After Philando Castillo and Anton Sterling were killed by police I was as enraged as any thinking person ought to have been. Living in Washington, D.C., I have a unique opportunity to engage in civil discourse at all levels of power and in many forms. From street marches, sit-ins, letter campaigns, and direct dialogue with lawmakers, D.C. is the place to take the rage that follows police murder and hurl it towards those who can truly do something now: Congress. So with that in mind I joined a protest march from the White House to the Capitol steps.
The crowd was as diverse as the city. Black and brown, white and asian, poor and well-off, young and old stood and walked together demanding justice. For some it may have been one of the first encounters with that form of political engagement. In some moments the street demonstration feels like the more than just a viable option but the only true means to express their discontent. Though mostly well organized, there appeared to be some dis-coordination on a small, but still important feature of the march: the chants. Many choruses of “Black Lives Matter” and “No justice, No peace” became somewhat repetitive leading to rather awkward long bouts of silence.
During one of the lulls I began a chant that has been a mainstay in marches for justice since the sixties, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” It caught on and the crowd continued the demand with me giving the call and the crowd responding. After several back-and-forths a voice came behind me (a white 30 year old male) and my wife (a similarly aged Indian woman) which said, “I don’t think you should be leading these chants.”
I stopped marching for a moment, disheartened. The appeal to mandated white guilt aimed at forcing me to self-prevent my own voice from simply leading a chant while marching with my black and brown comrades took me by surprise. Sure, I thought, this kind of thing happens in academia, were students and professors are more insulated and gather in “safe spaces,” but on the street? To the credit of the diversity of the crowd, an older black woman approached soon thereafter, and with a tender touch to my back gave me reassurance. “You can chant whatever you want, baby.” A generational divide bridged a racial one.
That small event, sad as it made me, is unfortunately not uncommon. At the DNC in Philadelphia I again helped connect chants led by BLM organizers at the front of a March to the end of the crowd with my megaphone. Having already given up said megaphone to a black voice much more powerful than mine, whose righteous indignation was amplified by the megaphone I provided, I thought it okay to use it for the purposes of solidarity. Immediately a white man, a few years younger than me demanded, “You should give that to a black person.” Taken aback by another race-based demand, I explained that I had just done so and that I was merely trying to connect the chants not overpower the organizers. Not deal.
“You don’t have the right to use your voice over others here. You’re white, you have a responsibility to them,” he told me.
This notion, that merely by virtue of being a white male, I must take a back seat, I ought to remain only among the crowd, I must let others speak even if they don’t ask to is something new and admittedly confusing to me. For the majority of my academic and political career, the racial solidarity found in shared struggles carried more value than the demographic makeup of groups, or the color if the skin of the speaker. Back then we listened to the speaker’s words and if they rang true we supported it. What mattered was the message, not the messenger.
But that has changed now. Though there are likely many causes – changes in child rearing after the widespread reporting of crimes in the 1970s, social media and the various online news outlets, professors being more afraid to cover and deal with controversial issues following the trend of political correctness – there is a noticeable effect on how people understand the social relations of struggle. When I studied philosophy in college, we had to deal with difficult issues and explored controversial subjects, but we did so having established an important background. Intellectual honesty.
What intellectual honesty demands is simple: fairness to another’s propositions and conclusions. While one is free to contest either, they must first be able to understand what they contest. Formal and informal fallacies, such easy traps to fall into, must be avoided like a downhill mountain biker avoids divots or a golfer avoids the bunker. The common fallacies employed by passionate advocates for oppressed groups don’t allow one to seamlessly ride down the mountain or get to the hole. Rather they slow us down and can serve to stop progress in its tracks. It is, in the word of Majid Nawaz, regressive.
There some fallacies that are so commonly misused today that it is as if they’ve been been forgotten. The most abused is the Ad Hominem. For this fallacy a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Here the critic of a conclusion targets something about the person presenting, say skin color, rather than the conclusion or claim made. For instance, Bill asserts that abortion is immoral. Michelle replies that Bill’s conclusion that abortion is morally wrong is invalid because Bill is a man and can’t possibly understand. Rather than contesting the premises or the form Bill used to derive his conclusion that abortion is wrong, the ad hominem argument uses a feature of Bill, his maleness, as the reason to reject his claim.
