Recently I had an exchange with Sam Killermann, founder and head of Gamers Against Bigotry, where we debated our positions on a hot-button social issue that was on the activist website. I won’t get into specifics, but our cordial and respectful back-and-forth led to a common-ground understanding of not only where we stood (which was together on the same soapbox), but also a request from Sam for me to write an article for GAB. Reasoned and respectful debate leading to a positive outcome? Who woulda thought! I’m very grateful to Sam for this opportunity, as I fully stand with the message GAB is trying to send to the gaming community at large.
I like debating. I find the tête-à-tête chess game of valid arguments and objective reasoning to be very intellectually stimulating. But the real thrill comes when your opponent says something that activates your trap card, and you throw down a killer rebuttal with the war cry of “That’s a fallacy!”
Enjoying things that are intellectually stimulating is also why I avoid comment sections like I avoid marathons of The Big Bang Theory. Fallacies, logical or otherwise, are in abundance here, along with generally stupid and hyperbolic emesis. It’s a virtual wasteland of soapboxes populated by the seagulls from Finding Nemo, but what they say can best be written as “&@%#?!!”
Sometimes you can’t avoid such things, especially as an advocate for social justice pursuits like equal rights. However, as you shudder in disgust and roll your cursor over the ban button, pause for a moment and reflect not just on what the commentator is saying, but what their comment represents. There is much we can learn from mental diarrhea, and I have waded through the thick of it to share some general examples I see far too often when debating social issues. Presented with each example is a breakdown of the fallacies and shaky positions these arguments are based around. Recognizing fallacies and knowing how to deal with them can make you a much more effective debater, and that skill can be an important weapon in the utility belt of any activist.
“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem!”
Good lord, how many other motivational posters do you have coating the walls of your cubicle? The issues with this oft-heard Facebook reshare from Tumblr are many, but more subjective than logical. Still, it’s worth picking apart more than one of those emails your aunt likes to forward to you. You know the ones.
To start: it’s exclusionary. Right from the get-go it sets up a divisive us-versus-them situation relating to whatever the context of the comment is. And we all know the best way to motivate people is to tell them up front what horrible people they are, am I right? NO, STUPID.
I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have called you stupid. And you shouldn’t have assumed I’m a terrible person for being largely ignorant to the nuances surrounding an issue of social reform. Yes, that’s right, I’m admitting to being ignorant on something. PAY ATTENTION: this is your opportunity to educate. Not belittle. Not berate. Not bullshit. Not bully. Not any other negative words that start with the letter “b”. When someone is encountered with new information, or information relating to a subject they have only a scant idea of all that relates to it, they generally listen to someone speaking from a position of authority. Here’s your chance to inform them with the wealth of knowledge you’ve acquired on the topic. To merely dismiss them as part of the problem is wasting an extremely valuable opportunity to sway an opinion. If you’ve ever tried to change someone’s mind before, you know how difficult that can be. The uninformed haven’t made up their mind yet, and that “yet” is your chance to turn a sheep into a wolf.
But be cautious: how you present this information, even in a positive way, can be damaging. You don’t want to fall into the fallacy of appeal to authority, like those people in medical commercials that hawk products while wearing lab coats, as if that lends them some legitimacy. Well, to the uninformed, it does lend them legitimacy, enough to make millions. It’s how snake oil salesmen have profited from the beginning of time on up to Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Jenny McCarthy, and all of the other daytime TV “experts.” You must be able to back up your claims with facts, evidence, statistics and other verifiable sources. Asking others to follow you because you know the facts is still an appeal to authority, while encouraging them to follow the facts themselves is an appeal to reality.
“You’re looking for something that isn’t there.”
The human mind has evolved to look for patterns. Our ability to recognize cause and effect, and retain that information, passing it on to our offspring, has made our species incredibly successful. Partly in thanks to this ability, we can comprehend some incredibly complex and abstract concepts. Unfortunately, our gift can backfire just as often, leading us to draw conclusions that simply don’t add up. In a given situation, we see X, and infer Y. Then, in every subsequently similar situation, we assume Y, despite evidence to the contrary, and look for Y until we find it. This fallacy is known as post hoc ergo propter hoc, Latin for “after this, therefore because of this”. It’s human nature, and it takes a lot of practice to recognize and compensate for it.
