbine, as Moore uses creative editing to make those on the opposite side of the issue seem like monsters. While footage of crying victims at Columbine are framed alongside Charlton Heston’s speech in which he cries they would take his gun “from my cold dead hands,” this is meant to show that those who want guns in America are heartless, unsympathetic brutes. However, that speech was made a year after Columbine, not shortly after as Moore makes it look. Furthermore, people like John Nichols are made to seem stupid for not immediately knowing what Gandhi’s struggle was (“I’m not familiar with that,”) or his failure to come up with sufficient answers to Moore’s badgering questions. As Moore frames the issue, because he is flustered, all people who support his position are unintelligent, hypocritical wackos, which is disingenuous to say the least (Pust, 2008).
Given all of these logical fallacies and more, it is clear that Moore’s Bowling for Columbine has an extremely flawed perspective on the issue of gun control and violence in America. By making bare assertions, appealing to a sense of pity, and offering red herrings to distract the audience, Moore makes emotional appeals and basic arguments that make sense on the surface, but do not hold up to scrutiny. What’s more, Moore intentionally obfuscates the truth and uses creative editing to make those on the pro-gun side seem like monsters. To that end, regardless of how you feel on the issue of gun control, it is clear that Bowling for Columbine should not be used as an example of a nuanced and logical argument to make against the gun culture of America.
Kinneavy, James L. A Theory of Discourse: The Aims of Discourse. W.W. Norton & Company,
Moore, Michael (dir.). Bowling for Columbine. United Artists, 2002. Film.
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