Many years ago, as a philosophy undergraduate, I learned that before I could address the “big questions,” I needed to take a logic class or two in order to acquire some basic rules for clear thinking. While I don’t pretend to be a master of the field, I did pick up some tools that have proven helpful over the years.
Most recently, in regard to the commentary on the the situation in Ferguson, race relations in the St. Louis area, and in the United States in general, I find myself thinking that maybe we’d be better off if we were sending our children to college to study philosophy and learn a little about logic before we train them to make a living – which seems to be the current single justification for higher education. Specifically, I seem to encounter again and again two memes that, because they are so prevalent, predominantly but not exclusively in conservative venues, might benefit from a little explicitly logical analysis:
Black on Black Crime vs. Abuse of authority.
Lots of folks get themselves all wound up over the fact that lots of angry, mostly black people hit the streets to protest the killing of unarmed, African-American Michael Brown by a jumpy white police officer in Ferguson, while very few, if any, are marching in the streets to protest the stream of African-American men, women and children killed almost daily by other African-American individuals in their own neighborhoods.
At the heart of this riff is what is termed a category error, defined by Wikipedia as “a semantic or ontological error in which things belonging to a particular category are presented as if they belong to a different category, … or, alternatively, a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property.” At the risk of oversimplifying, a category error consists of comparing the proverbial oranges to apples.
The confusion – or category error – here is the belief that it is the simply the death of these young men at the hands of often white policemen that leads to the protests and turmoil they leave in their wake. The outrage is sparked, however, not by their deaths, but by the way they die. The anger we see stems from the perception of pervasive police brutality and abuse of power that, in the most extreme cases, may lead to implicitly sanctioned murders of black Americans.
Which is not to say that we don’t all abhor black-on-black crime – or white-on-black, black-on-white or white-on-white crime. But the object of our opprobrium in these cases is crime itself, a problem for which we have more or less effective, institutionalized ways to respond. We deal with crime through our justice system. A significant part of that system involves policing and our courts, which is why abuses by those entities, along with their perceived racial biases, urgently need to be addressed separately.
Black lives matter (BLM) vs. All lives matter (ALM).
By now most of us have watched some television commentator or another respond to the Black lives Matter movement by declaring self-righteously, all aquiver with their own brilliance, “all lives matter” – as they indeed do. Possibly the most obnoxious was the recent declaration by GOP presidential wannabe, Mike Huckabee, that Martin Luther King would be appalled by BLM since, don’t cha know, “all lives matter.” Many of us are getting seriously tired of having to deal with friends or family who think they’ve shut down the entire BLM protest movement with this insight.
The problem here is that these deep thinkers seem to believe that that they’ve turned the tables on BLM proponents and caught them in a – gasp – racist argument of the form while, at the same time, affirming their own superior humanity:
Major premise: Black lives matter
Minor premise: All lives are not black lives
Conclusion: All non-black lives don’t matter.
This is a syllogistic fallacy involving an “illicit major” premise. The implication is that BLM proponents are presenting a major premise that is incorrectly understood as universal and hence improperly excludes lives that are not black.
However, rather than srving as the major premise, “black lives matter” is actually, rather obviously, the conclusion of this argument
Major premise: All lives matter
Minor premises: There are black lives
Conclusion: Black lives matter.
To any one with an iota of sense the only reason to use this argument to underpin a socialmovement is that somebody – most saliently the abusive police and court authorities of the first meme – have been acting as if black lives don’t matter. And that, folks, is the problem. Not the imagined exclusionary and divisive nature of BLM.
Of course, it is one thing to be wrong and another to be offensive. And the condescension and implicit racism of these two memes are just that. The “Black-on-Black” motif is often the first step in an effort to blame the victims of black crime and its frequent concomitant, poverty, complex, not very well understood issues at the best of times, on the victims who, we are told, just need to pull up their pants and act like their responsible, usually white, critics. As for “all lives matter,” consider this offering from Steve Benen:
A friend of mine told me a few weeks ago to imagine someone telling their neighbor, “My father just died and I’m heartbroken.” The neighbor should say, “That’s awful; I’m so sorry. How can I help?” But if the neighbor responds, “A lot of fathers have died, and since I believe that all parents matter, it’s wrong to elevate yours above others,” he’s lacking in a certain basic decency.