March 2, 2007

Woo hoo, logical fallacies!

Posted in Civil rights, Feminism, Wingnuts at 10:13 pm by The Lizard Queen

[Disclaimer: There’s a sometime commenter/troll over at Evil Bender‘s blog who likes to accuse EB and other commenters of logical fallacies. This usually involves gross misunderstandings of the writing to which he is responding, confusion as to the exact meanings of the logical fallacies he invokes, or both. Obviously I wish to avoid falling into that trap, so if you see me doing any of the aforementioned things, please, for the love of all that’s sugary, call me on it!]

Lately I’ve come across an argument that, in its simplest form, goes something like this: “Those crazies believe that there’s absolutely no difference between a man and a woman–nothing, zero, zilch–and won’t be happy until they make that the law of the land.” Here’s an example, taken from an article that discusses conservative author and UCLA alumnus Ben Shapiro’s reaction to the still-in-the-works establishment of an endowed chair of sexual orientation law at his alma mater (emphasis added):

Typical academics on liberal U.S. college campuses “believe that, essentially, homosexuality is the same as race and that gender is the same as race, meaning that gender is irrelevant and there’s no real difference between men and women,” the author explains. “So [according to this view], if a man decides to marry a man, that’s okay, and if a man decides to marry a woman, that’s okay,” he says.

It its simplest form, such as the line in bold above, this argument displays the “straw man” fallacy: “A straw man argument is a diversionary tactic that sets up another’s position in a way that can be easily rejected” (Faigley, Lester and Jack Selzer, Good Reasons with Contemporary Arguments, p. 47). Here’s Ed Brayton’s response to the Shapiro quote:

This is a rather ridiculous straw man. Quick, name me one human being on the entire freaking planet who actually believes that there’s “no real difference between men and women.” I’ll give you a minute to come up with one. Hell, I”ll give Shapiro the rest of his life to come up with one and he won’t. No one believes such a thing. We may disagree on what precisely those differences are and on which differences are relevant in which context, but no one in the world believes that there are no differences between men and women.

Precisely. I’m not entirely sure if I count as a “typical academic” attending a “liberal U.S. [university],” but I certainly don’t believe that there is no difference between a man and a woman or that gender is irrelevant. What I do believe is that gender should be irrelevant insofar as it affects a person’s treatment by others or under the law. That, then brings me to the ERA and–joy of joys!–Conservapedia (c’mon, you should have known I wouldn’t be able to resist that siren song of bad scholarship…). In case you’re unfamiliar with the text of the ERA, it consists of three sentences. The second and third deal with the practical aspects of applying and enforcing the amendment; here is the first (and most pertinent to this discussion) sentence: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Seems fairly simple, right? (Simple enough that it blows my mind that after thirty years, an amendment to that effect still hasn’t been passed…) Not so, says the Conservapedia entry on the amendment:

The purpose and effect of the Amendment would be to prohibit any legal distinctions between men and women, and boys and girls. An all-male draft or male-only combat regimens would presumably become illegal. Same-sex marriage would presumably become legal. Taxpayer funding of abortion would likely become mandatory. Equal representation of boys and girls on sports teams, and perhaps even the termination of all-boys or all-girls sports teams or publicly funded schools, could be required. Any legal distinction you can imagine between males and females would be banned.

What we have here is the “slippery slope” fallacy: “The slippery slope fallacy assumes that if the first step is taken, other steps necessarily follow” (Faigley and Selzer 47). The simple truth is that you can’t make assumptions about what will happen after the ratification of an amendment. The amendment deals with equal protection under the law regardless of sex–period. Generally slippery slope arguments are used to frighten people away from a particular course of action; rather than focus on the actual issue at hand (I wonder if the author of the Conservapedia article would like to explain to me, to my face, why I don’t deserve the same rights as he does?), people who use slippery slope arguments focus on what could happen if that course of action is taken. It’s disingenuous, to say the least.

So, then, I’d like to finish with a request: when arguing, focus on the actual topic at hand, hmm?  Thanks.



  1. Evil Bender said,

    It’s the classic debater’s trick: when you can’t argue against your opponent’s position, assign to them a position you can argue with. The wingnuts can’t convince anyone that equality is bad, so they lie.

  2. DavidD said,

    I don’t like accusing someone of a straw-man argument. It’s hard to summarize someone else’s argument completely, and more importantly, often there is some truth in what is being said in that summary, even if the rest of it is distorted. I’d rather focus on what I can agree with, sometimes.

