A Silent Pass?

Introduction: This quote appears expresses theme commonly appearing in progressive rhetoric of late, namely, the notion that phrases like “not all white people” are disingenuous and unnecessary responses to statements critical of whites. Similar arguments are made in other contexts of social justice advocacy and debate (e.g. sexism with “not all men.”)

Key Facts: The meme itself appears to be a quote from @chloemadaleine. I found a twitter account matching the name in question, but it is protected. So, I do not know of any particular details regarding the context in which this statement might have been made. As the meme is circulating about the net these days, it does occur to me that many will experience the argument with no more contextual than I have myself at this point.

Text: “If you’re white and not racist, you will not give a fuck about black people calling white people racist now. Because you know that what you’re saying does not apply to you. If you’re offended, you’re racist. It’s simple.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: The quote above arises out of a problem in the rhetoric of modern progressivism, namely an effort to address concerns about larger, systemic, patterns of social injustice (in this case racism) while retaining rhetoric that still calls out specific people for specific forms of behavior. The notion that some people are racist and some people aren’t hearkens back to more conventional definitions of racism, treating it as a toxic personal orientation whereas the tendency to produce sweeping generalizations is driven largely by an interest in racism as a larger social force which by definition functions to benefit white people. Either definition of racism works just fine on its own, but contemporary social justice advocates (at least in popular circles) tend to invoke the individualized model as accusation even as they insist on larger systemic models when defining what does or doesn’t count as racism. There may be scholars who handle this with more consistency, but the rhetoric of social justice seems caught between its own paradigm and those it disavows without quite leaving behind.

Critics of contemporary social justice advocates typically have a much easier time of it, often insisting on personal models of racism as the only ones that count, thus rendering discrimination against white people pretty much the same as discrimination against persons of color. This too distorts a lot of important issues.

Statements: I am treating item ‘b’ as adding emphasis rather than as a substantive part of the argument. It was tempting to think of a missing assumption in the form of a biconditional statement to the effect that such statements are objectionable/offensive to white people if and only if the white people in question are racist, but this doesn’t seem necessary. The actual text from the meme itself is sufficient to make sense of the argument.

[1] If you’re white and not racist, you will not give a fuck about black people calling white people racist now.

[a] Because

[2] [If you’re white and not racist] you know that what they’re saying does not apply to you.

[3] If you’re offended, you’re racist.

[b] It’s simple.”

Diagram: Unfortunately, the text only gives us one inference indicator [a] which tells us that statement 2 is a reason for something (surely, statement 1). Statement 3 is thrown in without any guidance as it to its relationship to the rest. So, we end up with several possible diagrams. We can start with an inference from 2 to1. Statement 3 is then either irrelevant commentary (diagram I), a second reason to accept statement 1 (diagram II), or a conclusion drawn from statement 1 (diagram III). Alternatively, statement 3 is a separate inference from statement 2 (diagram IV).

I’m inclined to think diagrams 3 and 4 are the most plausible, leaving us with either her last point as her main point or two separate conclusions, one suggesting that non-racists should not be threatened by statements about white racism and one suggesting that anyone who is threatened is guilty as charged, so to speak. Statement 3 packs a Hell of a punch, making it unwise to treat as irrelevant and also unlikely that the line was meant as a mere reason to think of something else. It either shares the stage wit the author’s first point as a final conclusion in its own right, or it was the whole point all along.

Discussion: This topic raises the following issues; Ad Hominem, False Alternatives, Interactional Eclipse, Masked Man Fallacy, Micro-Reasoning, Motte and Baily Doctrines, Bo True Scotsman Fallacy, Satire, Thought Policing, Transposition.

Ad Hominem: The suggestion that any whites who object to generalized statements about white racism must therefore themselves be racists is a classic ad hominem. It effectively refutes any concerns they might offer on the basis of a direct personal attack. Whether this is best thought of as a simple ad hominem (abusive) or the more complex ad hominem (circumstantial) is another question. As it does effectively comment on the motives and biases that whites bring to the issue, it is probably best to consider it a circumstantial.

