Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Obligation to Understand is a Two-Way Street

When the seven days were nearly completed, the Jews from the province of Asia noticed him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd, and laid hands on him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us. This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place, and what is more, he has even brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this sacred place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him and supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. The whole city was in turmoil with people rushing together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the gates were closed. (Acts 21:27–30)

In our factionalized nation, the question of “how do we change something?” too often overlooks the question of are the demands unjust? If the demand is unjust, then it is wrong to make the demand and wrong to give into it. However, just because a demand is unjust does not mean the underlying need behind it is unjust. For example, the demand for abortion as a “right” is unjust, and we cannot compromise over opposition. But there is a legitimate need behind the demand—proper health care and support for pregnant women and families—that must be met.

We can approach it the other way too. In these times, there is a legitimate need to correct racial injustices have existed for far too long. But not every demand that comes from this need is just. For example, the demands to remove or destroy religious imagery on the grounds that they symbolize some sort of injustice in the eyes of the mob is an unjust demand. Unlike many Confederate monuments and symbols, Catholics don’t have religious monuments erected as a way of saying “@#$% you!” to certain groups of people. Statues to St. Junipero Serra and St. Louis IX (both targeted by mobs) exist to honor saints for their examples of holiness.

Similar to the passage from Acts, cited above, people react to what they think they know and the result is often injustice.

Of course, we as Catholics, can’t say “I neither understand nor care to understand your concern.” But in this crisis, I don’t think that our Catholic leaders are doing this. I believe our bishops have issued a strong witness against racial injustice not only after the George Floyd case, but actually before. Do individual Catholics sometimes say shocking things? Yes, tragically. But when they do so, they are not acting with the approval of the Church.

I think this is an important distinction to make. We are (rightly) reminded that the extremists in a group does not automatically mean the group as a whole is extremist. To assume otherwise is the fallacy of composition. But that’s a two-way street. The Catholic Church has sometimes been slow to get the news of injustice, especially in the days before modern technology, but she has never sided with those who defend what is morally wrong. For example, we recognize St. Bartolom√© de las Casas as a saint for his work defending the moral treatment of slaves and Native Americans, but we don’t praise those who defended the wrongdoing. We recognize that the Church condemned racial slavery from the first appearance—before Europeans first encountered the Americas to be precise—when Eugene IV condemned the Portuguese enslaving the natives of the Canary Islands in 1435, saying:

And no less do We order and command all and each of the faithful of each sex, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands, and made captives since the time of their capture, and who have been made subject to slavery. These people are to be totally and perpetually free, and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of money. If this is not done when the fifteen days have passed, they incur the sentence of excommunication by the act itself, from which they cannot be absolved, except at the point of death, even by the Holy See, or by any Spanish bishop, or by the aforementioned Ferdinand, unless they have first given freedom to these captive persons and restored their goods. We will that like sentence of excommunication be incurred by one and all who attempt to capture, sell, or subject to slavery, baptized residents of the Canary Islands, or those who are freely seeking Baptism, from which excommunication cannot be absolved except as was stated above.

This is not the language of supporting slavery. It is language showing that since the onset of the racial slave trade, the Church has condemned it… but lacked the ability to make godless men care about their evils§. They could only try to convert those men.

I suspect the demagogues and their mobs know nothing about the true history of the Church in facing certain evils. If that ignorance was invincible (having no way of being corrected), they could be without blame for wrongly thinking that what they did was right. But if they could have known if they took the trouble to look (cf. Gaudium et Spes #16), then acting out of ignorance is not excused.

For our part, we as Catholics in the pews do need to help in spreading the truth about what we believe to correct those who have a false belief about us. So, yes, we do need to look at ourselves and see if we have failed. That can be individually or as a whole—including ourselves. But let’s not use “we” in the sense of “everybody else” when we say “We Catholics have failed to do X.” It may turn out that we are allowing our own preferences about what we would prefer the Church to do to become an indictment of the Church for something she is not guilty of.