    I for one am in favor of treating women and men exactly alike when it comes to jobs and voting. Women and men may have different biology regarding what they can do or what conditions might require time off, like pregnancy. There’s nothing about making rules regarding those conditions that violates the principle of treating them exactly alike in the basic rules. There are different rules for one man with a disability and another man who doesn’t. Yet the basic rules for them are exactly the same. So I can embrace Mr. Shapiro’s point to that extent. Yes, in certain contexts, I see men and women as exactly alike.

    It is indeed a slippery-slope fallacy that the above means combat units must be integrated or unisex restrooms would be required (I wonder if there would still be a trough for the men, but now women could use it too, if they didn’t mind the posture it would take to do that – weren’t the public restrooms in Rome close to that?). I prefer a simpler word. It’s a lie. It’s like many lies. It’s a matter of ignoring other possibilities so that someone can pretend that one’s rhetoric is the only possibility. Such is the oversimplification present in a lot of rhetoric, like Shapiro’s overgeneralization about gender being irrelevant.

    There’s another simple word about Mr. Shapiro’s claim that homsexuality is a choice – ignorance. Like the above, I think the basic problem here is once more pretending one’s rhetoric is the only possibility. Human beings do that a lot.

    The frustration is that no matter how well you identify rhetorical excess, there’s no referee to escort the perpetrator to a penalty box.

    Sometimes, though, there can seem like divine or at least ironic intervention. The whole story about the time when I was driving the family car with the ERA NOW bumper sticker and a woman yelled, “You bitch,” at me was one of those. She was angry because she was behind me when I slowed for a yellow light and stopped when it turned red. Her full comments were a couple of sentences about my deficiencies as a human being for not gunning through the light as she apparently thought any man would. She put her head out her window to be sure I heard. Then when the green light came, I drove away, and her car stalled. Looking in my rear view mirror, I could see she missed the next light, too. That was better than my basic instinct to walk back and show her how large and potentially violent a man she was defaming, as my Dad was known to do, at least once pushing some little guy back into his car and slamming the door. Yes, equality is better. Whatever is unequal gets taken care of by something.

  3. I don’t like accusing someone of a straw-man argument. It’s hard to summarize someone else’s argument completely, and more importantly, often there is some truth in what is being said in that summary, even if the rest of it is distorted.

    On one hand I’m inclined to agree, but on the other I think it’s a particularly irresponsible tactic of argumentation. Might, for example, more genuinely beneficial environmental protections be put in place if people weren’t out there convincing other people that environmentalists want to limit everyone’s freedoms to the point that a person wouldn’t even be able to pass gas anymore? It’s dishonest, and it agitates me. I don’t mind if people disagree with me; I get frustrated when they disagree with something I’m not even saying.

    Beyond that, the trouble I have with Shapiro’s statement is that it precludes further substantive discussion. Let’s say I concede his point, as you mentioned: I advocate treating men and women as equals, seeing them as identical in terms of the law and justice and hiring practices, and, in general, I believe that there aren’t real differences between men and women (besides those relating to biology, as you pointed out). I don’t wish to presume what Shapiro’s response would be, in specific, but I know how a number of others would respond: I would be put on the defensive. “What about genitalia?” I’d be asked. “What about bearing children? What about general physical strength?” And so on. That prevents actual discussion about the issue at hand, and, again, that frustrates me. You’re right, though–a person isn’t going to get two minutes in the penalty box for using a logical fallacy, so identifying them isn’t necessarily useful. There’s something to be said for the tyranny (if you will) of the classroom, in which I can teach my students about logical fallacies and do my best to prevent them from using them.

    I like your ERA NOW/”You bitch” story. It’s funny–growing up as I did, seeing those stickers, it came as a shock to me when I was in high school and discovered that the ERA had not, in fact, been passed. I took it for granted that, as you say, equality is better.

  4. DavidD said,

    Just a two-minute penalty for rhetorical excess? Oh, I had in mind something much worse. Maybe I’ve seen too many Mafia movies – “You can cut it out figuratively, or we’ll cut it out literally.” Without an Enforcer, it doesn’t much matter. The Amercian voter hasn’t been much of an enforcer of rhetoric to date, just for scandals as big as Watergate or so. I’m sure voters punish extreme rhetoric – I don’t see Libertarians getting far saying people should have to decide for themselves how to manage in an unregulated market, as if they never read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. It’s a free country despite what Libertarians say. The Libertarians can maintain their cult where they say such things. No one can tell them they wear blinders. But they’re not going to fool many people about the tyranny of banning trans fat.