False Alternatives: Insofar as this argument asks us to distinguish between white people who are racists and those who are not, this argument presents us with false alternatives. In fact, it does so on terms which should not arise at all in account taking the possibility of systemic racism seriously. Simply put, if racism is a feature if society as a whole, then the issue is not who is or is not racist; it is whether or not their specific words and deeds are contributing to racism in any way. It should go without saying under such a view that anyone could fall into racist patterns of thinking and talking. We can even suggest that white people might be more prone to this than others, or at least that we may plug into these patterns in particular ways. What we cannot do with any consistency is divide people (white or otherwise) into a simple binary set of those who are racist and those who are not.

Interactional Eclipse: Insofar as the argument accuses any white person objecting to statements about white racism of being racist in their own right, its interactional significance is rather high. It effectively sends a signal to white people that they should think twice before expressing disagreement. Drawing this line in the sand, so to speak, may well prove more significant than any of the intellectual merits of the argument.

Masked Man Fallacy: One of the more interesting angles to this argument lies in the way it uses definition by extension to answer problems arising from definition by intention. Many of the problems alluded to here arise when statements about white racism appear to implicate whites as a universal class. This can be done explicitly (by saying “all whites” or something to that effect) or by implication (e.g. “white people are like…), which suggests a universal implication without explicitly asserting the quantifier. Either way, a good portion of the objections here come directly from concerns about the possible unfairness or inaccuracy of such categorical assertions. The argument then asks those concerned about such problems to think of themselves as the exception and hence to drop their objections. The problem with this approach lies in the fact that the objections arise precisely because such statements do not admit of exceptions. In effect, the argument answers a question about the intentional meaning of an assertion (everyone?) by virtue of an unspoken extensional consideration (well, not me!).

It should also be said that some white people might object to categorical assertions about white people without necessarily thinking of themselves as the exceptions.

Micro-Reasoning: This was likely a tweet to begin with, and the argument is certainly short. There is only so much precision that can be expected of reasoning presented with such brevity.

Motte and Baily Doctrines: I think it’s fair to see this argument as an attempt to shift between motte and baily (perhaps to defend the bailey from the motte). If we imagine a qualified statement (e.g. ‘some white people do x’) as the motte and a categorical assertion along the same lines (e.g. ‘white people do x’ or even ‘all white people do x’) as the bailey, this argument appears to be a case of someone trying to defend the bailey from the confines of the motte. In effect, the author is saying that there is no need to assert the existence of exceptions because you can just imagine yourself as one of them.

No True Scotsman Fallacy: Normally this fallacy is applied in an effort to defend a positive generalization, but you could see this argument as an invitation for people to imagine themselves as the obvious exception to a negative generalization. You may fit in this awful category, but you’re not REALLY one of them. You get a pass! And since you get a pass, there will be no need to question the generalization, which I won’t be rethinking, because anyone who doesn’t fit the narrative also gets that free pass and we are all good, right?

This too is the NTS fallacy.

Satire: I’ve been dumping on this argument pretty hard, but there is at least one way of thinking about it that might redeem the argument a bit, as a sort of satirical ladder which must be pulled up after one has climbed it. It is as if the author is entertaining the prospect of an exception, only to suggest that that is in itself absurd. What if I really do try to imagine myself as a non-racist? Sure, I’m liberal. Sure, I have black friends (and other clich├ęs). Sure, I disavow racism, and try hard not to discriminate, but can I really say that I am completely free of racist thoughts and deeds? What about that one thing I said last year that I’m still kicking myself about? And then there was that one time, …I mean, I didn’t mean to, but… The point here is that while we can distinguish between people whose personal orientation is more or less consciously racist, we probably cannot point to a person whose thoughts and deeds do not reflect racist assumptions under any circumstances. This is at least one of the implications of systemic racism.

By this approach, the point of the argument would be to let the would-be exception struggle with their own self-awareness a bit, and in the end hopefully conclude they are not so free of racism after all. In effect, the argument starts off by letting people try to make a distinction between racist and non-racist white people only to realize the distinction is untenable.