But often, we have been denied the chance to demonstrate what we do believe. Falsehoods dating back to the Protestant Reformation are still believed. Our moral beliefs are treated as bigotry, and our attempts to engage the world are sometimes treated as “explaining away” what they think is fact. In that case, we no longer have the two-way street of dialogue. We have “shut up and listen,” where we are given an ultimatum to concede whatever is demanded or be labeled “bigoted” or “anti-woman” or any other false accusation they care to throw at us.

As human beings, every person who is a member of the Church is a sinner who continually has a need to repent and turn back to God. So of course, anybody looking for dirt on a member of the Church will find it (I’m certainly glad my “young and stupid” days preceded the internet, for example). But we can’t assume that the behavior of some is the behavior of all; we can’t assume that a past attitude is carried on today; we can’t assume that what we think words mean is what is actually intended.

And if we in the Church can’t, neither can those who attack us. That’s the two-way street that’s being ignored.



(†) I make this qualification because, if I understand it correctly, at least one statue exists (or perhaps existed) that honored a former Confederate officer for his charitable work done after the Civil War. This is different from the defiant erection of certain statues because of their actions supporting succession.

(‡) The arguments used by Catholic slave owners in the Pre-Civil War United States used arguments that are remarkably similar to those used by pro-abortion Catholics today… a dishonest legalism that attempted to twist the meaning of words.

(§) This wasn’t a one-time thing either. Saints like Bartolom√© de las Casas and others would refuse absolution to the inhumane slave owners. But like the abortion issue today, when people don’t care about the consequences of automatic excommunication, The Church can’t really do anything to physically impose their will.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

“Are We Forgetting George Floyd?” Thoughts on Moral Obligation During These Times

As I watch the protests unfold, I find myself noticing a few things. First, the death of George Floyd seems to be increasingly forgotten in the protests… or at least the media coverage of the protests. Second, as they move forward, they seem to be focusing less about the treatment of African-Americans in this country and more about whatever the demagogues leading the movement want to cancel next in our “cancel culture.”
I don’t say this out of any political bias. Regardless of whether the people who called the Police had a valid reason to do so, Mr. Floyd’s killing was entirely in opposition to the Catholic teaching on the reasonable use of force. We should demand a just reform of those things that made it possible.
The problem is, the current protests don’t seem to have anything to do with these things. Now they appear to be largely about “canceling” statues and the people they represent. As I wrote in a previous article, some of those objections are valid… but some are not.
Unfortunately, we are an easily distracted people. So I suspect—and I pray that I am wrong—that if anybody remembers the protests at all five years from now, they will remember it for the stupid things some extremists among the protestors are doing, while remaining utterly convinced that whatever the full (non-extremist) movement does in the future can be written off as more of the same extremism.
This can’t be the Catholic attitude. No, we can’t condone it when certain demagogues try to attack our saints and their statues. We can’t condone it when some turn to rioting and risk the lives of others. But we can and must stand up for true justice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes justice as:
1807 Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the “virtue of religion.” Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbor. “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”
It means that, since each human being is created in the image and likeness of God, we must treat them as such, not in a way that we would be unwilling experience (cf. Matthew 7:12). Justice cannot have benefits for one group in a way that harms others. Unfortunately, people sometimes confuse which is which, and deny one’s person’s rights in the name of an injustice they call “rights.” For example, the “right” to abortion absolutely negates the right to life for some, and in recent Court rulings, “Gay rights” are infringing on the freedom of religion recognized in the US Constitution.
So, White Supremacy is unjust because it benefits one ethnic group at the expense of other ethnic groups. Any semblance of it must be stamped out. But Abortion is not a right, but unjust because it benefits one group at the expense of those who are not yet born. “Gay marriage” is unjust because it dictates to a religious group what moral beliefs they can and cannot practice§ to the benefit of those who want to make the religious group accept different morals.
Recognizing that distinction, we would work for justice for ethnic minorities. Racial discrimination is against our Catholic beliefs. But, while we cannot support abortion or same sex “marriage,” we can work to make sure women have support and real health care when they are in a crisis pregnancy—this is justice to the woman and the unborn child. We cannot support attempts to redefine marriage, but we can work to protect people with same sex attraction from being attacked or otherwise maltreated on the grounds of their sexual inclination. The promotion of wrongdoing as a “right” by others never excuses us from doing what is actually right and just.
Bringing this back to my introduction to this article, what we have is certain set of demagogues and extremists who are hijacking a legitimate and urgent need for social justice in favor of their own antipathies. But their own injustice does not excuse us from working for real social justice. The George Floyd case reminds us that real injustice does exist and must be addressed. We cannot lose sight of that just because certain individuals in that call for justice are behaving unjustly towards us.
(†) This may be the fault of media coverage. For example (to pick two extremes), CNN seems to focus on what Trump does, while Fox seems primarily focused on the CHAZ/CHOP zone. If any of this has anything to do with reforming the very real problems going on right now, the media isn’t showing it.
(‡) As St. John Paul II pointed out: 
The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination. (St. John Paul II, Christifideles Laici #38)
(§) To expand without bogging down or diverting the article: If a religion believes that Same Sex “marriage” is a sin and those members of the religion who openly practice that sin are causing scandal, the state is violating the rights of freedom of religion in favor of the benefit of a small group by forcing the religion and individual practitioners to do what they think is morally wrong.

