Don’t Read the Comments: Teaching Fallacies

Yesterday I pulled one of those last-minute changes to teaching plans, and I think I need to think it through a bit here to figure out what I think.

My students in Rhetoric 102 (an argument/research course) are reading Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz’s Everything’s an Argument, and we’re scheduled to talk about fallacies this morning (in half an hour, in fact). Now, I’ve never liked teaching fallacies–it always smacks too much of memorizing terms that aren’t very useful (despite the usefulness of being able to spot fallacies in practice). In previous semesters, I’ve skipped this chapter, using a different textbook. But this is my first time with this book, so I thought I’d dig in.

Unsure of exactly what I would do, I tossed onto my schedule long ago that on individual computers in the lab, we would find fallacies on Daily Kos (liberal) and Instapundit (conservative), sites that the book recommended as places to find things to analyze. But when I actually sat down yesterday and spent time browsing the sites, I got distracted.

Specifically, by this: “Racists Respond to Article about Racism” on Daily Kos. Author UberGoober is responding to a couple of other articles discussing the use of the word nude as a default word meaning “the color of nude skin if you’re white.” Here’s how he links to the first article and responds to it:

Replacing the Fashion Industry’s Definition of “Nude”

At first, I found myself chuckling over the premise of the article. Of course the author wasn’t wrong, but… Really? Is that such a big problem? Silly college kids…  But finally the author got to her real point:

We aren’t trying to condemn the entire fashion industry or all manufacturers of commercial goods as intentionally racist. What we are saying is there are subtle instances of racism ingrained into our daily lives; instances so commonplace they often go unnoticed.

Wow. Bingo! The author is absolutely right.

But here’s where it gets nasty: when a conservative site later cites the OU story to make fun of it, UberGoober read the comments . . . and he says that every single comment was nasty. Here’s how he ends:

For some reason, I was surprised by this. I know not all conservatives are racist.  But it is so commonplace now that it goes unrebutted. Not a single person pointing out the inappropriate responses or suggesting the author may just have a point. Not one.

I’m disgusted. I used to respect the differences between liberals and conservatives (for the record, I used to  be a conservative). There’s nothing to respect here. They aren’t driven by viable alternative political views. They are driven by willful ignorance, bigotry and hatred. And they like it that way.

Ugh, I thought. Here’s an author who tried to dig into fallacious reasoning and just got disgusted by what he found. And I was feeling the same thing. So how was I supposed to deal with this in class–was there a way to work this into a lesson on fallacies? I don’t know. But here’s what I decided:

This morning (in 20 minutes, now), we’ll go to the computer lab. I’ll tell the story of my poking around and finding those articles. Then we’ll open a shared Google Doc that says this:

Practice Identifying Fallacies

I find that people are especially likely to use fallacies when discussing “isms”: qualities like racism or sexism that stir up passionate debate on both sides.

To explore the ways fallacies work in practice, follow these steps:

  1. Skim the list of “isms” from this page, run by the Social Justice Center at Washington University in St. Louis. Focus especially on ones you aren’t as familiar with.
  2. Pick one of the isms and search for it in Google News’s blog search, which is more likely to give you an opinionated point of view than a factual news story. (You may search for a related word if you like–so you can search ableism or ableist.) Here’s how to search:
    • Head to Google News at https://news.google.com/.
    • Search for your word. The results will include news sources and blogs.
    • Underneath the search bar, you can now click “Search tools.” That will make a new bar appear; on it, click “All news” and select “Blogs” instead.

screenshot of Google News

Now your results are all from blogs!

  1. Skim through the search results until you find an opinionated piece that interests you. It might be an article you agree with, disagree with, or aren’t sure about.
  2. Read the article in search of fallacies. Don’t forget to skim the comments! Use EAA ch. 5 for examples of things to look for. If you’re not finding anything, ask yourself, “Is there a part of this argument that I don’t agree with, or that I can imagine someone else not agreeing with?
  3. If you find some fallacies, report them below, under the horizontal line, following my example. If you can use the term from the book, that’s awesome–but if you can’t quite put your finger on how to name the fallacy, that’s okay too. Just describe it so the rest of us (who haven’t read your article) will know what you found. 

Copy the following template, paste it at the bottom of this document, and then fill it in with what you found.

Your name:
Link to webpage you read: [if you hit the space bar right after pasting, it will turn into a link]
Author and title of the webpage: [put the title of the page in quotation marks and capitalize all the big words]
Fallacies you found: [in your own words]

Your name: Dr. Stedman
Link to webpage you read: http://www.oudaily.com/opinion/editorials/replacing-the-fashion-industry-s-definition-of-nude/article_b1280ffc-376b-11e4-9332-0017a43b2370.html
Author and title of the webpage: By The Editorial Board (no author named), “Replacing the Fashion Industry’s Definition of ‘Nude’”
Fallacies you found:  The first commenter compares the article author to ISIS, essentially saying that these “rigid ideas about women’s clothing” are similar to conservative Islam’s requirements that women dress in a certain way. It seems like a fallacious comparison to me–criticizing the word “nude” in fashion is very different than actually regulating what people wear. If I turn to the book, it’s closest to the “faulty analogy,” I think (87-88).

[End of document, with space where they’ll fill in their findings]

Here’s language that I included at first but took out to make the document easier to use:

Side note: Why are fallacies more common on these topics?

My guess is that this is often because of a fundamental disagreement about how to define the “ism.”

An example: some people see racism as relating to a particular moral failure in a particular moment, kind of like saying that a statement was “hateful.” They might say, “A racist statement is one that was purposefully designed to hurt someone of a different race.”

But others see racism as a broad element that is built into a culture at the deepest levels. These people might say, “A racist statement is one that relies on the deep history of inequality that shapes our ideas and relationships and language.” Therefore, a racist statement might not be a purposefully hateful statement, from this point of view–it might be evidence of a deeper cultural problem.

So consider people with these two very different perspectives arguing about if something is or is not racist. How could they ever agree with each other? In that frustration, I think many turn to fallacious arguments.

So why am I telling you all this? I’m not sure. But it’s bugging me more than usual, our inability to have civil discourse, the disturbing nastiness that is lingering under so many of our facades. I mean, I’m a Presbyterian–I shouldn’t be surprised by disturbing nastiness lingering under facades; it’s part of my worldview. But when you see it come out in the comments, it’s a different thing somehow.

And yes, I know what you’re going to say: Kyle, don’t read the comments. Never read the comments.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Don’t Read the Comments: Teaching Fallacies

  1. thanks for sharing this! this summer I taught a class that had a unit on argument and I was at a loss for how to teach logical fallacies without just listing the terms or giving them a handout without a meaningful activity/discussion to help it make sense. what I *did* find was a series of videos on youtube that finds logical fallacies in beatles songs…

    so thanks. I am bookmarking this for future reference – while I may not get into it as deeply this semester, my students are writing a researched argument and working with discourse communities/identifying issues within or related to their selected community and a modified version of this activity might be useful, especially since my students will be discussing groups of people and speaking about behaviors, tensions, etc.

  2. kstedman

    Thanks tons! Now I need to look up those Beatles videos….

  3. Kyle – I’m going to use a variation of this blog search with my new media students!!! Thanks! Cheers!

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