Whether or not this is what the original author had in mind, I cannot say. I do think that much of the rhetoric for which this kind of argument could be offered as a defense is far more personal and far less subtle than would be consistent with this approach. Simply put, when someone is called racist, the implication is virtually always about their own personal orientation and even moral characteristics. Such accusations are not (normally) about abstract connections to large-scale patterns of social inequity.

Thought Policing: Insofar as the argument effectively stigmatizes any dissenting views, this does suggest a degree of thought policing. That will work better in some contexts than others, but then again it also appears more in some contexts than others.

Transposition: In diagram 2, the inference from 3 to 1 would work by transposition. This is also true of the inference from 1 to 3 in diagram 3. Suffice to say that those inferences are deductively valid.

Evaluation: Obviously, I do not consider this argument sound. Whatever the diagram, the main problem is the implausibility of the central notion that one might object if and only if she is racist. There are a few different ways to imagine this connection, but none of them really work, So, statement 2 doesn’t work as a starting premise for any version of this argument.

Final Thoughts: There is another problem at the root of all those associated with this argument. It’s choice people make in their rhetoric, and that choice involves a real trade-off in terms of the impact one makes on a conversation. Simply put, qualified statements don’t have anywhere near the impact that generalizations (even implied generalizations) can generate. Once people can imagine themselves as one of the good guys, it becomes all to easy to do just that and a nation full of people who know damned well there is a problem can’t seem to find anyone actually responsible for doing anything about it. Also, it doesn’t help that qualified statements are often quantified in vague ways. Changing “all whites are racist” to “some whites are racist” or even “many whites are racist” weakens the claim without actually adding much in the way of precision. Under these circumstances, the temptation to go with a generalization is certainly strong. Leaving out quantifiers altogether (e.g. ‘whites are racist’) still gives an author the strength of a generalization while reserving the possibility of admitting exemptions when pressed about it. So, this kind of quasi-universal language seems to have become a common solution to the problem.

Not surprisingly, a range of would-be allies and folks who fancy themselves as non-racist or even anti-racist are uncomfortable hearing statements that implicate them in racist thought and practice. Hence, the “not all…” rejoinders. Naturally, such responses weaken the impact of the claims in question and often serve to derail the conversation altogether as people haggle over the possibility that some white folks might not be so bad. Strong advocates of social justice thus have an interest in silencing these rejoinders, some of which might be thought of as sealioning or engaging in philosophy dude-bro behavior. Hence, we get arguments like the one presented here.

The problem is that the problem is real, just as the original problem is real.

Pardon me: The problem (with this argument and others like it) is that the problem (of exceptions to sweeping generalizations) is real, just as the original problem (racism) is real.

People have to decide which of these matters more to them and what they want to do about it. This argument reflects a clear choice of priorities; but it also reflects an attempt to force the issue in some very problematic ways.

Corporate Peoples

Introduction: In August of 2011, then Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney made these comments during a campaign speech. Romney begins this segment by underscoring the need to balance the national budget and ensure that Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are properly funded. He then mentions raising taxes as an option which he does not favor. When an audience member’s suggested that corporations could be taxed, Romney produces the argument we are looking at here. So, the larger context of the discussion is a question about a balanced budget and the prospect of taxing corporations, but the specific point of this argument is the claim that corporations are (in some sense) people.

Key Facts: This conversation takes place in the wake of a controversial Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, 2010. In this decision, SCOTUS affirmed that corporations are persons under U.S. law and held that their free speech rights under the the First Amendment preclude government specific regulations governing contributions to political campaigns. Although the notion that corporations are persons under the law did not originate with Citizens United, this particular application of the principle was sufficiently controversial to draw public attention (and criticism) to the concept. So, Romney’s response to his hecklers effectively evoked the language of the court and steered the conversation squarely into ongoing debate over Citizens United.