Ironically, the Ad Hominem argument is often confused with a critique of a person for making a claim. For instance, Bill’s position of the immorality of abortion is a morally reprehensible position to take. Indeed, those whose conclusions and/or premises are starkly contested, rather than some feature of the assertor, can confuse pointed criticism of the means at which they derived their claim as a personal attack. It is usually called an ad hominem attack. This is most true for closely held beliefs. The more tightly held a belief the less able we seem to be able to defend them. This inverse relationship between one’s conviction to a belief and the ability to justify it is why the misuse of the ad hominem is so widespread. If you can claim a person is logically suspect, you don’t have to deal with their claims. But this is not the ad hominem fallacy, but a way to avoid the discussion. It is the reverse ad hominem.
A common example in modern parlance of the Ad Hominem is the “White Savior” issue. Here a white person’s propositions are rejected not because they are untrue, but because the author of the proposition is white and as a carrier of white privilege, their position must be question for its genuineness. When such broad categories (race, gender, class, origin) are used to reject claims made by such groups it becomes an example of the aptl-named “Poison the Well” version of the ad hominem and only serves to make cross-racial conversation less open, honest, and often. The other very common form of the ad hominem, presently known as trolling, is when one turns to verbal abuse of their opponent rather than arguing the truth or falsity of the claims made. The goal for these people is to “win” the argument by having the other side refuse to participate. Anyone who has debated online has surely seen this used against them by unscrupulous characters.
As described, the racial suspicion that leads to the White Savior ad hominem often leads to and incorporates another fallacy: the appeal to motive. There a premise is dismissed by calling into question the motives of its proposer. One may claim that the testator may be doing so just to advance an agenda or to purely to serve the interest of some group. Recently Cenk Uygur did this in a debate with Dinesh D’Souza where he claimed that Dinesh’s arguments were not genuinely his own, but rather made merely to please his conservative sponsors. Though Cenk could have refuted D’Souza’s claim with facts and evidence. Instead, knowing that the audience was packed with Young Turks fans, Cenk knew he could get away with the trick. The crowd would then be fooled and in not seeing the fallacy would conclude that such a calling into question the motives of D’Souza was tantamount to a knock-out punch.
Another popular fallacy is the anecdotal fallacy where a person uses a personal experience or an isolated example instead of sound reasoning or compelling evidence. This usually comes in the form of a person who witnesses an event and extrapolates that onto the experience of all others, thereby assuming general agreement. When one contests the validity of this experience and the truth claims the fallow, that person is then accused of demeaning the person’s experience. Once that has happened, the ad hominem can then be used to reject their claims.
One may here claim that I did the same above with my story about the marches. That is partially true, however, I did not extrapolate from one experience I had, but a number of similar experiences which all conform to the same principle. Additionally, the point of using a personal anecdote was to provide an example of how racially charged and focused views can help lead to irrational and counterproductive solutions, not about how often it happens. That it happens at all makes the point that such racially charged and logically lame sentiments are within the generation of activists. This had lead to a breakdown of conversation on the left. This inhibits the ability for the left to communicate its messages to a larger audience and leaves them open to be lampooned by those honestly opposed to the necessary work activists carry out daily.
Another favorite of those prone to disingenuously treat detractors is the Appeal to the Stone. In this informal fallacy one dismisses a claim as absurd without demonstrating proof for its absurdity. We have all seen this tactic employed, especially online. “Bill’s argument that abortion is immoral is so ridiculous that I’m not even going to acknowledge it.” If the argument is so ridiculous, it should be rather easily to show how wrong it is. Refusing to do so, while invalid per se, also lets the claim escape rational criticism. Ideas, especially bad ones, should not be left immune to logical rigor.
Related to the ad hominem is the ecological fallacy when inferences about the nature of specific individuals are based solely upon aggregate statistics collected for the group to which those individuals belong. This fallacy is used to deny diversity within groups. For instance, since a majority of white people have relatively more privilege than black people, all white people are privileged. Since privilege disallows the privileged from understanding the unprivileged, any claim about those unprivileged made by a white person can, by use of the ad hominem, be rejected as invalid. This often relates to the association fallacy (guilt by association) where each member of a group is assumed to carry the exact features of a subset and are therefore able to be treated the same as the subset. By virtue of being white, a white person is guilty of all white crimes and can be ignored.
