A Meme of Race

ctzeorzw8aqoujcIntroduction: This meme uses an observation about race to make an argument about the relative significance of race and personal decisions in determining success or failure in life.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: “3 men in 3 different positions. In America, color doesn’t define your future. Your choices do.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: I don’t know anything in particular about the history of this meme, or about the specific circumstances of those men pictured in it. It’s probably fair to think of this as one round in the culture wars. The absence of context is of course one of the characteristics of argumentation-by-meme. In effect, this lack of context serves to encourage readers to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions about the issues in question.

Statements: The components of the argument are represented below. Two possible missing assumptions have been added (in blue).

[1] 3 men in 3 different positions.

[2] In America, color doesn’t define your future.

[3] Your choices do [define your future in America].

[4a][Success or failure is best explained in terms of a single cause.]

[4b][If race determined the success or failure in a person’s life, we would expect all three of the black men in this picture to occupy similar roles in life.]

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; false alternatives, micro-reasoning, missing assumptions.

False Alternatives: There are a few ways to model the reasoning in this argument, but it’s tough to get around the presentation of two (mutually exclusive) options as the totally universe of possible explanations for success or failure in life.

Micro-Reasoning: As with most memes, this argument reduces a complex issue to an extraordinarily small text.

Missing Assertions: It may be helpful to think of this argument as resting on a missing assumption. I have supplied two different variations of this missing assumption. When either assumption is added, the inference is perhaps a bit more cogent, but the truth value of the assumption is questionable at best. So, adding these assumptions doesn’t improve the soundness of the argument too much, though it may help to clarify the nature of the issues in question.

20161216_173528-copyDiagram: I can think of a several different ways to model the reasoning in this argument. I am presenting 3 of them here:

Option alpha: This approach leaves out the addition of a missing assumption. Statement 1 is thus taken to prove two separate claims, all on it’s own.

Option beta: In this example, missing assumption 4a is added to statement 1. The two together are taken to prove both statement 2 and statement 3. The additional assumption helps to explain why statement 1 might lead to statements 2 and 3, but as this assumption is of dubious truth value this simply transforms the problem from questions about the  cogency of the inference to one about the truth value of one of its premises.

Option boo: In this version, statement 1 is combined with missing assumption 4b (that the variety of life outcomes is consistent with the notion that race determines those outcomes). The to together are taken to prove the truth of statement 2 which is then taken to prove the truth of statement 3.

Note: The reason statements 2 and 3 are represented here in the form of a serial argument rather than separate conclusions in a divergent argument is that the missing assumption focuses attention on statement 2 without contributing directly to statement 3. The notion that statement 2 would then provide evidence for statement 3 seems the best way to proceed from there.

Evaluation: No version of this argument comes out sound, because the argument turns on false alternatives no matter how you look at it. In option alpha, the false alternatives leaves conclusion 2 and 3 unsupported by assumption 1. In option beta, the false alternatives have been expressed directly in terms of a missing assumption, but that assumption is likely false. In option boo, the missing assumption has been articulated in terms of a conditional statement, but that statement too is clearly false. No matter how we set this argument up, it turns on an unrealistically narrow set of possibilities.

Why does every version of this argument turn on false assumptions? Because it addresses the question of what makes the difference in the lives of these men as though a single causative factor will account for the difference rather than a combination of different factors. The notion, for example, that race might make some outcomes more or less likely than others without totally determining the outcome is simply not considered in the text of this meme. So, whether race is construed as a direct biological cause (as racists would have it) or a social construction (as those interested in social justice might suggest), the meme sets aside any efforts to consider how racial factors could interact with other issues such as class, religion, family background, or personal resilience to produce an account of these different life trajectories.

Final Thoughts: In addition to the sloppy argument, it’s tempting to suggest there is something prurient about this meme. It invites all of us to entertain questions about what makes the difference success and failure for black men. For most of us, that is a question about someone else, which is probably what the author of the meme has in mind.

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