When “They” is One or Two or Maybe Legion

Introduction: This argument can be found on a Youtube presentation by James Lindsay entitled, “Stealing the Motte: Critical Social Justice and the Principle of Charity.” It is one of many arguments he directs against what he calls “critical social justice theory.” It is part of a larger series of audio-clips published under the title of “New Discourses.” This is the parent-site for the publication.

Key Facts: I believe Lindsay is referring to the this paper, published in Hipatia Press. It’s title doesn’t entirely match his own description, but it’s close enough that I do believe this is the one he has in mind.

Text: This is a small portion of text taken from the transcript provided by Youtube. He goes on to elaborate on the details of the article and on his own reasons for referring to social justice as a virus.

I want to focus on the claim that social justice critics refer to their own movement as a virus, treating that as the conclusion of his argument for purposes of this argument.

“I’ve both written and 16:50 spoken in fact about how critical social 16:53 justice is like a virus on our liberal 16:55 societies and I have to do that again 16:56 here because it’s just the best metaphor 17:00 for understanding it but before 17:02 reminding you of that I have to remind 17:06 you also that I’m not characterizing 17:08 them as viruses I’m not making a case 17:11 about them that they don’t make about 17:13 themselves they call themselves viruses 17:16 as well and compare the theory to it 17:19 anyway in activism and so I’m not in any 17:22 way trying to untie him unfairly here as 17:25 I’ve noted before in 2016 to feminist 17:29 scholars Bram foz and Michael Carter 17:31 published an academic paper in a 17:32 relatively small academic journal and it 17:35 carried the title women’s studies as a 17:36 virus institutional feminism effect in 17:39 the projection of danger in that paper 17:42 Falls and Carter make the point that 17:44 women’s studies should see itself 17:45 through the metaphor of the virus 17:49 comparing the discipline if you will in 17:51 favorable terms to other plagues like 17:54 Ebola and HIV and unless you think I 17:57 exaggerate I can quote 17:58 them on this…”

ANALYSIS

Comments: Yes, I found it while reading up on Motte and Bailey doctrines.

Statements: Using the claim critical social justice activists refer to themselves as the conclusion of the argument means we leave a lot of this passage out of the argument (hence the unnumbered statements below). Were we to address the accuracy of Lindsay’s treatment of the article in question, we would need to add a great deal more to the analysis. What I have included here is sufficient to address the relevance of this one article to Lindsay’s generalizations about social justice activism.

I also cleaned up a few things the transcript appears to have gotten wrong. In any event, I believe the argument is as follows.

***

I’ve both written and spoken in fact about how critical social justice is like a virus on our liberal societies and I have to do that again here because it’s just the best metaphor for understanding it but before reminding you of that I have to remind you also that I’m not characterizing them as viruses I’m not making a case about them that they don’t make about themselves.

[1] they call themselves viruses as well and compare the theory to it anyway in (or possibly ‘and’) activism

and so I’m not in any way trying to characterize them unfairly here. as I’ve noted before

[2] in 2016 two feminist scholars Breanne Fahs and Michael Karger published an academic paper in a relatively small academic journal.

and

[3] it carried the title “Women’s Studies as a Virus; Institutional Feminism, affect, and the Projection of Danger”

[4] In that paper Fahs and Carter make the point that women’s studies should see itself through the metaphor of the virus,comparing the discipline if you will in favorable terms to other plagues like Ebola and HIV…”

Diagram: If statement 2 here draws our attention to an article in which two feminists refer to women’s studies as a virus, statements 3 and 4 elaborate on the significance of the paper. These combine together to form the claim that social justice theorists refer to themselves and their own movement as a virus (statement 1). This is then taken as evidence that Lindsay is not characterizing social justice advocates unfairly when he himself describes their movement as a virus, but that is a part of the larger argument which I do not purport to analyze here.

2+3+4 -> 1

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes: Ad Hominem, Anaphora, Anecdotal Reasoning, Authority, Cherry Picking, Hasty Generalization, Poisoning the Well, Principle of Charity.