In the 2016 US presidential race the most common way to ignore someone’s claims is the fallacy of a false dilemma where two alternative statements are held to be the only possible options, when in reality there are more. This comes in the form of liberal chastising of those who, though (or because) they are on the left refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because, the argument goes, if one doesn’t vote for Hillary they vote for Trump. In reality, a vote for one candidate is a vote for that candidate full stop.
Finally, one can see the various forms of the appeal to emotion, where an argument is made due to the manipulation of emotions, rather than the use of valid reasoning. This may be an appeal to fear, ridicule, spite or any other strong emotion. So too are the Ta-Nehisi Coates-esque appeals to the terribleness of racial oppression both presently and historically is used to justify conclusions that would otherwise fail rational scrutiny. No one doubts the ability with which Coates makes his point, but one can surely doubt and call into question the validity of his claims. But failure to remain honest in one’s prose is lying to the reader. Can one really be well-intentioned when they are so obviously trying to deceive.
Unfortunately the way “progressives” (usually regressive and anti-liberal) defend groups in need of support with these fallacies. These dishonest shortcuts in reason are not even seldom used, they are ubiquitous. The continuous and repetitive use of fallacies when trying to support historically vulnerable groups is what is the key means of identifying the regressive liberal. Just as wordplay is conducted with the term neo-liberalism, which as Noam Chomsky puts it is neither new nor liberal, modern progressive liberalism is neither progressive nor liberal. Unlike traditional liberalism, its enlightenment ideas demanding adherence to honest use of reason and logic and arguing for the right for all people (who are by default capable of rational thinking) to engage freely and without unreasonable restraint, regressives adhere to the mantra and notion that reason itself is too of power. The origins and social relations of the period that brought about liberalism allow such a technique to itself be rejected and logical rules can therefore be violated if it means protecting vulnerable groups from the powerful. It seems that with Christianity “progressives” also threw out that pious notion that the truth will set you free.
“Whose truth?” They ask. “The white man’s? The slave owner? The wealthy?”
These questions bely the issue. Among regressive liberals, as in postmodernism, truth is relative. The notion of objective truth – a truth that applies to everyone, in every instance, in the same way – is itself a truth rooted in power dynamics including racial, gender, and other forms of historic discrimination and oppression. To deny this and assert some form of objective truth and logic as it’s guide, the argument goes, is to demean and defame those oppressed groups and thereby oppressing them in the present.
This way of thinking exists in a feedback loop. In the epistemological bedrock of relativism lies the spring of fallacious reasoning, notions of “my truth” and “your truth,” and ends-justify-means thinking. Those who deny the existence of logic as objective have no impetus to use it in their daily discourse. Nevermind that the means by which they receive and transmit information, the microchip, assumes the validity of logic. The regressive mind makes an arbitrary distinction between mechanical and human systems of truth and the means to find it. For this logicians can be derided as elitists, having accepted and utilized the tool of the oppressors. In this space, religion is free to reign unrestricted or at least uncriticizable and social justice views become religious.
Ultimately, the failure of this way of thinking is the lack of any sort of tangible argument or casual relationship to be made between causes and events. It obscures rather obvious relations if scientific and logical rules apply. Using the tools of observation, experimentation, evidentiary verification, predictability, and repetition all of us are better poised to sift through the noise created by a highly advanced productive system that is inequitable in its very production model. These tools help us pull back the curtain of cultural hegemony of the dominant group to see the roots of the tree of oppression. The branches of such a tree are well understood, but whose trunk and roots still remain hidden. A commitment to reason and logic is not an acceptance of oppressive ideology, it is the means of liberation from it.
At the end of it all progressives and regressives agree that there is a problem in society: oppression. But a commitment to a notion of objective truth and to argue one’s case without fallacious reasoning and will, in the end, be more fruitful. Indeed, leaving cultural and social change solely to education may do some work. But like someone who merely cuts down the branches of the tree of oppression, leaving the trunk to produce more branches again, only to have to return and cut the branches when they grow again. Rather, what is needed is the means to uproot the tree and truly destroy it. Only then can the seeds for a better tree of knowledge can be planted. The soil for such a tree can only be what we have lost: intellectual honesty.