Saturday, October 23, 2021

Don’t fall for the Activist’s Fallacy

Intent is not the only thing to judge policies or theories on.





Within the expanding debate and political controversies over CRT (Critical Race Theory), the Activist’s Fallacy is regularly on display.

The Activist’s Fallacy operates as follows:
We are doing X because we are against Y.
You are against X
Therefore
You are for Y.
The Fallacy can be recast in negative terms:
We are doing X because we are for Z.
You are against X.
Therefore
You are against Z.
Either way, the Activist’s Fallacy is about making declared intent the dimension on which the entire controversy turns.

It also comes in cry-bully versions, such as:
We want to control speech to stop trans folk harming themselves.
You are against such control of speech.
Therefore
You are against stopping trans folk harming themselves.
In the case of Critical Race Theory, the Activist’s Fallacy comes in versions such as:
Critical Race Theory seeks to confront racism.
You are against Critical Race Theory.
Therefore
You are against confronting racism.
Or:
Critical Race Theory allows us to learn about racism.
You are against Critical Race Theory.
Therefore
You are against learning about racism.
The Activist’s Fallacy relies on declared intent being the only important motivational feature of whatever theory or policy is being put. With motivation being the dimension that all responses have to be graded on.

As a rhetorical and status strategy, this is highly effective. As long as everything can be construed as being first and foremost about intent, then any opposition becomes opposition to the declared intent, just as support becomes support for the declared intent.

Since the intent is, of course, going to be noble, that elevates the nobility of those pushing the theory or policy and de-legitimises any critics. They become malicious, callous, some sort of -ist or -phobe.

There is a lot of colonising of people’s decency going on. As well as people not wishing to have their status as one of the smart and good stripped from them by use of stigmatising labels against them: the submit-or-be-stigmatised choice.

So, by making intent the dimension upon which the controversy turns, motivation becomes the key grading factor. You can’t decide you are against Critical Race Theory because it is false, or because you think it has pernicious social implications. No, it is all about the declared intent of Critical Race Theory and whether you are “anti-racist” or not.

If one accepts the theory that society is a structure of oppression and domination, and that social interactions (including discussions) are all about power relations, then the Activist’s Fallacy is not merely a rhetorically useful status play, it is a natural implication of your world-view.

Which, of course, implies that there are things deeply wrong with your world-view. For the Activist’s Fallacy is still a fallacy. It is still bad reasoning, no matter how rhetorically useful it is. Nor how much of a congenial status play it is.

There are a whole lot of things wrong with Critical Race Theory, starting with it simply not being true that racism is pervasive in contemporary Western societies, or that disparities between groups are primarily the result of current racism, or that persistent disparities demonstrate systemic racism. It is a false analysis of social dynamics. Critical Race Theory’s racialisation of everything is also deeply pernicious in its effects on social dynamics and public policy.

Structural roles

Something that is very clear from the history of investing grand social meanings onto race, aided by “race” having visible physical markers, is that elite race talk is always a divide-and-dominate mechanism. And Critical Race Theory is very much elite race talk: it came out of elite universities.

We tend to over-rate the importance of conscious intent in human actions. As Polish psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski (1921–2007) noted:
Unconscious psychological processes outstrip conscious reasoning, both in time and in scope, which makes many psychological phenomena possible…
Political Ponerolology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes, p.163.
The over-rating of the role of conscious intent tends to be particularly likely when there are powerful social, institutional or organisational feedbacks and incentives in play. We find it very easy to tell congenial narratives about ourselves — to ourselves and to others — about beliefs (and actions) that may have other reasons to resonate with us. Especially if they also resonate with other folk in similar social positions, so that there are selection processes in favour of developing mutually congenial patterns of action and accompanying justifying narratives.

Instead of asking about conscious intent, let’s consider interests and feedbacks. Let’s instead ask the Who-Whom? question; the who benefits? question.

Who benefits if Critical Race Theory is not subject to searching critique about its factual accuracy and its social implications? Who benefits if US society is more intensely racialised? Who benefits if race-delineated divisions increase? Who gains status and career opportunities from spruiking up such racialising? Probably not workers, local residents or the general citizenry.

Those wielding the Activist’s Fallacy want to tell a noble story about their own intentions and a malicious story about the intentions of those who disagree with them. If they want to play that game, a deeper look at incentives and interests, about why certain narratives are so appealing and to whom, may not take analysis where they want to go.

