March 2, 2007
Woo hoo, logical fallacies!
[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.