Monday, June 29, 2020

“Good For Me but Not for Thee.” Thoughts on the New Iconoclasm

It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.(G.K. Chesterton)

The protests that began as protesting the killing of George Floyd have evolved into a new iconoclasm. This current mob-driven activity assumes that the existence of a monument or symbol exists solely to champion an evil as perceived through the eyes of the demagogue leading them.

In some cases, the perception is right. Some symbols, like the Confederate flag, took on meanings like resistance to the Civil Rights rulings of 1954 and beyond. Some statues were erected as defiance against the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War. In those cases, I have no problem with the legal removal from a place of public honor to a museum (where it can be displayed with proper historical context). 

The problem is, often the demagogues assume that their assumptions on why a monument exists is the only possible reason it could exist. This is an argument from ignorance fallacy, and too often a straw man. If the perceived reason is not the same as the actual reason—especially when the perceived reason comes from historical ignorance—then the attempts to remove the monument or symbol come from bigotry in the sense of the G.K. Chesterton quote at the beginning of this article.

For example, the demonstrations around religious monuments (or monuments perceived to be religious) involve either assumptions about the motives, or ignorance about the historical events about the person or events. St. Junipero Serra was vandalized for “crimes” he wasn’t guilty of. St. Louis IX is being targeted for “Islamophobia.” The assumption is that even the smallest deviation from the perceived 21st Century sensibility is deliberate and malicious. But 21st century perceptions of history are no less biased than the perceptions of previous centuries. They just have different biases. As an example, 19th century American historical biases tended to be “Protestantism = Good.” They focused on the worst abuses that existed in any part of pre-Protestant Christendom and treated as if it was doctrine that had to be destroyed. The 21st century bias tends to be “anybody who doesn’t conform to our thinking is a bigot.” Both are wrong to apply as a general principle, even when there are legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.

The problem is, these biases cannot accept the idea that conditions were different in different times and not all differences were the result of malice. For example, opposition to Islam in the Crusades was not rooted in xenophobia or a lust for conquest. It was based on the belief that aggressive Muslim nations had unjustly seized the Holy Land and were intent on conquering Europe as well. Yes, some Crusaders committed injustices, things that cannot be condoned under the more fully matured teaching of the Church today. But it would be factually wrong to assume that the injustices that existed were the intention of the Crusades in general.

We need to remember that unjust accusations by some members of a group often have the side effect of alienating people from accepting just accusations from the group as a whole. Yes, it’s a fallacy of composition, but it’s easy for people to think “these accusations are false, therefore all accusations from these people are false.” The story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf illustrates this danger. I have unfortunately seen some Catholics (falsely) reason that because the attacks on certain Catholic saints are so obviously false, the legitimate objections to certain Civil War monuments must also be false.