Recognise the Activist’s Fallacy for what it is: a self-serving evasion. And don’t fall for it. Be prepared to call it out for the dishonest, self-aggrandising, rhetorical ploy it is.

[A previous version was posted on Medium.]

5 comments:

  1. You keep failing to see the mirror.

    Critical Race Theory is a thing. A very definite, well defined, academic course of study. It is only ever taught in Law School, in the US, as an advanced subject.

    It was also almost completely unknown outside that context until the US Right and its resonant echo chambers around the world started complaining about it.

    Or: Nobody would have known what CRT was until you lot started bitching and moaning at the effrontary of asking people if they thought there might be the possibility that there might be such a thing as a system which had developed in such a way that no current participant in that system would be racist, and yet the system itself could be based on racism, with racist and
    discriminatory outcomes. (The answer, in the US context is: yes, it clearly and evidently is at pretty much every scale, politically, economically, educationally, socially, and historically, and the occasional example of a black person who has succeeded despite all the above does not disprove the general systemic problems.)

    You lot keep wailing about how CRT is being talked about on every street corner, discussed on every TV channel, brought into every classroom. And it is. Now. BY YOU.

    CRT indeed came out of elite universities. And if you lot hadn't been lying about it being taught in high schools (which, you know, it never has been, except for now because high school students need to be taught what it is so they know what people like you keep complaining about), it would have stayed there.

    "There are a whole lot of things wrong with Critical Race Theory, starting with it simply not being true that racism is pervasive in contemporary Western societies, or that disparities between groups are primarily the result of current racism, or that persistent disparities demonstrate systemic racism. It is a false analysis of social dynamics."

    Dear god where to start?

    1) It was never about "Western" societies, it was developed in and about the society of the United States of America.
    2) Part of the point of it was that in the current system, you don't need anyone currently in it to be racist: the racist and discriminatory outcomes are already baked in, both in the way the system works and is applied, and in the relative starting positions for the some of the populations now in it.
    3) Can you distinguish between "systemic racism" and "a racist system"? If not, you probably shouldn't be trying to engage with CRT at its level and expect to be taken seriously, any more than if you complain about the General Theory of Relativity but only have a loose understanding of partial derivatives.
    4) It is not an analysis of *social* dynamics at all. It is an analysis of *legal* dynamics and their consequences.

    You keep talking about how The Left "want to tell a noble story about their own intentions and a malicious story about the intentions of those who disagree with them. If they want to play that game, a deeper look at incentives and interests, about why certain narratives are so appealing and to whom, may not take analysis where they want to go."

    Please, please please, apply that standard to the people who are lying to you about what CRT is and why you should hate it.

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    Replies
    1. I was using CRT as an example. (Your complete failure to wrestle with the actual point of the post is striking.) The US is the largest Western societies, so probably covered by the set. For the rest, you assert a range of claims I did not make in my post. That no element of CRT has leached into any US schools is either a delusion or a lie. It is not hard to find people reporting what their kids are being taught that clearly comes from CRT. But that is not what the post is about. You have also not noticed that nowadays I don't talk much about "the Left" because many folk on the left hate and despise this stuff. And in what world are legal dynamics not also social dynamics? Much of the point of CRT is to claim that social dynamics pervasively leach into the law and any notion of legal neutrality is false because of the power of those social dynamics.

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  2. Finally there is a name for it - the activist fallacy! It is not just a fallacy, not just a self-serving evasion -- it is extremely uncivil and a violation of the principle of reciprocity because it assumes unflattering motivations for which there is no evidence.

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  3. CRT was your first and central example. That you clearly still don't know what it is doesn't help the rest of your argument.

    CRT is a legal theory which has been around since the 70's. Of course it *includes* aspects of how social dynamics feed the law and vice-versa, (because if you ignore social dynamics then you're not going to have a very good understanding of the laws) but it is fundamentally a study of *Legal* systems and their consequences. And a high level technical one at that. Take out that part of it, and what you're left with is a discussion about how there is racism in society. I hope you agree that that's a thing. And as far as that goes, yes, middle schoolers have noticed racism and talk about it in school (except in Texas, where it is now effectively illegal to talk about current racism in school).

    Sure, there is discussion of racism in school, but it's not CRT. If you disagree, then please tell me exactly which "elements of CRT" have "leached into any US schools", and feel free to include sources.

    As far as not "talking about the Left", well, OK. Sure. I'm sure it's just a coincidence that you're using all the sneers and strawmen that an entire industry have been using against the Left for many years now. Maybe you just don't realise you're doing it?

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