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Monday, December 19, 2011

Ad-Hominem Assault on Straw Targets

So in addition to these blog posts, I’ve engaged in several conversations on Facebook about the nature of discrimination and about the idea of being respectful.  And there are a couple of things that keep on happening.  The first is called the straw man fallacy.  This is when you present a ridiculous position that you attribute to your opponent, and then proceed to argue quite easily against that position.  For instance, if someone tells me that Christianity makes people happy, and I open my response with “My opponent is convinced that an omnipotent being answers his prayers,” I am committing a straw man fallacy.  I am mistaking my opponent for a “dummy made of straw,” and engaging the dummy argument instead of engaging the position that my opponent actually holds.

Now generally speaking, I try to respond to the first instance of straw man fallacy by clarifying my position.  I know that words can be ambiguous at times, so I tend to assume that a miscommunication occurred.  But I just want to make it clear that when someone tells you “that’s not what I said,” you need to either provide a quote or admit that you’ve made a straw man fallacy.  And remember not to engage in word play (link).  When someone says “I was using this word to mean X,” don’t cry “But that word really means Y.”  Words don’t really mean anything.  Their meanings come from how we use them, and that changes all the time.  You can say “there’s a better word for that,” or “that wasn’t very clear,” but don’t insist that they were really claiming Y even after they’ve explicitly explained that they meant X.

So when I say things like “Homosexuality is undesirable, as evidenced by the fact that most people don’t have any desire to be homosexual,” and I later clarify that by “undesirable” I meant “most people don’t desire this” and not “intrinsically inferior,” then you can certainly call me out on a number of things.  Complain that I was unclear, because the word I chose carries a strong connotation that I apparently didn’t mean to convey.  Complain that I wasn’t explicit enough at the start, that I did not do an adequate job of conveying the fact that I was using the word “undesirable” in a rather unconventional way.  But the inappropriate response is to repeatedly insist that “undesirable” really means “not wanted due to an intrinsic inferiority,” and to use this to insist that I really claimed that homosexuals were inferior.  The first time I can accept as a miscommunication, which may even be mostly my own fault.  But after I explain what I meant, continuing to insist that I really hold the position that I have explicitly denied is a straw man fallacy.  At that point you have stopped arguing against me, and started arguing against a straw dummy that you are insisting is really me.

But even more ridiculous is when your response to the straw man is itself fallacious.  And this kept on happening in my Facebook discussions.  Not only did people repeatedly attribute to me positions that I expressly denied holding, they failed to actually argue against those positions.  They frequently called the position I didn’t hold offensive or misogynistic or racist.  But none of these complaints are actually reasons to reject the ideas.  They are, in fact, examples of the ad-hominem fallacy.  Ad-hominem is when you attack the desirability of the claim or the character of the claimant, rather than the logic of the argument or the validity of the premises.  Remember, the fact that a claim is unfair or unliked doesn’t make it untrue.  Nor does the speaker of the claim have any bearing on its validity.  If men aren’t superior to women (which is the kind of claim I’ve been using as examples, not presenting as my position), then the appropriate response is to explain this, rather than just saying “How dare you!” or saying “You don’t understand because you’re a white male.”  If some uncomfortable fact is true, you’re better off learning how to adapt to it than trying to live in a fantasy world.  And if it isn’t true, then you should explain why it isn’t true, rather than just dismissing the speaker as an ignorant meanie.

So the next time the third paragraph of my post explicitly says that I’m not supporting the sexist and racist statements made in that post, that I am just using them as examples, please do not respond by calling me a racist, misogynist, or white male supremacist.  Not only have I clearly denied making claims to that effect, but those responses would not be reasonable even if I had tried to defend those claims.  It would be slightly better if you presented a case arguing why racist, misogynistic, or white male supremacist conclusions are factually wrong, but even then you are still committing the straw man fallacy.  The best response is one that indicates that you not only read the post but are willing to believe me when I say “…I’m not actually supporting eitherof those claims.”

When you commit a straw man fallacy, and especially when you continue to commit the fallacy after my repeated clarifications, you come across as dense.  You make yourself look overly aggressive and thick, as if you are insisting on picking a fight that isn’t even there.  And when you commit an ad-hominem fallacy, it makes your position look week.  It makes it look as if you were unable to find a flaw with the argument, and so have resorted to attacking the arguer. 

So no more “You don’t understand discrimination because you’re a white male.”  If the lack of some life experience has caused me to make an error in my reasoning, then point out that error.  Dismissing me because I am a white male is no better than dismissing someone because she is a black female.  And no more “that’s offensive.”  If something I say is factually wrong, explain that.  Don’t reject a conclusion simply because you don’t like it.  “I am offended,” is a very different claim than “That is not true.”  The latter can lead to a genuine argument, while the former is often an attempt to shut down the conversation before you have to think too hard about things you don’t like. 

And last but not least, no more repeated misrepresentations of my position.  The next time I say “…I’m not actually supporting either of those claims. I’m just using them as an example.” please respond in a manner that indicates that you understand that the two claims are not my position but are in fact examples I was using to illustrate my position.  When I claim X, and repeatedly explain that X does not imply Y, please do not respond with a passionate rejection of Y written in a way that makes it look like you’re arguing against me. 

Those insults you are slinging are not an argument, and that dummy you are addressing is not me.  If you can’t engage your actual opponent with an actual argument, then I think you need to take a deep breath, take a few steps back, and re-read my material with the intent of assessing its factual accuracy and logical validity rather than its appeal.

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