There are two other fallacies this relates to. The first is the subtly different cum hoc ergo propter hoc, where an inference is made to the cause of two or more factors whose correlations are not clear. This is commonly written as the “correlation proves causation” fallacy (or “correlation does not imply causation” in science writing). The third related fallacy is confirmation bias, which is the tendency for people to value information that confirms their own beliefs. Evidence holds little sway over confirmation bias, especially if it runs contradictory to one’s beliefs; this is why it’s so difficult to change someone’s mind. In my opinion, nothing is more deeply ingrained in the human condition than this phenomenon.
So these things are a part of each and every one of us. But that doesn’t mean we’re indulging these quirks every time we criticize something controversial. Thanks to the wonders of the human mind, we can actually support our own confirmation bias while exposing a problem for what it is at the same time! Of course, once you show that the problem in fact does exist, you’ll likely get back…
“We have bigger problems.”
We certainly do! But can you elaborate further? I’d like to know in what way this issue is less important than some other issue, and what other issues more urgently require my attention.
This is arguably one of the most common dismissals of any sort of popularized movement. To be fair, it can be difficult to distinguish between a valid movement focused on equal rights and an army of PC-happy thugs with a massive case of unwarranted self-importance. And don’t get me wrong, you can debate if nuclear disarmament should have more focus than peace in the Middle East, but that doesn’t mean either one is of no concern or importance.
It’s best known as the informal fallacy of goal post changing, or “raising the bar” (though not as often, due to that phrase’s context-based positive version). Essentially, someone dismisses an argument or the evidence of an argument and demanding greater evidence or focus on a different position instead. It’s like wading through the shallow end of the special pleading pool, but you’re just as likely to drown trying to refute it.
Instead of asking you to focus on another possibly valid topic, you may instead find that your argument is dismissed for a different one that may not even be related to the one you made. For instance, you may be discussing compensation inequalities women face in large corporations, and the other person says something like “men have problems, too, ya know!” Whether or not they do is irrelevant, and even conceding that means you’ve lost. Stay on topic, or else you’ll wind up swimming in a sea of distracting red herrings and lose your way.
“You can’t possibly know what X is like, because you’re a Y.”
This one gets right up my ass. It’s a form of special pleading, and may manifest as a personal anecdote, excessive use of an exclusionary word or phrase, or even exactly like the example I’ve provided (solve for X and Y). In this fallacy, the person making the claim rebukes you into taking their statement on faith, hoping to end the discussion there (which, obviously, means it’s not really a discussion at that point). It’s a strange twist on false equivalence, and tends to involve people who are otherwise seeking acceptance instead opting for self-exclusion.
This situation places the claimant in an untouchable in-group, and, perhaps even more than just making someone come across as a bigoted douchebag, is one of the most effective ways of making sure equal anything never happens that I’ve ever seen. It removes the claimant from criticism, puts the burden of guilt on the other party, ends the discussion, and destroys any opportunity for anyone involved to educate or learn.
Similar to false equivalence, a false dichotomy exists as a comparison between limited alternatives. This is often seen as a forced choice, making the defendant choose between aligning with a negative position or whatever position the person making the fallacy holds. It dismisses or ignores all other possible choices or considerations.
“If I’m not A, I can’t possibly comprehend X.”
“I’ve never had to deal with A, so no one else has either.”
An appeal to complexity arises when the arguer claims that if they can’t understand a topic, no one else can either; an argument by laziness follows the appeal to complexity, but tacks on “so my view is as good as anyone else’s” to the end of it. They have many opinions on this subject they know nothing about and refuse to learn anything about, but you can sure as hell expect them to argue those opinions regardless. Just as they’ll expect you to respect their opinions for no other reason than the widespread (and very wrong) belief that opinions are sacred.
A recent real-world example would be when Mike “Gabe” Krahulik of Penny Arcade, in response to a Kotaku article on a game about female masturbation, stated his belief on Twitter that only those who have a vagina are women. He added, in way of clarifying to the flood of criticism that was suddenly engulfing him, that “[he thinks] gender is the same as genitals.” He followed this with, “if you use the word “cis” save yourself some time and don’t bother tweeting at me”.