Text: The Youtube transcript for this video wasn’t very helpful, so most of this is my own transcription. I have cleaned up the text a bit, omitting an effort to follow up on Romney’s initial point about taxation, and leaving out comments from the audience to which Romney is clearly responding. I did leave some conversational repair in the text.

“Corporations are people, my friend. …Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. So… Where do you think it goes? What? What? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People’s pockets. Okay. Human beings my friends.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: As part of the 2012 political campaign, this specific argument is a bit dated. On the other hand, the notion that corporations are people (or persons) is still part of the public landscape, and many still find this notion quite objectionable. Romney’s reasoning is still representative of much of the pro Citizens United approach to the subject.

It is also worth bearing in mind that this argument takes unfolds under less-than-ideal conditions. Romney is responding to hecklers. His hecklers aren’t the worst you could imagine, and his efforts to reason with them are better than many speakers might attempt. Still, this is not the most idea context for a thoughtful conversation about taxation.

Statements: Even this simplified transcript contains a number of things that don’t contribute directly to the argument. Ultimately, the passage provides us with two clear statements on the subject.

[1] Corporations are people.

my friend.

…Of course they are.

[2] Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.

So…

Where do you think it goes?

What? What?

Whose pockets? Whose pockets?

[2] People’s pockets.

Okay.

[2] Human beings my friends.”

Diagram: This is a simple argument in which a single premise (articulated in whole or in part, several times) is offered in support of a single conclusion.

2 ->1

Discussion: This argument presents the following themes; Ambiguity, Composition, Equivocation, Footing, Misplaced Literalism, Motte and Bailey Doctrines, Principle of Charity, Voicing.

Ambiguity: The conclusion of Romney’s argument can be interpreted in at least 2 different ways; one in which the point is to make a direct statement about the nature of corporations (i.e. to say that they have the characteristics of personhood, at least insofar as U.S. law is concerned), and another in which he is using the language figuratively to remind people that you cannot penalize a corporation (whatever its actual nature) without penalizing people. In the second of the two interpretations, statement 1 could be read more like; “Whatever you do to corporations, you do to people.” We could call these two approaches ‘the relatively literal’ interpretation and the ‘figurative’ interpretation.

There is a second ambiguity in this argument insofar as the reference to corporations as ‘people’ evokes the concept of corporate personhood, but not exactly. It is common to think of ‘people’ as a plural reference to persons, or as a reference to collective groups of persons, but personhood can sometimes be attributed to non-human beings such as other entities, animals, or fictional characters. Simply put, a person need not be a human being whereas the plural reference to people would normally be taken to apply only to a bunch of human beings. This is a distinction not always observed in conversations about Citizens United, but Romney’s failure to say ‘person’ instead of ‘people’complicates the issue a bit. If we take his specific wording to mean literally human beings, then this points us away from the likelihood that he meant to invoke the legal significance of corporate personhood.

Composition: If we assume the argument is meant to consistently advocate a relatively literal approach to corporate personhood, it commits the fallacy of division. The fact that costs incurred by a corporation will impact those people investing in (or otherwise doing business with) a corporation doesn’t mean that the corporation itself is a person, literally or otherwise. Under this interpretation, this argument simply takes an attribute of those who make up and do business with corporations and attributes it to the corporations themselves.

Equivocation: Another way of thinking about this argument would be to think of Romney as actually shifting his own interpretation of his main point between his premise and his conclusion. In the conclusion, he is attributing the trait of personhood to corporations whereas in his premise Romney is merely suggesting that corporations impact the welfare of people. The meaning of ‘people’ itself might be said to shift between Romney’s premise and his conclusion. Of course, if this is the case, then Romney’s argument simply commits the fallacy of equivocation, so this rather complex way of interpreting the argument doesn’t really improve on one treating it as consistently advocating a relatively literal interpretation of corporate personhood.