What we need to do is to be certain that our facts are correct and we understand the context of a time. We must also be careful that we don’t fall into a double standard, condemning them for something we turn a blind eye to when our standard harms us. Yes, slavery is something shameful in America’s past. No, we can’t try to explain it (or any other evil) away with special pleading. If “X is wrong” is universally true, then we must also oppose X when our own side does it (for example, if we condemn the violence of a mob that acts in a cause we oppose, we must not make excuses when mob violence is done by our side). But if X is not universally wrong, then we need to clearly demonstrate why this incident which we condemn is different from that incident which we condone. Otherwise, we come across as ignorant or hypocrites, and we are part of the problem.


(†) For example, the sack of Constantinople. But remember, the Pope at the time condemned it when news reached Rome.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Injustice, Protests and the Mobs: What’s a Catholic To Do?

Watching the United States today, we’re seeing an alarming transition from a Republic that is—in theory anyway—based on the rule of law to an ochlocracy (A political system in which a mob is the source of control) where anger at a real or perceived injustice is used to extrajudicially target people that demagogues dislike. 

Yes, it’s indisputable that we’re here in the first place because the rule of law was unevenly applied to certain groups of people… many of whom have lost faith in the system we have. The question is what are we to do when legitimate grievances with illegitimate tactics. After all, as Catholics we cannot accept an evil means to achieve a good end.

We need to be clear on this before acting against injustice. Yes, if an institution is corrupt, it must be reformed. But not all methods used to demand reform are morally acceptable. Unfortunately, a certain subset of those seeking redress are choosing an evil means—demagogues using mob rule—to intimidate or even attack those they dislike. 

Let’s not just blame the other side here. The tactic of mobs is not limited to specific ethnic, political, or other groups. Nor is it limited to the United States alone. The tactics of the Nazi Brown Shirts in the 1920s and 30s might serve as an example of how bad a mob directed by an ideology and demagogues might become. So, we cannot say, “it’s their fault” while ignoring the wrongs we might tolerate on our own side. Conservatives need to be aware of the groups (like nationalist and white separatist/supremacist mobs) claiming to associate with their causes. Liberals need to be aware of the groups (like the antifa and others) claiming to associate with their causes. No faction is free of extremists.

Unfortunately, too many demagogues find the extremists on the other side to be a useful tool to discredit legitimate concerns. If one faction raises a concern and that faction has extremists who march with them, it becomes too easy for an opposing faction to treat anyone sharing a concern as agreeing with the extremists. (This is a guilt by association fallacy, by the way). It is quite possible to have something in common with an extremist group without accepting their extremist positions. For example, Antifa might have things in common with the Democratic Party, while white separatists might have some similarities with the Republican party, but that doesn’t mean that the Democrats and the Republicans openly support their worst barbarisms. So, even if we wish that one party would be more forceful in rejecting the extremists, we can’t automatically assume that the failure to do so is a blanket endorsement of evil.

Unfortunately, the mobs are making these associations. If a Catholic says “black lives matter,” other Catholics assume that he or she has capitalized each word and supports the extremist movement that has appropriated the slogan for themselves. If a Catholic says that they think that he or she has to support Trump because the other choices seem worse, other Catholics assume that he or she has openly championed the worst parts of his policies§

But we can’t do this. The Church expressly calls Rash Judgment a sin. We are not to accuse a person of a moral fault that we simply assume he or she must believe. We need to be certain that there are facts to base such an accusation on. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out (#2478):

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

Unfortunately, when we fall into mob rule, we don’t give a favorable interpretation to another (often falling into a fallacy of equivocation or accent), we don’t ask how the other intends it (often falling into a straw man or hasty generalization fallacy), and in our rush to correct, we don’t correct in love.

Once a mob falls into rash judgment, we often find that people who were not to blame for an injustice gets harmed in the violence and the demagogues claim that, while regrettable, it’s perfectly “understandable” that they act this way. But this is where we need to consider the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12). If we do not want to suffer injustice, we must not personally cause or take part in injustice to others. If we want others to consider the harm that they indirectly they cause us, we must consider the harm we indirectly cause others.

So, the past injustices a group suffers does not justify members of this group from inflicting injustice on others, regardless of what unjust members of the “others” have done. However, this cuts both ways. If it’s wrong for the mob to unjustly target groups based on the acts of some, we must not target entire groups with accusations based on the wrongdoing of some. So, if we see protestors carrying signs saying “black lives matter,” we cannot automatically assume they mean to support the radical group Black Lives Matter.