I’m sure you can pick out the flaws here, but just in case: Krahulik is essentially exercising the “It’s outside my realm of experience, therefore your argument is unlikely at best” form of the argument by laziness. Further exchanges show his willful ignorance regarding the subject of transgender women, gender identity, and the spectrum of human sexual characteristics. A form of the appeal to complexity exists here as well, though not directly from Krahulik. The last quote I selected was in response to someone who said “yes you are literally a monster. That is what you should gather from criticism holy fuck i hate cis men.”
“Cis,” shorthand for “cisgender,” refers to someone whose sexual characteristics align with both their personal gender identity and their assigned (for all intents and purposes, by the society to which the person belongs) gender identity. For example, someone who is born with a penis and testicles, displays secondary male sexual characteristics such as being able to grow a beard, has been told growing up that they’re male, and believes themselves to be male, counts as a cisgender person. It’s a complementary definition (not complimentary; this is a neutral term) meant to describe someone who is not transgender. However, it’s often used as an exclusionary word meant to belittle someone who was born a certain way, and views their identity in a certain way; it seeks to create a negative stereotype out of an otherwise innocuous description. Put in that context, it’s not only exclusionary, it’s also hypocritical. Distorting or abusing the intended use of a word in such a way turns them into weasel words.
Instead of creating an us-versus-them situation, it behooves us as progressive people to break down these walls, rather than create new ones. Maybe forum user BreakingBud420 with the transphobic comment is unaware that gender identity and sexuality are separate things, and that’s why he doesn’t understand why there are transgender people. Now is your chance to link him to some resources, and maybe expand his world view. I grew up in a very open and accepting family, and was encouraged to be curious and question the ways of the world; still, I can remember my surprise when I learned about intersex, and the understanding that came from knowing the difference between transgender and cross-dressing.
Of course, if BreakingBud420 continues to be a douchebag, it’s likely he’s a lost cause and it’s best to move on. But keep in mind that someone else may wander into the conversation, see your measured and informative response, and learn something new.
“You don’t care about your kids if you don’t support this park.”
Sorry, I couldn’t resist stealing that one from Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation. Imagine, if you will, being at a Renaissance Festival, and watching the knights practice for jousting. Instead of attacking other people, they take jabs at fake people made out of wood, or perhaps straw. That’s essentially how the straw man fallacy works; someone takes an opponent’s argument, distorts their position, and re-presents it as a counter-argument. This leads the opponent to having to defend their argument rather than continue to refute the claims of the other person. It can also apply, as in Leslie Knope’s case, when the distorted position is ridiculous enough to be a non sequitur, Latin for “it does not follow.”
If you’re well prepared and feeling sassy, you can have some fun with straw men. Let them make their ridiculous claim, then follow that white rabbit right down the slippery slope. Leading someone along their own argument to a ridiculous conclusion can be an excellent way to show how poor the argument is. In rare cases, they may even reconsider their position. However, too often this fallacy is self-fulfilling with an absurd conclusion to which the response is usually “well, duh.” This method is recommended for advanced users.
“You would say that because you’re _________!”
Rather than distort your position, however, you may find that your personal qualities are attacked instead. Just above outright name-calling, this informal fallacy is known as an ad hominem. This fallacy serves to attack the arguer instead of the argument, seeking to discredit their arguments by negatively portraying their character. This is not the same as any other kind of insult, nor is it applicable when the subject of the debate actually is someone’s character. If you’re debating whether or not someone is a bigot, making a case for their bigotry is not using an ad hominem against them. Consider this example:
Person A: There’s nothing wrong with gay people marrying. Everyone should be able to marry the person they love.
Person B: You’re gay, of course you would say that.
Person B is using an ad hominem to avoid addressing Person A’s argument and instead attacking their character. Now consider this example:
Person A: I don’t think women should be allowed in the military outside of a desk job. They’re just not as strong as men and too timid for battle.
Person B: You’re an incredibly sexist person.
Person B is not using an ad hominem, as Person A is presenting a sexist argument as their own belief.
Learn it, recognize it, know how to counter it. Chances are good that you’ll encounter an ad hominem at some point, if you haven’t already.
“lol fuk u faget”
Oh please. This is just an insult (not an ad hominem!). Ignore it.
“Something something freedom of speech something something!”
