Properly, what we’ll be covering today are fallacies of irrelevance. There are several types of these, with the genetic fallacy and ignoring refutation being the best known. Nonetheless, I tend to see them all as fallacies of elimination, and so I’ve given our coverage that name.
This fallacy, like more or less all of them, is very old. This one was first noted by Aristotle at 330 BC or so. In our time we see it mainly as political word tricks.
Let’s start with the genetic fallacy, which eliminates an idea based upon its origin, or at least its claimed origin. A common example would be something like this:
You shouldn’t wear a wedding ring, because in the old days they were a token of ownership. The wedding ring means you’re a slave to your husband.
The argument here is that since the wedding ring had an ugly beginning… an ugly genesis… you’re endorsing that beginning idea by wearing it.
That argument is silly, of course, even if the story being attached to it is true. (And often such stories are not true.) The lady wears the ring for her own reasons: Maybe it reminds her of her husband, reminds her that she is loved, or reminds her of their wedding. She has probably never heard the “token of ownership” story.
And so, the genesis of a thing probably has nothing to do with how someone uses the thing today. And so the history is more than likely irrelevant.
The fallacy, then, is used to enforce conduct. It is similar to guilt by association and other tricks for eliminating conduct, people or ideas.
We also see the elimination trick in the personalizing of arguments. Consider this type of conversation:
Morton: Surely you must support racial equality.
Brian: I support all people being treated equally and well.
Morton: That’s why we have racial preference laws.
Brian: No, any law punishing any race is a bad, dangerous thing.
Morton: You hate them, don’t you?
Morton: You hate Blacks! You hate people of color! You’re a racist!
In this conversation, Brian was talking about laws, and their benefit or harm, as well as stating that all people should be treated equally and well. Morton, however, personalized the issue, precisely so he could get rid of Brian and his argument. He moved the point of the conversation, abruptly and unilaterally, from the rightness of the laws to Brian being a bad person.
These are very typical sorts of elimination tricks. In this case, you chop down the people stating X, Y or Z rather than considering X, Y or Z.
We can bear in mind that nasty people (like racists) do sometimes hide behind false fronts like legal arguments, but to simply presume that anyone not agreeing with you is a racist is intellectual arrogance. It’s also devoid of empathy, treating the other as an object to be destroyed, and not as a person with opinions, feelings and reasons.
Sadly, we’ve been seeing many such attacks recently, and so I recommend that we be very open about calling them barbaric.
How The Trick Works
This trick works very well with opinions that are believed to be held by a majority, or held by the people with real power. In such cases, the victim of the attack – like the woman wearing the ring or like Brian above – is made to feel afraid of painful consequences. And, hopefully, to feel humiliated.
More than that, the fallacy of elimination is aimed at the observers of such arguments, with the intent of intimidating them: Act like her and you’ll be attacked like her.
And so we again see that these fallacies are predominantly efforts to enforce conduct, and on a broader scale rather than just one-on-one if possible. They inform people that they will be shamed, ridiculed and mercilessly attacked if they don’t stick with the dominant opinion, or at least what the enforcer proclaims as the dominant opinion.
You notice that these attacks will usually involve phrases like “we all know,” “it’s the law,” “the council released a statement” and so on. These are intended to make you feel unsafe for leaving the authorized narrative. As such, it’s a threat.
We’ve been seeing the punishment side of this recently in cancel culture – that is, of mobs proclaiming someone guilty of sin and forcing their cowardly (or complicit) employers to fire them. This is a modern version of heretic hunting, functioning via the same dark emotions. And it shows where this fallacy can lead.
What To Keep In Mind
When encountering this attack, you should consider the stakes: This person is serious about hurting you: how badly could they do so? The answer is probably “not too much,” and you’ll probably decide to respond anyway, but it is something to consider.
As usual, the very first thing for you to do is recognize that you’re being attacked and to bear the blow.
Then, if you decide to respond, you have choices:
If the attack isn’t too harsh, and/or if you think the other person has just been emotionally wound up, and isn’t really as nasty as they appear, you can say something like:
Wait just a minute, Bob, I want to understand this: Are you saying that either I must approve of racial preferences and punishments or I’m a racist? What ever happened to being judged not but the color of our skin, but by the content of our character?
Sally, are you saying that everyone wearing a ring is explicitly agreeing to be a slave? Is that the only possible reason for wearing one?
If you’re interested in protecting the people observing the conversation, you might say something like this:
So, you don’t allow the possibility of disagreement with your law? What you’re describing isn’t reason, but dogma. More than that, it seems to me like you’re trying to scare away any potential heretics.
Or, you can just say something like this, as you turn and walk away:
Sure, anyone who doesn’t agree with you is automatically a monster. Of course.
When dealing with this attack, remember that your attacker is probably passing along his or her own fears. In other words, they were frightened by the majority or by the powerful at some time in the past. Thus intimidated, they joined themselves to power, hoping for safety. Slapping heretics is how they demonstrate their continued union with power… it’s how they keep themselves safe.
These people have no right to strike you, of course, but it’s useful to understand that they’re more afraid than you are, and by standing up to them, you’re increasing their fear. As in: Power will see me as a poor advocate and I’ll lose my status.
Now, that doesn’t make their attacks upon you any less bad, but it does provide some perspective. Some people using these fallacies will be sociopaths and others just malicious, but most will be caught in the same fears they are spewing.
Still, if you decide to respond to these attacks, you’ll have to take blows. Not everyone will be persuaded by your arguments, no matter how good, and others will believe you at the moment then fall back afterward. And you can be fairly sure that such people will talk badly about you afterward. Again, it’s usually about making themselves feel safe.
And so, we must be prepared to suffer, and we do that because we care more about what is real and right than the pain that can be imposed upon us.
More next time.