21 June, 2011

Fallacy Week: The Shocking Behavior Fallacy & The Suddenly Specific Definition Fallacy

Hi guys it's FALLACY WEEK! Every day you get some fallacy action from a post I made a super long time ago at LOVE-NOS.

The Shocking Behavior Fallacy

MARY: My nephew Ralph has autism and it’s really sad. He insists on watching Thomas the Tank Engine every day, and he’s sixteen.
JOHN: Why is that sad? There’s nothing inherently wrong with an older person liking things that are aimed at kids. I feel like in our society, people label a lot of things as problems that aren’t actually problems.
MARY: That’s really insensitive. Ralph bites himself so badly that he has to go to the hospital.

John didn’t say that it’s not a problem to seriously hurt yourself, nor did he say that Ralph doesn’t have any problems. But Mary reacted as though he did say that, and now John is knocked off balance. He wonders, did he say that? How can he explain that that has nothing to do with what he was saying? Is there anything he can say now to avoid giving the impression that he thinks self-injury is okay?
In the Shocking Behavior Fallacy, you can use a shocking behavior to excuse something unrelated that you did to or said about the person who has the behavior. The fallacy functions by changing a very specific statement to a general one. Mary changed John’s specific statement–watching Thomas the Tank Engine is okay–to a very general statement–everything Ralph does is okay. Now she can prove John wrong by giving an example of something Ralph does that is not okay.

(Fun fact: This is actually one of the most dangerous fallacies in use. By equating one thing a person does with everything that person does, it creates a class of people about whose treatment no one is allowed to complain. Let’s change the example a little and say that Mary is a staff person working in an institution, and every time she sees Ralph trying to watch Thomas the Tank Engine she takes points away from him, which means that he doesn’t get to go on day trips. John thinks that Mary is micromanaging Ralph’s choices in an abusive way. Mary responds that Ralph has to be monitored closely and dealt with harshly because his problems are so severe; he bites himself, remember?
Professionals can fall into an inverse of the Shocking Behavior Fallacy, where instead of going from specific to general to shocking behavior, they go from shocking behavior to general to specific. Ralph has a really big problem, but instead of thinking of it as one problem, Mary starts thinking of it as who Ralph is. So whenever Mary sees Ralph doing something she doesn’t agree with, she responds as if he is biting himself. The results can be horrifying.)

The Suddenly Specific Definition Fallacy

JOHN: It bothers me that doctors tell pregnant women that people with Down Syndrome can’t count change. They advise women to abort people like me, when they don’t even know what someone with Down Syndrome can do.
MARY: But most people with Down Syndrome aren’t like you. Just think, it would be so hard to have a kid who could never live on their own.

In this fallacy, you tell a person with a disability that they can’t use their feelings or experiences to make a point about their disability, because you just made a new, more specific definition of the group of people being talked about-–a definition which no longer includes them. Mary has transformed John from someone who had authority on the subject, due to his experience, to someone whose experiences aren’t valid because he’s an exception.
Let’s briefly accept Mary’s new definition of someone with Down Syndrome-–a person who can never live on their own. It’s true, John could have some opinions about whether it’s wrong to abort such a person, but he can’t speak as someone from that particular group. But guess what? The prenatal test doesn’t measure whether someone could live on their own, it just measures whether they have Down Syndrome. If a fetus exactly like John is diagnosed with Down Syndrome, it doesn’t get a break because it’s John. Its mother’s doctor is just as likely to present the diagnosis as bad news, encourage an abortion, and list a bunch of things the child won’t be able to do that may or may not be true of the John-fetus in particular, or people with Down Syndrome in general. Being an exception gets the John-fetus absolutely nothing.
The reason the Suddenly Specific Definition Fallacy is a fallacy is because of its suddenness. Stuff goes along, people with a particular disability are getting discriminated against, mild and severe alike. Everyone’s welcome in the stigmatized group. Then someone says, “Hey, I have this disability and all these things you’re saying about my disability aren’t true.” Bam! Apply the Suddenly Specific Definition Fallacy and remove the person’s authority (they can keep the stigma).

(Fun fact: I’m sorry if the example comes off as melodramatic, but I’ve read a lot about this stuff and John is not exaggerating.)

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