Sunday, March 21, 2010

Race and Gender: When True Premises render False Conclusions

I had this conversation at a bar setting one night, and a similar one at some party. So I wanted to share it because it highlights the common denominator view on race and gender that is so problematic nowadays. Friday night, the white (I’m assuming straight) guy I was talking to argued that he got discriminated by the police once, and has been sexually harassed by another male once. So his conclusion was that being black, or being female does not put one especially or anymore at risk than being white.

I’ve heard this argument from white guys, and I hear it a lot on TV commentaries, newspapers and blogs too, so it is worth looking at:

I'll give an example with other arguments of this sort.
1. Even non-smokers can get lung cancer, so smoking does not put one at risk for lung cancer.
2. Even thin people can have high blood pressure, so being obese does not put one at risk for high blood pressure.
3. Even white people can be arbitrarily harassed and arrested by police, so being black does not put one at risk for arbitrary harassment and arrest by police.

1 and 2 are bad arguments and though I suspect I’ve heard the first from some tobacco defenders, it’s not going to fool most people, one hopes. #3, which has been showing up recently strikes too many people as a good argument. Especially if you happen to be a white guy talking to me at a party, who has gotten arrested or harassed by the police (or something of the sort.)

So what’s wrong with it? For what I recall learning in my last logic class, the premise is about there being some instances of a feature, F, in a population of non-G’s. The conclusion is about the probability that a G will have F. In these cases, I can show to the guy that his reasoning is fallacious by producing arguments of the same form with true premises and false conclusions. And I can point to them that nothing in probability theory supports it; the premise is irrelevant to the truth of the conclusion. Because if we agree with this “common denominator” argument, this is where it leads us...

Men can get raped, so women are not especially at risk….

Men can suffer from domestic violence, so women are not especially at risk…

My friend Cherie is good at playing around with the logic of these arguments. In one of her papers for a Feminist Philosophy class, she purposely defended a true premise about race and gender which led to a tragic, unnecessary, false conclusion of this sort. But the place we are led to with these types of "true" premises is problematic, nerveless dangerous.

So what is going on when these arguments are put forward? If the "true" premise is irrelevant to the conclusion, then those who support it may need to either defend WHY a certain premise is, in fact, relevant to the conclusion they sustain, through probability, or quit relying on these types of arguments to make common denominator claims about race and gender in America. Hi Ho to that.
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