Ad Hominem: Whatever the reasons Fahs and Karger have for describing feminism as a virus, Lindsay’s own goal is convince his audience that anyone associated with critical social justice theory is a terrible person engaged in terrible things. It is a sustained attack on a broad range of scholarship. Lindsay does not make an effort to show that social justice critics are wrong, so much as that they are dangerous and positively evil. To suggest that his approach to the subject constitutes an ad hominem-circumstantial is putting it mildly.

Anaphora: One of the distinctive features of this presentation is the undisciplined use of anaphoric reference. Lindsay’s use of ‘they’ and ‘them’ throughout the audio enables him to skip a lot of interesting questions about why he is really talking about at any given time. In this passage, the shift from two specific authors publishing a single paper in a “relatively small academic journal” to the claim that social justice theorists as a whole characterize their work as a virus leans rather heavily on Lindsays use of ‘they’ and ‘them.’ In this case, the shift from his evidence to his conclusion entails a jump from feminism to critical social justice theory and a jump from a sample of two to the whole of critical theory. Using this language enables Lindsay to presuppose the relevance of his evidence to his conclusion without stating its terms explicitly.

Anecdotal Reasoning: Insofar as Lindsay is providing a story about a single paper in support of a sweeping generalization about a broad range of scholarship, this constitutes a good example of anecdotal reasoning.

Authority: One of the more charitable ways of interpreting this argument would be to treat it as an authority-based argument. I say it’s charitable, because the alternative is to suggest that a same of two authors is sufficient to speak for the entirely of scholars identifying themselves as critical theorists, which invites the Hasty Generalization comments below. If on the other hand, Lindsay wishes to suggest that Fahs and Karger have authority to speak on a nature of this trend because they are part of it, that is at least a little more interesting. Still, there is little reason to believe these two scholars have the authority to define the entirety of social justice scholarship. Even their own article falls well short of such a claim, being focused on women’s studies.

Cherry Picking: The selection of a single article employing language comparable to Lindsay’s own smacks of cherry picking.

Hasty Generalization: A sample of one article and two feminists simply is not enough evidence to demonstrate, as Lindsay claims that this is how critical social justice advocates describe themselves. Its not even close.

Interactional Eclipse: One big problem with describing any human beings or movement of human beings in terms of a virus is that any descriptive value this account might have is likely to be overshadowed by the pejorative implications. Fahs and Karger may have been happy to use an exciting narrative for feminism, but for his own part, Lindsay is even happier to use a metaphor that effectively dehumanizes Fahs and Karger, and if he has his way, everyone associated with social justice or critical theory. In effect, the insult here is is the point. The argument, for Linday, at any rate, is little more than a pretext for that insult.

Poisoning the Well: This entire Youtube presentation is an effort to convince Lindsay’s audience that social justice critics are out to destroy liberal society, and hence, they are unworthy of the principle of charity. To say that this is an exercise in poisoning the well is also putting it mildly.

Principle of Charity: I can think of two ways to interpret the use of a single article by two scholars within one sub-field associated with social justice to characterize all of the social justice movement. One way is to think of it as a representative sample, and the other is to think of it as an authority-based argument. Either way, the argument fails.

Evaluation: The argument fails because this one article simply isn’t sufficient to warrant a generalization about social justice critics as a whole.

Final Thoughts: This is of course part of a much larger argument. Independent of his claim that social justice theorists characterize themselves as a virus, Lindsay does offer his own reasons for thinking of critical social justice theory as a virus. Whether or not these are worthy of consideration is another question.

There is another angle here insofar we could try to unpack Lindsay’s phrasing. The term “critical social justice activism” fuses together quite a few different things. I don’t think he is wrong in suspecting that these things are related, but the effort to just fuse them all into one term is a little disconcerting, particularly when it is couple with clear efforts to poison the well for anyone associated with this amalgam. Whether or not Lindsay’s work is worth the effort is also another question.

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