Another thing to remember is that laws that are just in themselves cannot be disobeyed just because the government is behaving unjustly. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it:

Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to Prov. 8:15: By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things. Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good,—and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver,—and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good. For, since one man is a part of the community, each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community; just as a part, in all that it is, belongs to the whole; wherefore nature inflicts a loss on the part, in order to save the whole: so that on this account, such laws as these, which impose proportionate burdens, are just and binding in conscience, and are legal laws. (STh., I-II q.96 a.4 resp.)

To use an extreme example, we’re not free to rape and murder just because the regime that passed laws against them is morally evil#. One who argued that laws against such things in Nazi Germany weren’t binding because the Nazis did not have legitimacy would still be culpable« if they refused to obey those laws. It’s when a law is intrinsically unjust in itself (for example, a law in Nazi Germany that required you to turn in Jews you knew were hiding) that we are obligated to oppose it.

Applying it to our present crisis, laws against rioting and vandalism remain just and binding, even when protestors are rightfully angry about a flagrant injustice in the legal system and frustrated by the fact that nothing seems to change. An unjust law might be giving permission to group X to do something that is illegal for group Y. If the permitted act is unjust, Group X must not do it. If it is just, it is wrong to deny it to Group Y.

If we think the legal system is unjust in some way, we may legitimately work to legally overturn it. If we find a monument honoring somebody offensive cannot be borne, we may legitimately work to have it legally removed. But rioting, behaving like vigilantes, putting other people at risk or destroying cannot be done… whether the government turns a blind eye to it or not.

What is a Catholic to do in these times? Behave justly, show compassion, and love our foes. That means we don’t turn a blind eye to the evils done by groups we favor while condemning the evils done in groups we oppose. If we would be angry if something was done against us, that is a huge clue we ought not to be doing it ourselves, whether by commission or omission.


(†) While the United States votes on who is elected to represent us, it is not a democracy in the literal sense of the term. 

(‡) As always, I try to alphabetize my dichotomies to avoid the appearance of siding with one.

(§) Before anybody falls into Whataboutism, and accuse me of overlooking something, we can usually reverse these examples. For example, the Catholic who morally believes they can’t vote for Trump is often accused of supporting all of the evils of the Democratic Party.

(#) This is where those extremists go wrong when they think that saving unborn children justifies murdering abortionists. The laws against murder and the laws against vigilantism are just in themselves.

[«] No doubt in such a regime, those laws would be enforced unjustly, never enforced against the regime, but evil by them does not justify behaving unjustly ourselves.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

On “Pride” and Prejudice: a (Semi) Socratic Dialogue Through Manga

Those of you who don’t follow my blog’s Facebook page, might be unaware that on occasion I’ll use manga publishing software# to do apologetics comics. The following started out as a blog piece, before I decided to transform it into a manga dialogue. Of course, the Catholic cannot call evil acts “good,” and unfortunately, people aren’t as likely to respond to Iimi* in the way Paula does. But if we remain respectful of others, we might get into dialogue with others.


(#) ComiPo.
(*) Iimi (Irene Inez Mary Iscra—the mascot of the blog. Her initials were chosen as the initials of “If I Might Interject.”)

Sunday, June 7, 2020

On Whataboutism—Its Form and Fallacies

Preliminary Note

I’d like to start by framing a (logically valid) syllogism for an argument that goes around the internet:

  • If [X] Then [Y]
  • Not [Y]
  • Therefore [Not X]

Standing alone with X and Y, it’s a valid form known as modus tollens, and it’s true as long as the premises are free of fallacies. So, when it’s used, it sounds credible. But if the premises are fallacious, then the argument is invalid and the point argued is not proven. So, every time you see an “If you really cared about X, you’d care about Y” argument, be careful that the premises in the argument are true.


One of the tiresome things I see on the internet is one of the slogans used in objecting to a high-ranking member of the Church speaking about the issue of injustice, or a company making a symbolic protest (not to morally equate the two): “But what about…? Why didn’t you do anything about…?” The term for this tactic is Whataboutism, and both sides in a faction war are guilty of using it. Whataboutism involves several linked fallacies—which we need to look at—to assert that the person who is concerned with one issue is not really sincere because he or she is not giving other concerns the same weight. Sometimes that accusation might be just, but often it’s used to change the issue in a way that benefits the person who uses it.