There is a second equivocation nested into the first, and has to do with who Romney is talking about when he talks about ‘people.’ His own language evokes a seemingly egalitarian sense of the impact that corporate taxation has on people in general, but this raises questions about how corporate profits are distributed between investors and CEOs, or reinvested in the business, or even magnified or diminished through fluctuations in the stock market. There are lots of twists and turns in the business world that can channel profits away from some or all of the people who might be involved in a corporation. By simply treating corporations as people, even figuratively, Romney avoids any need to account for these possibilities, offering up instead a sense that what we do to corporations ultimately impacts people. In effect, he invites us to imagine corporate profits will go to the average American, knowing full well that quite often this is simply not the case.

Footing: It is interesting to note that Romney repeatedly refers to his audience, and even his hecklers, as ‘friends,’ This suggests a conscious effort to emphasize solidarity with them. This works in concert with his efforts to suggest that corporate profits lead to ‘people’ in general. What Romney uses strategic ambiguity to suggest in his argument is thus echoed in his efforts to cast the conversation as one occurring between friends. he is thus minimizing real differences and real conflicts within the American political economy both in his explicit argument and in his contextualization of that argument.

Misplaced Literalism: If Romney language was meant figuratively, then the relatively literal interpretation of his argument would be a mistake. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear from his actual statements which approach he has in mind, and his choice to assert that ‘corporations are people’ is conspicuous in the context of life just after Citizens United. It doesn’t match the language of the decision precisely, but neither does it fall into any more common patterns for talking about the issue, so it seems reasonable to suspect that he meant to evoke the principles announced in that decision. I do not see a clear basis for settling this question.

Motte and Bailey Doctrines: This might actually be a good example of a motte and bailey doctrine in action. Insofar as the relatively literal interpretation of Romney’s conclusion would make it an expression of corporate personhood as the Supreme Court currently applies the concept. This concept then provides a kind of short-hand in which the actual rights persons are applied to corporations as a matter of doctrine (the bailey), even as those seeking to explain this principle may frequently do so by reminding us that real people will be impacted by anything that effects a corporation (the motte). In effect, a common sense reminder about the real world impact that corporations have on people serves to provide an apparently sound defense for a range of ideas about how corporations may exercise the rights of a person in ways that may actually hurt actual human beings.

Principle of Charity: The relatively literal interpretation of Romney’s argument likely commits the fallacy of Composition (see above). Alternatively, the figurative interpretation is less clearly fallacious, but it does leave unanswered a lot of questions about the real impact that taxes on corporations will have on people. Romney may have answers for these questions, but they do not come out in this argument (the notion that corporations are people enables him to skip these questions). Barring sound reason to think Romney intends his conclusion to be interpreted in the relatively literal sense, the principle of charity would point to the second interpretation of the argument as the best way to go.

Voicing: Insofar as Romney asserts that corporations are people, his language evokes the court’s ruling in Citizens United (along with a range of related case law). In effect, he is giving voice to Supreme Court’s views on this subject by evoking their language (or something close to it) in his own campaign. This also means, Romney’s hecklers (and other critics) are effectively fighting back against the Supreme Court when they criticize Romney over this statement. So, the U.S Supreme Court acquires a presence in the immediate context of this speech (and in turn, within the 2012 Presidential campaign) through the voice of Romney.

Evaluation: At the end of the day, I do think the best way to approach this would be to apply the principle of charity to Romney’s argument, treat it as a figurative way of reminding us what happens to corporations affects people and evaluate the argument on that basis. That said…

Statement 2: This statement is true, but only in the most trivial sense of the word. Romney may wish us to think of corporate earnings as going to people in general (or specifically to those investing in, working for, or working with corporations), but this does not always happen (as a former corporate raider like Romney would know very well). We might say that the earnings will ultimately go to some persons, but we have little reason to believe they will be distributed equitably to ‘people’ in some general sense. This makes the abstract recipient of earnings (‘people’) that Romney references more than a little suspect.

