Racism, Sexism and other Logical Fallacies: Paper Policy

Just as a reminder on today, The National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, any papers that are handed in arguing for a sexist, transphobic, homophobic, or racist premise will receive a failing grade. This is not necessarily because I am trying to teach ethics in my class, though I do firmly hold to the pedagogical principle that ethical development is an important part of any educational system; nor is it because such arguments create a hostile environment which tend to privilege white, hetero, male voices, which directly contradicts the university’s commitment to free discourse and exchange; nor is it because such arguments have no place in civil society and that, as members of the civil society who are inheriting an incredible amount of privilege and opportunities through our educations and thus we should be held to the highest non-academic standards. No, it is because these arguments are unflagging in their adherence to irrationality, premised upon violence, and simply bad arguments.

 

The most common forms of racist/sexist/trans- and homophobic essay arguments tend to be arguments that seem to have a valid form, but if you break them down, they crumble under strain. For example, consider the “Friend argument.” This argument tends to go along the lines of …

Shakespeare was not sexist because some of his friends were women

It seems like that should be true. After all, if Shakespeare was sexist, he couldn’t possibly have had female friends, right? The underlying fallacy of course is the fallacy of exclusion or the argument by selective observation; another term for it is cherry picking. (Another form of this argument is a red herring of guilt/honour by association.) That is, the argument about, say, Shakespeare is made without reference to other aspects of his life or work such that it appears to be wholly coherent. The thing is that prejudices don’t work like that. Sexism, racism, trans- and homophobia are systems of power that develop an asymmetrical structure of obligation that puts the term “friend” under extreme pressure. After all, in the early modern period, women literally could not be friends or colleagues with men. It is not that there were laws against it, but it was a structure of gender relations that women could not have friendships. They weren’t deemed capable. In the early modern world, all members of the culture were living in an asymmetrical system of obligation and contract such that the very term “friend[ship]” breaks down. To say that his friends were women ignores the larger issues at stake in the culture regarding gender and is the fallacy of cherry picking. Obviously, this argument applies to “X isn’t racist because X has black friends” or “Y isn’t transphobic because Y has trans friends.”

 

For more on this, look up “The Friend Argument” or “The Noble Jew” argument or the “I’m not prejudiced, but….” argument. They all follow the same basic pattern and they all come up in student essays a lot. Instead of “I’m not prejudiced…” I’ve seen students turn it into “Shakespeare’s not prejudiced…” but the point still stands.

 

It is easy to see how racist/sexist/trans- and homophobic arguments create a toxic environment in the university today, as the university has long since ceased to be a bastion of white, hetero, male privilege, but it isn’t as easy to see that the arguments that some of you may have heard and/or on some level may believe are not wrong because they are ethically fraught (though there is that) but because they are logically incoherent. Racist essays, sexist essays, homo- and transphobic essays are predicated on systems of violence and power that are awash in logical fallacies. If for no other reason, then that is why such papers will be failed. Now, don’t get bogged down in the example of fallacious argumentation that I provided above. This was not intended to go through every different kind of racist or sexist or even fallacious argument. It is intended to warn you away from fallacious arguments and to warn you that such argumentative forms will result in an F. If you need to revise your paper and take out such arguments, I’m happy to grant you extensions for that, but please don’t make me read hate speech. I’d rather you took a few extra days and ensured you were writing something that wasn’t hateful than get things in on time and have to fail anyone

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