Before I begin, let me say that this is not an exhaustive list of fallacies. As I write this, each fallacy I discuss reminds me of two more. So, either I have to limit myself to the most pressing ones, or this becomes a huge tome of an article. I’ve opted for the first option.

Also, remember, we are talking about human beings here, not programmed machines. We all have blind spots. The people who are angry over an issue and those who question the sincerity of that anger might be quite sincere about their concern even if one of them should happen to be wrong. We do need to show compassion to the real concerns people have, even if we end up having to charitably correct some of them.

The Red Herring Fallacy

First, we have the Red Herring fallacy. This fallacy involves a diversion from the topic at hand. If we’re talking about Topic X, invoking Topic Y is irrelevant, and intended to divert the argument. If we talk about X, the relevance of Y needs to be established. We often see this tactic employed when the New Pro-Life Movement (NPLM) and the Original Pro-Life Movement (OPLM) brawl on social media. When the topic is abortion, members of the NPLM cite other moral issues. When the topic is on another moral issue, members of the OPLM invoke abortion. But, when the issue is intended to be abortion, the invocation of another topic is a distraction. Meanwhile, if the issue is another moral issue, invoking abortion is a distraction. It’s only relevant to invoke these topics if the issue is a broader discussion. This is probably why both sides spill ink or bytes over who is “really pro-life” when neither side has reached an agreement on the definition of pro-life, and both sides are probably defining it with the intention to exclude their opponents.

In recent times, we’re seeing some critics of the protests invoke this fallacy. We see some ask, “Why didn’t you object when somebody was killed?” or “Why didn’t you get angry when a police officer was killed protecting people from looters?” When introduced with the intention to divert the issue of George Floyd, it is a red herring.

The Either-Or Fallacy

The second fallacy is the Either-Or fallacy. The assumption is that Either people always respond the same way to a type of thing, Or they’re insincere or hypocrites. Those people using the slogan then argue, they are not always responding in the same way, and from draw the conclusion they are insincere or hypocrites… and the internet brawls erupt. This dualistic thinking assumes there are two—and only two—options to choose from. But, if there are more than two options, like the possibility of “Neither A nor B” or “Option C” being intended by the person being challenged, the dichotomy is false. 

We see this from those who disagree with the George Floyd protests… especially when the Pope and Bishops speak out on it. They mention the lack of protests over previous incidents of police killings of African-Americans, or a lack of similar outrage over the deaths of police officers or non-black individuals, and argue that since they don’t show it, they’re not focused on justice. 

The False Analogy Fallacy

That ties into our third fallacy—the False Analogy. This one focuses on the perceived similarities between two events and claim that they should be treated identically. While sometimes it is a valid objection, it becomes a fallacy when the differences between the two events are greater than the similarities. So, in our current case if civil unrest, the argument assumes that to be trulyoutraged over an injustice requires holding an equal level of outrage for each similar incident.

But while the similarity invoked through whataboutism involve people being killed. The differences involve the identity of the killers, the motives for the killings, and the circumstances of the current level of anger. The similarity that the Whataboutismforgets is forgets that we are dealing with people, not machines that respond the same way to the same output. People get angrier over time. They might hope that this time the courts would respond in a way they think just, but eventually they get angry and become convinced there is no justice to be had. The fallacy forgets this and forgets that the protests in all these cases reached a critical mass after those involved assumed that they would get no justice for their grievances. 

So, when citing a police officer killed by rioters as a refutation, it overlooks the different levels of hope for justice or past history of injustice. Will the killers of police officers during the riots face justice? Probably, if they can identify and find those responsible.

The Straw Man Fallacy

The strawman is a fallacy that misrepresents the argument into a caricature that is easier to refute. Refuting the caricature gives the impression of refuting the actual argument. But the strawman is not the actual argument. One has to answer the actual concerns.

