Recently, I have noticed that there are a variety of what might be called pseudo-fallacies that have steadily made ground in popular culture. One is expected to avoid these turns of phrase, or methods of reasoning, on the grounds that they are in some sense “illegal moves” in a debate or heated discussion. However, the three that I will look at today are not obviously fallacious despite being treated as such by many people. They are not formal fallacies, and not always informal fallacies either. These pseudo-fallacies are just unfashionable phrases that often get misused.
Now, a formal fallacy is a very peculiar kind of thing. Formal fallacies are commonly employed but invalid methods of reasoning that humans find irresistible. Perhaps the most well known and most common example is the ad hominem fallacy. On a routine outing, the ad hominem might go like this:
Joanne: “Abortion is wrong since murder is wrong, and abortion is murder.”
Jim: “That argument is nonsense. You’re wrong since you’re a born again Christian.”
Jim’s reasoning has gone astray. He is no longer engaged with the argument, but only with the character of the person making the argument. This is, with good reason, an argumentative “off side”. The fact that your opponent is a total dick doesn’t dissolve their arguments.
But there are three pseudo-fallacies doing the rounds that everyone should beware of. Sometimes these arguments, or mere phrases, are indications that some fallacious reasoning is about to occur, but other times, they are not. They are the “I’m not racist but …”, the “Some of my best friends are x” and the “Hitler did x”
The “I’m not racist, but …”
Everybody groans when they hear this phrase, and it has become code for “I am racist, and …”. Don’t get me wrong, these words are often used by racist people to fudge the content of the racist statement to follow. This is clearly because ‘but’ signifies that something is about to be said that will apparently go against what has already been stated. In this case, that one is not a racist. But identifying that the phrase has been used is not a good enough reason to disregard whatever is said afterwards. After all, ‘but’ signifies only that something will be said that will apparently go against what was said previously, but may not actually go against it. The following might be a fair example of the latter situation:
“I’m not racist, but did you know that Judith Kearins (1981) has shown that Aboriginal children perform at significantly higher levels than white Australian children on visual spatial memory tasks.”
In this case, one wishes only to make a factual statement that has unavoidable racial content. It is not obvious, however, that the content of the second clause actually speaks against the content of the first. Although one might preface the statement with the phrase, “I’m not racist,” since race can make for a touchy topic of conversation, like religion or politics.
Again, we ought to merely be cautious, but not immediately dismissive, when we encounter this phrase.
The “Some of my best friends are x”
This phrase is related to the first, and once again, it may or may not be fallacious, depending on what has already been said in the debate. Nevertheless, this phrase is commonly seen as an argumentative off-side, and will be rejected out of hand as fallacious. It is usually taken to be code for “Actually, I’m a bigot and it’s very probable that I have no friends”. To be fair, the following example is the kind of case that most people have in mind:
Jim “I’m not a misogynist because some of my best friends are women / my mum’s one!”
Now this is informally fallacious. The reason this is fallacious is that there does not appear to be anything importantly inconsistent with being both a misogynist and having female friends. To make this point clear, consider if the female friends all happened to be misogynists too! It is pretty weak evidence that one is not a misogynist.
However, there are conditions in which “some of my best friends are x” is a reasonable response to some personal allegation or attack. Most obviously, it would be a good response to the allegation that one had no friends who were x! But more seriously, allegations that one has a phobia of some kind, such as homophobia or islamophobia, (if indeed one is taking these terms to mean a general fear of individuals belonging to the group in question) might be reasonably rebutted by pointing to relevant counterexamples e.g. examples of friendships or healthy relationships one had with individuals belonging to the feared group. Having a pet tarantula should count as evidence that one is probably not an arachnophobe. It is not conclusive evidence that one is not an arachnophobe, to be sure, and if one is found to also belong to the local Anti-Spider militant group, we should reconsider. But we should not disregard such evidence as totally irrelevant, and certainly not as fallacious.
The “Hitler did x”
This pseudo-fallacy can be the biggest pain of all. Sometimes called the Argumentum ad Hitlerum, it is supposed that as soon as someone uses Hitler or the Nazis as an example in the debate, they have immediately conceded defeat. Invoking Hitler, the idea goes, is an argumentative “off-side”. Certainly, the fact that Hitler did x is often used to show that x is bad. Such arguments are fallacious. Consider the following:
Joanne: “Everyone should eat vegetarian.”
Jim: “Oh, so you think we should all be vegetarian, do you? Hitler was a vegetarian!”
Clearly, Jim has once again made a fallacious error in reasoning. But there are other cases in which using Hitler as an example is not off-side. Consider:
Jim: “If you’re a vegetarian then you’re a good person.”
Joanne: “Oh, so you think that all vegetarians are good people? Hitler was a vegetarian!”
Since both parties accept that Hitler was not a good person, it is relevant to their argument that Hitler was both a vegetarian and a bad person.