Some people hold grievance against talk of tolerance, inclusion, political correctness, and the like, largely owing to a tendency among their proponents to shame those who disagree rather than present the reasoning, thereby in fact demonstrating an intolerance of their own. I hope to address that perceived contradiction here.
I do not present this as the reasoning behind any and all diversity talk. Rather, this spells out a framework I myself take to be a viable argument for articulating reasons in favor of diversity and inclusion—a commitment that nonetheless shamelessly and even necessarily excludes some views. At the heart of this argument lies an observation that bigotry of any kind, and thus racism in particular, commits a variant of what logicians call the ad hominem fallacy.
What Is an Ad Hominem Fallacy?
A society that includes a variety of perspectives has the opportunity to glean from the best of what particular viewpoints can offer. Now, opportunity doesn’t mean guarantee. The possibility of learning from others doesn’t promise that any learning takes hold. The task must be seized, as much as possible, cooperatively to allow free competition of ideas.
The term “cooperative competition” may appear self-contradictory, but it relies on a distinction between, on the one hand, a person or people group and, on the other hand, that person’s or people group’s beliefs.
Confusion of this distinction results in the ad hominem fallacy. For example, if one stumbles across an article entitled “Anti-Racism is Immoral,” and dismisses it simply because of its source, one has then committed an ad hominem fallacy. The piece may have something to be discovered, even if one drastically disagrees with its conclusions.
Some cases will warrant a dismissal without constituting an ad hominem fallacy. For example, one may discover in “Anti-Racism is Immoral” a hilariously obvious self-contradiction in the author’s complaint that leftists commit a category error by treating racism as a moral category (in a piece titled “Anti-Racism is Immoral”). Unlike the first example, the second one makes a judgment based on an observation about the argument itself. In short, the ad hominem fallacy involves judgment on the basis of something about who made the argument rather than on the basis of the argument itself.
Why does it matter?
Racism, like any other bigotry, is essentially an ad hominem fallacy writ large. Bigotry dismisses entire sets of persons along with any and all insights they have due to some belief about the people group as a whole rather than on the merits of the insights themselves.
The Role of Bias
More often than not, bigotry doesn’t emerge as an overt, intentional decision to dehumanize someone. Rather, it’s usually expressed in a knee-jerk reaction, like a reflex, that inhibits one from considering viewpoints with which one is unfamiliar.
Because it’s more often a reflexive reaction than reflective thought, bigotry often masks itself even—or especially—from the person in whom it’s taken root. (There’s ample enough writing online about implicit bias that it need not be reiterated here.)
Here it needs only to be noted that part of cooperative competition is for one to acknowledge the following:
- the possibility of harboring a bias,
- that such bias can and should be questioned, and
- the difficulty of catching the bias oneself.
Those who’ve never experienced discrimination are unlikely to recognize implicit biases or why they matter. “Oh, everything’s ‘racist’ nowadays!” or “People are just too sensitive!” have become all-too-common sentiments. They illustrate an unwillingness to acknowledge implicit biases and allow them to be challenged explicitly. It’s an unwillingness to learn how biases expressed in microaggressions grate on one’s psyche like nails scratching on a chalkboard. Noteworthy is that a singular microaggression per se isn’t the problem; it’s the persistent repetition of the same few belittling tropes peppered across a lifetime that becomes psychologically debilitating, infuriating, or both.
Those insisting “Oh, everything’s ‘racist’ nowadays!” or “People are just too sensitive!” ignore the fact that biases actually do harm people. Once a bias has been addressed as hurtful, its repetition can no longer be attributed to mere lack of knowledge. At this point, a repeated bias becomes bigotry, an act of dehumanizing others.
A lack of knowledge doesn’t constitute a moral failure. This is because bias isn’t always a moral fault but often a conceptual gap. Put otherwise, the “bias” in question may be due to missing information, in which case a simple explanation can fill in the blanks.
Bias becomes bigotry (morally blameworthy) when it’s deliberate. And ignoring those who try to explain the harm of implicit bias is deliberate. Choosing not to listen to people expressing what’s hurtful is deliberately choosing to continue hurting them.
When Tolerance Shouldn’t Apply
Here, bigotry—as an ad hominem fallacy writ large—extends from a logical or conceptual category into the realm of ethics. Being unaware of what harms others is a forgivable mistake, one that everybody makes from time to time and one that can be remedied by apology and attempting not to repeat the mistake.
Here is where the commitment to diversity and inclusion ceases to play nice. Unlike people, not all opinions are created equal. Those who know what behaviors or ideas harm people, or ought to know had they listened, but do them anyway, have thereby removed themselves from the circle of cooperative competition of ideas. Their opinions are not given equal weight precisely because they have already decided to reiterate a logical fallacy rather than espouse opinions supported with reasons.
It was noted earlier that some cases warrant seemingly quick dismissals without counting as ad hominem fallacies—such as lazy quips about “black on black violence” (which, curiously, never mention white on white violence) or “women being too emotional” (spouted by some clearly unstable dude). The reason that dismissing such quips doesn’t constitute an ad hominem fallacy is that the assumption behind the claim or argument has already reiterated a logical fallacy.
Ideals of diversity and inclusion, therefore, don’t necessarily entail equal tolerance of any and all beliefs. This is why some are notoriously intolerant of intolerance. Any ideas, and the people who present them, are invited until they directly or indirectly interfere with this cooperative competition.
Reality Changing Observations:
1. How can we train ourselves to be less defensive when confronted about our own biases?
2. Do you have people in your life who will challenge you to be more critical of what you assume about others?
3. What work can we do to better ally ourselves with those who are often the subject of such biases?