An example of this is to respond to the slogan “black lives matter” with the slogan “all lives matter” or “cops lives matter.” Now these counter slogans are true, but they are addressing something not argued in the first place. The “black lives matter” argument is not saying “ONLY black lives matter.” So, while saying in response, “all lives matter” or “cops lives matter,” is technically true (all human lives do matter), that’s not the intention of the slogan. The purpose is to say “black lives also matter” to people suspected of thinking some lives matter less than others. That’s the issue to respond to.

Equivocation and Amphiboly

The interpretation of that slogan can go wrong through the fallacies of equivocation and amphiboly. Equivocation occurs when we give a term with more than one meaning a meaning not intended by the author. Amphiboly occurs when we emphasize a term in a way that gives it a different meaning§ than the author intends. These can be deliberate or unintentional. 

So, in the slogan “black lives matter,” some critics of the bishops have committed the fallacy of equivocation to think that they were referring to the radical movement which coopted the term. When the bishops were emphasizing that African-Americans deserve the same treatment as others, some have accused them of promoting the values of the radical group.

As for the fallacy of amphiboly, some have taken the term “black lives matter” and turned it into “black lives matter,” implying that other lives don’t. Thus, outraged, they respond with “all lives matter,” thinking they are standing up for all human life, saying “but what about X?” But they put the emphasis on the wrong word. The original accent seems to have been “black lives matter,” meaning that we can’t treat them as unimportant. 

I confess I fell into these fallacies once upon a time. Out of a Catholic pro-life conviction, I thought that everybody should hold that “all lives matter” (and they should!), but I missed the point of the slogan, not realizing that it was calling to be treated as equal, not separate. It’s a reminder that we should never assume that our casual interpretation is correct without checking to make sure that is what was meant by the one who is making a statement.

Other Considerations

We can’t automatically assume bad will on the person we disagree with, of course. A misunderstanding can easily be sincere. There are all sorts of baggage attached to words, and if we’re unaware of our limitations, we can go wrong while thinking we’re doing the right thing. The person we disagree with might not be a racist or an antifa… even if it turns out the person is wrong. As Catholics, to avoid calumny and rash judgment, we have to avoid making assumptions or spreading negative reports about someone without verifying that our assumption is true. Under the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:2), we are required to do this regardless of whether or not the other reciprocates. So, even if others misinterpret or misrepresent us, we are not excused from treating them as we want to be treated.

And this obligation cuts both ways. If it’s wrong to misjudge the motives of the people speaking out for social justice, it’s wrong to misjudge of people who disagree with the tactics used. While individuals or groups involved in the disagreements might be wrong#, we can’t 


As I said in the beginning, I could have easily added many more examples of fallacies that are packed into the assumption of “whataboutism.” But these are included so the person who encounters (or uses) the arguments might see why they are flawed and should not use them. Since we who profess to be Christian must seek out the truth and live (charitably) in accordance with it. This means we can’t accuse people of things they’re not guilty of and we mustn’t repeat false accusations.

While it’s possible that a logically bad argument coincidentally winds up with a true conclusion@, it can’t prove the conclusion is true. So, being aware of the logical flaws with the whataboutism arguments helps us from assuming that bad arguments must be true and irrefutable.



(†) In logic, the fact that an argument is invalid or unsound doesn’t mean the conclusion is false. It means that the argument cannot prove the conclusion. So, debunking the argument of Person A doesn’t automatically prove that the conclusion is false. To do that, you need to respond with a valid argument with true premises that cannot be refuted. To use an analogy, in a criminal trial, the Prosecutor has to prove his case of guilt is sound. The Defense lawyer who refutes the Prosecutor’s argument hasn’t proven his client innocent. He’s just demonstrated that the Prosecutor’s argument isn’t proven.

(‡) Whether or not you, the reader, personally agrees with the justness of the anger or not, we all need to recognize that the anger is real and needs to be addressed justly.

(§) To understand this, take the following sentence: “I never said you took the money.” Read it aloud seven times, each time emphasizing a different word. See how every change of emphasis changes the meaning of the sentence? This is why, when I think there’s a danger of amphiboly, I try to italicize the word I think should be accented. Of course, I don’t always catch it.