Inference from 2 to 1: This inference is weak at best. Even using a highly figurative approach to Romney’s conclusion, he is avoiding all sorts of questions about how different policies impact people with different roles in the economy. the fact of the matter is corporate prosperity does not necessarily lead to prosperity for the general public, or even for the majority of those involved in a given corporation. What happens to corporations does not translate directly into real world impact on actual people. Any such impact is filtered through a range of legal and political arrangements which commonly turn good news into bad for selected parties and visa versa.

Hell, raising corporate taxes might even be a bad idea, as Romney clearly believes, but this argument does not help us to understand that.

The argument is unsound because the reasons given provide little support for the conclusion.

Final thoughts: I suppose in the end the biggest problem with this entire discussion lies in the mythic language in which it takes place. Whether we are to take that language literally or figuratively, it does nothing to help us understand the real world impact of corporate taxation or any other economic policies. We could imagine thoughtful discussion of the pros and cons of shifting more of the tax burden to corporations. That conversation simply did not take place at this event.

Motte and Bailey Doctrines, Volume II

I rambled on at length about motte and bailey doctrines in a previous post. Suffice to say that this tool of critical thinking is more than a little problematic. That said, like a lot of fallacy labels and comparable forms of critical, the label of a ‘motte and bailey doctrine’ has a lot of intuitive appeal. Properly used, it might even help us identify erroneous reasoning and communicate something about the errors in question.

The question is, how best to use this criticism in practice?

I’d say that you start by asking these questions:

  1. What is the motte? Note that most discussions of this subject seem to assume that the motte variation of a given position is true (even a ‘trolls truism’ to use Shackel’s language), but I’m not sure that this need always be the case. It seems to me that it would suffice to find a variation in a position that is relatively easy to support and hence likely to be accepted as true. One could always hold out the possibility that the motte is also wrong in the end.
  2. What is bailey? Here, I do think it an essential feature of the bailey that it should be demonstrably false, or at least highly repugnant to one side of a given debate.
  3. What is the difference between them? (Note that if that difference matters, one should be able to show that the motte does not actually entail the bailey. It’s only a motte and bailey doctrine if the shift between them is capricious. If, on the other hand, the bailey is logically entailed by the motte, you may have the beginnings of a reductio ad absurdum, using the bailey as the grounds for deducing an absurd conclusion from stronger position.)
  4. Are you facing a genuinely capricious shift between the motte and the bailey? It’s not enough to be aware of different variations of the same position. What makes these doctrines a problem is the duplicitous shift from one to the other at the convenience of the doctrines proponent(s). This can occur because an individual is making the shift herself, either during the course of a specific argument or from one context to another. It can also occur because there is something about the social context of public debate that generates relatively consistent differences between the version of a given position produced for some conversations and those produced for others. The point here is that a genuine motte and bailey doctrine does merely present someone with variations in the position in question; it presents those variations in such a manner as to create an unfair burden for potential critics.
  5. Can you refute the bailey? Can you actually show that the bailey is wrong? If you can’t, then noting the shift between motte and bailey isn’t really going to get you anywhere.
  6. Are you missing anything? As with any fallacy accusation, it’ always worth considering whether or not there is something about the context of the issue at hand that makes reasoning that would normally be erroneous relevant after all. There is no formula for this, but many of the the standard fallacies come with variations that are actually reasonable arguments. (Alternatively, they parallel reasonable arguments which could easily be mistaken for their fallacious variants.) The notion of a motte and bailey doctrine is no exception to this problem.
  7. Are there better ways of pointing out the problem? For example, if you think you are facing a motte and bailey doctrine, consider the possibility that the argument also commits the fallacy equivocation or amphibology. If saying this will give you a cleaner counter-argument, then that may be the way to go. If that is not the case, or if you really want to underscore the strategic manipulation of large-scale messaging, then perhaps it’s best to deploy the accusation that someone is advocating a motte and bailey doctrine after all, but that will not always be the best way to illustrate the problem.

If after answering all these questions, you think you are in a position to address a position by calling it out as a motte and bailey doctrine, then go for it! Your answers to questions 1-5 should probably find their way somewhere into your account of the issue. Questions 6 and 7 have been effectively answered in your decision to make the criticism in the first place.