Who remembers AP English? Anyone? Let me give you a quick reminder: you read life changing literature (whether you appreciated it or not), wrote at the speed of light, and learned how to turn a thesis that could barely stand on two clauses into a three-page paper. My last point is the most devastating. Unfortunately, the AP curriculum doesn’t require educators to teach students about bad arguments, or logical fallacies. They’re easy to fall into, and once you start, it’s hard to stop.
I fear that bad arguments are starting to proliferate thanks to the surplus of opinion on the internet. Whatever slippery slope you fear or generalization you secretly believe is true, you can find it by the dozens. And those extremes sell: a blog post that simplifies a complex social movement into “People who don’t support us hate us” is an easier message to digest while reading your phone on the train than, “Well, it’s actually about a series of principles that mean…”
Take the modern feminist movement, for example. I, a good feminist, have abused my words for the cause. I bet you have, too. The either/or logical fallacy of “You’re either with us, or against us” oversimplifies the argument by reducing it to two sides, evidenced by hate for celebrities who refuse to explicitly state, “I am a feminist” (i.e. Shailene Woodley, even if her counter argument is equally as silly). I’ve used feminism to make some pretty bad arguments, and while I’m willing to take some of the blame, I’d like to share it with the movement as a whole for not only condoning logical fallacy, but encouraging it. But why? How? And what are the most common logical fallacies, again?
- The Slippery Slope: “If A happens, then B will happen…and eventually, X, Y, and Z will destroy the foundation of the feminist movement.” For fear of damaging the cause and condoning sexism, feminists feel the need to deny all traces of the roots of sexism, or inequality. Recently, I read an article called “Stop Looking for ‘Hardwired’ Differences in Male and Female Brains” on Popular Science. The article argued that studies showed “only a minor or negligible difference between men and women[‘s]” brains and “In the rare cases where actual psychological differences exist, they cannot be attributed to innate neurology alone.” How true the claim of nurture trumping nature matters less to me than the reason the argument needs to be made. Why are feminists so afraid of nature being the cause of differences between men and women? Using the slippery slope fallacy, it’s easy to tell: if feminists agree that there are natural neurological differences between the sexes, then they also must agree that there are natural cognitive differences, too. If they agree that men and women think differently, then they fear that they invite speculation as to which sex is superior cognitively: which sex is smarter? Which sex is better at math? If others conclude that one sex is “smarter,” then it will lead them to conclude that sexism is justified because women are “stupid.” So, feminism supports “sameness” between the sexes — if we’re all the same, we can’t be unequal. Unfortunately, this can make the feminist movement look stubborn and anti-science; if feminism can’t face the facts, then what else is the movement ignoring? Logical fix: differences don’t have to indicate a hierarchy. Instead, we should focus on equally valuing individuals for who they are, and not for their body parts: “The life of a man or a woman is of equal value, and gender or sex shouldn’t change a person’s worth.”
- Ad Populum: “If you’re truly for women’s rights, you’ll call yourself a feminist.” I hate admitting it, but there have been numerous times when, after hearing a woman or man hesitate when answering the question “Are you a feminist?” I think, “They’re kind of sexist.” Because in my mind, and the minds of many young women, someone who is a feminist supports women’s rights, and someone who is not a feminist does not support women’s rights. The simplest definition of feminism is, “the belief and aim that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men” from Oxford’s dictionary. Who doesn’t support that? There’s something about the power of the buzzword “feminist”: if only we can get everyone to call themselves a feminist, then we can eradicate sexism, normalize gender equality, and lose the label of militant social radicals. If we all have the same name, then we have a stronger, unified movement with the ability to enact more change. But that’s the main problem with demanding that all people who support equality between the sexes call themselves “feminists” — it only affirms stereotypes that feminism is an exclusive and narrow movement. Some people don’t like labels. Some people don’t like the word “feminist” and prefer the term “humanist.” It looks down upon a group of people who don’t seem to fit with mainstream feminism, people who are feeling misunderstood and ostracized by a social movement that rejects their lack of enthusiasm for quick buzzwords and labels. Logical Fix: instead of asking, “Are you a feminist?” or “Do you think the sexes are equal?” and getting into a sticky situation of what “equality” really means and what “feminism” really means (even though there’s a dictionary definition, it’s hard to argue that those two powerful words have different significance to different people), ask these simple questions: “Do you value people of both sexes/genders equally? Do you embody those views in your everyday life?” So, instead of demanding that men and women call themselves one word over the other, the feminist movement simply asks that they act like feminists. Actions, after all, speak louder than words.
- Moral Equivalence: “Women who don’t support feminism are basically Hitler,” or why bell hooks called Beyoncé a “terrorist.” bell hooks is a very big deal in the feminist world, so when she said, “I see a part of Beyoncé that is in fact anti-feminist — that is a terrorist, especially in terms of the impact on young girls” because of her Time cover, I was a little surprised. A terrorist? You mean the kind of person who commits a violent act for a political, religious, or social goal? No. Beyoncé is not a terrorist, even if her Time cover was explicitly anti-gender equality (which it definitely wasn’t). Logical Fix: don’t use crazy-people language, like: ” X is basically modern-day slavery” or “Y is basically gang rape.” If you need to add an adverb before using words like “Dictator” or “rape,” don’t use the word. I read the content from websites like Jezebel and Thought Catalog almost daily, and it is such a turnoff when every sexist man mentioned suddenly becomes “basically a white supremacist Neo Nazi.” Some men are. But most aren’t. And no one, absolutely no one, is literally Hitler.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of logical fallacies. I haven’t even covered the Straw Man, Red Herring, Ad Hominem, Circular Argument, Begging the Claim, Genetic Fallacy, Hasty Generalization, or Post Hoc, though each intertwine with the arguments I made above.
I don’t believe in sacrificing rhetoric to make a point. Choose your words well. Remember that words mean different things to different people; throwing the dictionary at someone is similar to throwing the Bible. Get to the point succinctly and use few comparisons — it’ll help you and your audience understand your point better without muddling up your words. And remember that while feminism has developed its own lexicon and logic, it’s important to make argument that use simple, universal language to convey simple, universal truths: people are valuable and have human worth. No ifs, ands, or buts.