I don’t think there’s an established term for this specific argument, so I’ve taken to calling it the “appeal to liberty.” I believe the heart of this informal fallacy arises from two main sources. First, a largely Western (especially American) sense of self-entitlement. We here in the United States of Freedom have so-called inalienable rights, written in our highest legal document, the Bill of Rights. Many other countries and sovereign governments have similar documents, but at least as many do not, or have foundational legal mandates that are different enough to be viewed as something else entirely. Anyway, we have it, so everyone else has to abide by it. ‘Murika!
This is wrong, of course, but especially when applied to the second source: the Internet is a virtual Wild West, so anything goes, especially when personal liberties are involved. Yes, especially in the early days, the Internet can be a chaotic and anarchistic place. But order arises from chaos, and such is the case with the Interbutts. Websites have terms and conditions now, and users are often bound by these agreements, with moderators on the prowl, ban-hammers ever at the ready. This means what you say and do can and will be used against you. In fact, I would hold that up as a de facto law of the land when browsing the web. If “anything goes,” then you are doubly accountable for everything you put out there.
Another thing to consider before pressing the submit button is “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Sure, you can say something foul and derogatory, completely belittling the person you’re responding to. Freedom of speech is a precious thing, and exercising that freedom is ensuring its power. But there are countless reasons for limitations on the freedom of speech, such as terms and conditions, and mods with ban-hammers, and judicial systems, and top secret clauses, and non-disclosure agreements, and the fact that sometimes it’s best if you just shut your mouth. The immediate conflict of supporting personal liberties in any society is that your liberties will be in opposition to the liberties of others.
So how does this apply to a comment thread? Vitriol begets vitriol, and nothing derails a discussion faster than a slew of personal attacks. Trolling aside, however, realize that what you say may actually cause some amount of emotional or mental harm to someone else. Don’t take that as “be nice to everyone, because you might hurt some feelings,” but that certain talk is largely viewed as intolerable. You can talk about your opposition to something like gay marriage, for example, but don’t be surprised if a mod swoops in and kicks your virtual ass to the virtual curb if you start saying something like “them butt-humping queers shouldn’t be allowed to marry.”
On the flip side of that coin, you can respond to “I don’t personally think gays should marry” with something equally nonconstructive like “Well then you must be a bigot.” Perhaps they are, perhaps they are not (note the use of an ad hominem here). As I’ve said before, it’s very likely that someone may be ignorant of the larger issues at play surrounding something like gay marriage, which may be entirely outside of their realm of experience. I’m not saying that everyone should be given the benefit of the doubt, but if you give someone enough rope, rest assured they’ll hang themselves with it, without any need to string yourself up next to them.
To clarify, the former example would be one of hate speech, which you may have the freedom to express, but is still considered detestable and is discouraged. The latter example would be one of silencing dissent; that is, the opinion is different, therefore wrong, therefore an obvious reflection of the most extreme and negative view associated with such an opinion. Silencing a dissenting opinion runs counter to the tenets of free speech, and speaking your mind by spewing hateful rhetoric perverts and devalues the power that freedom of speech permits.
“Can’t we all just get along?”
I could leave it here, but I think there is something to be said about this, as a continuation of my earlier points. This phrase, while incredibly optimistic, and not exactly a fallacy, is pretty meaningless when tossed into an embittered exchange. It’s hopeful fluff, and emptier than the calories of the marshmallow spread. That doesn’t mean that the sentiment is entirely worthless, though; I do believe we can all get along, or at least most of us. But it’s something we have to work for, and everyone has to be involved in the process.
Here is a short list of guidelines, not rules, that I think can help.
- Do your research. Facts, statistics, and other forms of evidence are the only sure foundation of any argument.
- Learn how to recognize a poorly reasoned argument and how to react to them. Knowing logical fallacies is a must.
- Foster discussion. Listen, think, speak. Educate where and when you can.
- Choose your battles. Not everything has to be a debate. And most debates aren’t even worth engaging in, especially if the other person isn’t acting on similar guidelines.
- Remember that even if you’re not getting through to someone, that you have an audience beyond that person, and you might get through to them. Recognize trolls, or when someone is a lost cause, and move on with dignity.
- Accept valid criticism. Admit when you are wrong. A tall order, in most cases, but at least try. It can be a rewarding experience.
And while you’re at head, scroll on down below the comments and sign the pledge!