    The thing is that for so many beliefs it’s not intellect behind people’s opinions. The opinions are already there in people’s emotions, experiences, and whatever innate and learned values we have. Our limbic system gives us a sense of conviction. Our neocortical intellect serves only to put words to those nonverbal “truths”. One can teach people to do that logically, maybe even without gross partisanship, but the words remain more of an excuse than reality, such as why people favor the death penalty. The reality might be that people are afraid. Of what? Or people are angry. At what? In defense of what? Or people have a vision. To what end? It’s better to be logical and well-informed in expressing the answers to such questions than illogical and living in fantasy, but somehow groups can maintain the latter. Maybe they even know that the most verbal among them can express their group consciousness without resorting to lies. It’s just hard for an ordinary human being to do that. I don’t think trading all the illogic for logic would change much in that.

    If I were a creationist, I would argue against science from metaphysics rather than all these traditional arguments against evolution that are illogical and factually inadequate. Knowing both logic and science would push me into a different kind of argument, but it wouldn’t disarm me were I a creationist. Instead it’s my experience of God as something other than Creator that means I don’t need to be a creationist and my experience of science as something that works very well that makes me not believe it’s an illusion.

    I don’t imagine any verbal account of gender or homosexuality would force Ben Shapiro to change his opinion. If he acknowledged his straw man fallacy, he could extend his words to make them more accurate. If he acknowledged the slippery slope he might express more honestly what it is about gender equality that he fears. That would be a good thing. But it doesn’t fix much. As much effort as I’ve put into finding common ground with people who see things differently from me, the results are very meager.

    As a discipline, logic has been around for thousands of years. I suppose it’s as necessary as old disciplnes like arithmetic, spelling, and grammar, but by themselves, they don’t do much. I wish there were a way to encourage people to speak from the heart rather than spout slogans and other rhetoric from their group. It takes a safe forum to do that. The closest I’ve seen to that is a 12-step group. My fellow religious liberals like to have places on the internet that they say are safe, but they’re not safe to say someone is wrong or that someone is being evil. One problem with speaking from the heart is the great variety of junk that can come out. So in the absence of something like a shared misery that focuses a 12-step group, it is very difficult to explain oneself in words, even harder to probe someone else.

    So for whatever reasons we have a world that is full of groups who have a hard time speaking to each other. If everyone spoke logically, then at least people could give up dismissing what the other says as illogical. One of my pet peeves is people who speak as if they can define a word any way they want. One can, but only if everyone else agrees. If they don’t, I’m happy to use a dictionary as Enforcer, but some belittle those of us who are so Earth-bound. Every dispute over logic becomes similarly arbitrary on such points where there isn’t a Rulemaker to decide what the Enforcer should enforce.

    As with many things I can start with the idea that my greatest enemy is in the mirror. I can do what I can to express myself well in words, unless I’m just writing for myself. Then with others, I’m incredibly impotent, especially with the point that what I really want is not for someone to just improve his or her arguments from illogical to logical, but get to the reality of why they really favor some opinion. The reality may still leave them with blinders on about what reality is for other people or for the objective world, but that I can understand more than I can understand words that don’t make sense.

    That doesn’t seem to be where the world is headed to me. Lots of people now want to win, as if their opinions really are the best. Or they don’t care. Maybe some generation in the future can be more realistic. Now I just don’t see role models who understand that words are not reality. There are some who say there is no objective reality at all. That’s not what I see. I see that empiricism has worked much better than anyone’s words for me. I see that everyone’s wrong in some way, and no one listens to that well. So being impotent to change our culture’s perception that words are so critical, I can write whatever I want. I know my words don’t really matter. It is both hopeless and hopeful at the same time, one door closed and another one open. But I do have enough ego and desire for communication so as to try to be logical. It’s just not my highest priority. The last time a creationist complained that my exploration of his anti-evolution rhetoric was both a straw man fallacy and ad hominem attack, I didn’t tell him he misread what I wrote, even though he had. It wouldn’t have helped. He’s a conservative Christian, and some of them are trained to label just about any response that says they’re wrong as being invalid in those ways. Sometimes it’s just like birdwatching.

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