(#) I am speaking in theory here. I am not pointing fingers at any specific person. The focus is to determine right and wrong so the reader might ponder how it might apply in their experience, not to score points against my political “foes.”

(@) For example, if a person believes that “all red things are poisonous” and, as a result, escapes eating a red object that happens to be poisonous, the conclusion was true in this case, even though the reasoning behind it was false.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Double Standards: Not All Injustices Are Viewed as Equal, But They Remain Unjust

“When you see a nation, an entire nation simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services.”

—Bill De Blasio, Mayor of New York City

“However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States. We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators' ability to gather and demand change. This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders.”

—Open Letter of 1200 health care professionals

One thing that shows up during the protests#—just as they have any other time there is injustice—is the attitude of “But, what about X? Why are you focusing on Y instead of X?” Alternately, we see “Why are you focusing on this now when you were silent all these other times?” These comments usually spark internet brawls, where the people who think Y is more important than X respond with anger, thinking that these objections show that the people who say them “don’t care” about injustice.

It’s true that some people do say these things because they don’t care. But others have legitimate concerns about injustices that others either don’t care about or don’t understand. I think the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12a) is important here: Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. If we want others to care about the injustice we suffer, that shows caring about the injustice others suffer is a moral imperative. Saying Y is more immediately urgent than X is one thing. But holding a double standard based on one’s own biases of what is important and what is to be guilty of injustice as well. 

In other words, before you say, “That’s different,” remember that some people think the same way about your cause. If you don’t want others to dismiss your cause, don’t dismiss theirs, even if you think one cause is in more urgent need of correction than another.

I began reflecting on this when New York City mayor De Blasio announced that he was going to tolerate protesters violating quarantine rules but keep them in place for religious services, because these cases were an exception to the rule. Since the (presumably) peaceful right of assembly is included in the same amendment as the freedom of religion, we have a clear-cut case of the double standard. If the laws of health are so important that religious groups cannot hold services because of the risk of increasing the spread of COVID-19 then, logically, the risk of thousands of people gathered in close spaces to protest must be held to the same standard. And health experts are expressing grave concern over the rioters spreading contagion. Some “health professionals” have apparently signed a letter saying that the need to protest outweighs the need to quarantine, but it’s the same double standard. What determines a “need” is based on what the person considers important and what others consider a need is not.

But that’s precisely the attitude behind the injustice that is currently being protested—the recognition that the treatment of certain people and issues are being handled unjustly based on what those in charge think is important and what they don’t care about. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the protestors’ perception§, they resent that what they have seen as injustice for decades was dismissed as not important or not as bad as they thought. 

This is why the Golden Rule is important in all times and all circumstances. If we want to have people treat our cause justly, we must make sure we treat the causes of others justly. That doesn’t mean “give in to everything.” Justice is giving to others what is their due by right. A human being must be treated like a human being in all circumstances. But when a demand unjustly harms others, giving into it is not just. For example, we cannot give into the demands of a manifestly unjust group like Planned Parenthood in the name of “justice,” because their promotion of abortion harms other human beings, treating them as less than human.

Having one standard of treatment for one group, and a different standard for a second group is unjust, regardless of whether the second group is treated better or worse than the first. If seeking the public good is a requirement of good government, it cannot be selective in making or enforcing laws out of sympathy for one group or antipathy for another.

In dealing with the quarantine laws, regarding the protests and the freedom of religion, we must not have different standards for different people. If the conditions of contagion bar large groups from meeting, we must apply that to all large groups. But if the conditions do not bar all large groups, then we need to make clear what differences make one group safer than another.

Otherwise, especially if it becomes clear that the different standard is based on indifference or antipathy to one group, we’re guilty of injustice.    



(‡) At the time of my writing this article.

(#) When I speak of protests, I am of course speaking of peaceful and lawful protests, not rioting.

(†) For example, I find it sad to see some people are angrier over the symbolic actions taken to protest the death of George Floyd then they are over the actual death of George Floyd.

(§) I’m more inclined to think now that they have a valid objection than I was ten years ago. That’s because I have ten more years of experience in what goes on in the world and ten more years of studying Church teaching than I had before.