Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Blow-Off Fallacy: From Gay Marriage to Home-Made Clocks

As a teacher of argumentation, I often refer to the "logical fallacies" in order to keep my students Spock-like in their approach to supporting a claim or idea. These fallacies include things with Latin names like ad hominem, which is an argumentative attack on the person, instead of on the issue at hand (think: Donald Trump saying that no one will vote for Carly Fiorina because of her face); ad hoc (think Ernie implying to Bert that having put a banana in his ear is the reason there are no alligators on Sesame Street) and "straw man," which is a misrepresentation of someone else's argument (building a straw approximation of it) in order to make it easier to "burn" (think of a writer attacking a senator's vote against a spending package and saying that, because that package contained an allotment of money for military helmets, that: "He voted against it because he wants our American soldiers to die!").

There are a lot more fallacies, but that is not why I am writing this. What I want to address is what I see as a cousin of the "straw man." I'll call it the "blow-off fallacy." It is becoming more and more prevalent and it really seems to have gained a foothold as a result of the gay rights movement.

(Here is where I stop and point out that I am addressing is not the issue of gay rights but the means of arguing about the issue. People can and will hold whatever stance you want to on gay rights or gay marriage; I just want them to argue about it logically.)

Probably the most common argument in favor of gay marriage is: "What do you care? It doesn't affect you!" This is the "blow-off fallacy."

I would have liked to have watch Lincoln and Douglas
Of course, gay marriage affects everyone in a society. It is a major shift in a paradigm that has existed for just about all of human time, in about all human cultures. Sure, one could argue that homosexuality has seen varied levels of acceptance in various cultures and times (think ancient Greece), but gay marriage is pretty brand new. It affects the world in a profound way.

Does the acceptance of gay marriage cause heterosexuals to fall over and die? -- does it poison the water supplies? -- does it cause hurricanes, as some religious nuts have implied? -- does it cause straight people to turn gay? No, of course not. But it, culturally, affects all of us. Using the blow-off fallacy to defend it is just bad form and, on top of that, it may just be counter-productive to supporters: it belittles the very idea and it makes that very thing being supported seem like "no big deal." Ask a gay couple, who can now get married, if it is a big deal to them. Ask parents of children (Louis CK attempts to ridicule this idea with a scathing blow-off argument) how much more difficult it is to explain sexuality, in general, to their kids, now.

Just today, the news is buzzing with a story about a high school freshman who brought a home-made clock into school. The kid got arrested. He claims the clock was something he made to impress his teachers. Ultimately, the kid got arrested for fear it was a bomb. I heard a commenter say the kid got punished for being named Ahmed Mohamed and for being creative. Well, that is a blow-off fallacy, to me (along with a few others). (I suppose it is a blow-off fallacy that dances with straw man, as well...but it has a blow-off element.)

I'm not implying the kid is a terrorist. My instinct as a teacher and as an administrator is that he is what my grandmother would have called a "nudge" (the "u" should be pronounced like the double-Os in "took") who is really smart and who probably knew he would cause a row by bringing in something that people might mistake as a bomb -- but this is all just a gut feeling.

I'll tell you one thing this incident is not; it is not "no big deal." I'm not aguing that the kid needed to be arrested, because I don't think he needed to be; a call to the parents and maybe even a police visit to look around in the kid's room, to be sure, would have been sufficient. (Not because he is a Muslim. That would be going after me with "straw man.")

I do take the safety of my kids, in my school, very seriously. This incident can't be blown off. Therefore, we can't use the blow-off fallacy to defend the kid; we need to defend him in another way, or we risk making the act of bringing in things that look like bombs seem like harmless fun -- which is it certainly not.

It is a shame that this young man is a Muslim, because that fuels the prejudice of the masses and if (note the "if") he did this (as my instincts suggest) to be a "nudge," he needs a severe talking-to by his mom, dad, or grandparents for having fed into stereotype.

Butthe fact remains that it is a big deal, as is the shift into legal gay marriage. Both are a very big deal and, for their respective reasons, need to be seen that way in order to do the issues justice.

A little ad hoc fun (ad hoc at :39, but it is all funny):



    Aunt Loretta

  2. Excellent point, Chris.

    I just realized that I'm doing this. Yesterday I "blew-off" the Hillary email scandal when a friend's husband said "Hillary won't be president, Hillary is going to prison for what she's done!"

    I think the "blow-off" attitude (for me anyhow) is the result of argument fatigue. An evolutionary survival response to our endless argument culture.

    I know this gentleman spends all day listening to Fox and Rush and Hannity and he is set in his ways--certain that Hillary is evil and dishonest--and what I had to say wouldn't make a bit of difference so I didn't feel like exhausting my energy by getting sucked in to a hamster wheel argument. I simply didn't want to go there.

    And I had to smile because, inside my head--on gay marriage I'm thinking… "what does it matter?" I'm exhausted on that subject as well. ;)

    PS The nudge theory is interesting. Look forward to reading more,
    Ann M

    1. Thank you, Ann for reading and for commenting. You hit on something very important here: fatigue. It does get overwhelming. I suppose we just don't want to get to that place in which our fatigue overshadows our committment to equity and human dignity. But it is tempting just to disappear into the woods (sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively). Thanks again!

  3. Initial disclosure: I'm inclined to believe that teachers overreacted to this kid, and that the police definitely overreacted.

    That said, I think this story is a fine case study in the madness of our age. For the first couple days, most of the social-media outrage (including a presidential tweet) was fueled by little more than the kid's own account of the incident. When preliminary news reports confirm our preconceptions, we now don't even imagine that they might not be wholly accurate. (Because really, it's not outside the realm of possibility that the precocious son of a frequent Sudanese presidential candidate might, in an act of wickedly snarky rebelliousness, put his digital clock inside a smaller version of one of those bomb-suitcase things, as he did, simply to troll his teachers.)

    A few weeks ago, friends of mine on Facebook were outraged by the stupidity of someone at Yellowstone who complained on their evaluation of the park lodge that the bears should be better trained so visitors can see them. But when I dug into it, I found that it was Jezebel reporting on Mashable reporting what an unnamed person supposedly wrote on a piece of paper supposedly photographed by an unknown friend of a Reddit user. I peeled the artichoke and found nothing inside. We're going to look back at this early era of social media and be shocked and embarrassed (I hope) by how naive we were.

    1. It's pretty crazy. And there really is usually "nothing inside" these stories. I suppose my perspective as a school administrator shades my reading of all this. I can only imagine what parents would have said if the admin. of this school had blown off the "device." There is a lot of pressure to take absolutely everything seriously. Every time I see, for instance, people claiming "the school did nothing" in bully cases at other schools, I think of the numerous situations I have seen in which someone says that we "did nothing" and then goes on, in just about the same breath, to explain how the kid "didn't want anyone to know" what was happening on the school bus, and, so told no one... If there is a problem, we will be blamed. I guess thay were thinking the same thing. I do think the police should have just talked to the kid and then to his parents, but I am not so sure they shouldn't have been called -- if only to talk to him about thinking before acting in this day and age of paranoia. Arrested? Nah. Defninitely not.