Confronting the Shoddy Reasoning that Helps Perpetuate Injustice
“You’re wrong.” So easy. So futile. In the annals of philosophical, theological, religious, social, and political debate, it seems unlikely that any adversary has ever found this persuasive. When it comes to matters of justice, we need to show, not merely tell.
Personal accounts with a strong emotional dimension can be persuasive. But, especially for those who do not identify with the victims of a given injustice, these seem to have their limits. To the bafflement of many among us, some resist acknowledging that certain protest movements do in fact raise legitimate concerns. Debunking illogic may hold the key.
Below I have explained six of the logical fallacies that I myself have consistently encountered among those who struggle to grasp the current gravity of racial injustice in the U.S., although these observations are certainly applicable to other forms of denial about injustice. My labels for these logical fallacies are original. The ideas are not. My hope is that, by calling attention to them, others can help friends distinguish legitimate objections from illegitimate ones.
1. “Dr. No”
“I disagree with the proposed treatment plan, therefore the diagnosis is wrong.”
Instead, we can potentially affirm others’ assessment of a problem—and even stand in solidarity with them—without endorsing everything they stand for. For example, although Pope Leo XIII rejected Marxists’ core assumptions about human nature and the necessary course of political action, in 1891 he affirmed that they were right in large measure in drawing attention to industrial society’s ills.
(See also “denying the antecedent.”)
2. “I, Spock”
“I am logical. What I believe is always logical. If I find something hard to believe, it must not be true.”
Instead, we must recognize that none of us is wholly logical. It is wisest to side with Socrates and recognize the extent of what we do not know. That I cannot believe, understand, or observe something in no way demonstrates that it cannot be true.
(See also “argument from incredulity.”)
3. “Clearly Against the Opposite” (C.A.T.O.)
“You have taken a stance in favor of [A], therefore you are clearly against [not A]!”
Instead, we can perceive proponents of an issue as not necessarily taking a stance against anything. For example, many opponents apparently hear “black lives matter” as implying that “white lives do not matter,” therefore seeming to necessitate the retort “all lives matter”—which BLM activists have never denied.
4. To Critique is to Hate
“You are saying that [institution, church, or nation X] needs to change, therefore you are disrespectfully attacking it.”
Disrespectful attacks can occur, but not every critique represents one. In fact, no positive changes can occur in a democracy without constructive criticism of the status quo being part of public discourse. We humans all have room to improve. Think of your mother. Even if she is a wonderful person (as I hope she is), someone might still have grounds for berating her. Your initial reaction would probably be a negative one: “How dare they! They should never….” But, honestly, maybe they have a point? Consider Langston Hughes’s lament “America never was America to me.” In the context of the full poem, he explains that, from his perspective, America was not the land of the free or the home of the brave. It should have been and he hoped that it one day would be, but during his life it was not, otherwise, he as an African-American would not have suffered so much, in so many ways. He had a point. Do his words still apply now? Protesters are currently saying as much. That they are protesting should bother people less than what they are protesting.
5. All or Nothing
“We need to fix every aspect of the problem and cannot accept anything less than systemic perfection.”
Instead, incremental change needs to be on the table as a viable option. There should be a tension between patient pragmatism and righteous indignation. Those who have long fought for civil rights recognize that lasting change does not happen overnight. At the same time, moderates should recognize that, historically, extremists are often those who succeed in achieving even modest change. Progress can be lost. But small battles are still worth fighting. Consider the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a solid decade-and-a-half in the making. We must be ever vigilant, fighting ever onward without giving up over momentary setbacks.
6. Source With No Shame
“I can’t tell you the source, but [insert conjecture, rumor, conspiracy, and/or insinuation here].”
Instead, we must recognize known facts and plausible evidence as such. Anything less is not a viable source for discerning what is happening in the world. You can find someone on the internet who has said just about anything. Some things might seem too wonderful or too terrifying not to believe, but unless a source posts verifiable information (e.g., about the federal takeover of local police forces), it probably isn’t happening. To this one might reply, “But, then again, who knows?” We don’t. That’s the point. Conspiracy theories are appealing because they provide simple solutions to complex problems. This is also why they tend to be wrong.
(See also “false authority.”)
Conclusion: On Being Wrong
A position free from fallacies may still be an unjust one, just as someone may believe the right thing but for the wrong reasons. Yes, someone can believe the wrong thing. We should be sparing in invoking that claim, so uncertain as we all are in the face of so much mystery, both in the universe around us and in ourselves. At the same time, to oppose mass scale injustice, such as genocide and systemic racism, represents a de facto rejection of moral relativism. You can fight for justice or you can fight for people’s freedom to do whatever they want to, but not for both.
As far as how to incorporate these into dialogue, I suggest asking questions. A direct approach (“you just denied the antecedent!”) is doomed to fail. To ask gradually draw others’ attention to their leaps of logic is more promising. One can only hope that they will return the favor. We all need it.