Monday, December 23, 2013

Big Fat Fallacies: Appeal to Pity

See the introduction to this series and an index of posts HERE.

Appeal to Pity (Argumentum Ad Misericordiam)

This is a fallacy in informal logic where the arguer attempts to manipulate the emotions of their target by invoking pity for another person.  It is part of the Fallacies of Relevance, because in an argument, the person's emotional state should have nothing to do with how well the evidence actually supports the conclusion of an argument.  

In Fat Acceptance, this one is most commonly seen in a "think of the children" context.  The argument is that unless we can somehow eradicate fat people, children will be harmed.   It is a primary mover and shaker in the so-called "war on obesity," as anytime someone invokes the well-being of children, it is implied that to then disagree with the argument's conclusion would be heartless.  On closer examination, "lose weight or you hate children" doesn't exactly hold water as an argument.  

Its other manifestation usually involves an interaction with someone close to you.  A parent, sibling, child, or best friend will pull the "it hurts me to see you take such poor care of yourself" card.  This is much more problematic, as it is a subtle form of emotional blackmail.  They are saying "if you love me, you will change."  But the blackmail is usually taking place on such a low level of subtext that they would be hurt and offended if you actually pointed it out to them.   

Dissecting the Fallacy

The fallacies that appeal to emotions are illogical, but effective.   Our emotions often drive our decisions, actions, and even our thoughts.  While the appeal to pity can sway either our genuine empathy or our need to identify as a good person, at its core lies poor personal boundaries.

Many people mistake the outward expression of personal boundaries ("I will not spend time with someone who fat shames me.") for the boundaries themselves.  In fact, boundaries are something you set with yourself, inside your head, rather than with other people.  You decide what you are willing to accept or take personal responsibility for, and act on that decision.  

An appeal to pity is a rather sneaky way for someone to convince you to take responsibility for their own emotional state or well-being.   You are being offered responsibility for the well-being of all children, everywhere.  You are being offered responsibility for your loved one's emotional state and anxieties.  

Worse, you are being asked to sacrifice your own well-being and emotional state in order to satisfy that of others.

Deciding What to Do

It helps considerably to already have your own personal boundaries in place.  Making the decision ahead of time as to how much you will let the emotions of others affect your decision-making gives you a solid metric by which to respond.

It can be very hard to say no. You might feel like a bad person (especially if the other person accuses you of such).  You might feel that if your self-acceptance hurts your mother, then it is cruel.  She might even say so.  She would be wrong.

If someone else hinges their emotional well-being on your decisions about your body, they are practicing poor boundaries and you are not responsible for their pain.  Your decision to diet or not does not actually affect them outside of their own anxieties.  You can help them sort through and cope with those anxieties, but you cannot "fix" them, especially by giving up your own body autonomy. If you try, the anxiety will simply shift to something else, and you will eventually have to draw a line concerning control over your life.  Start now with control over your body.  

Another boundary to consider is how often you're willing to put up with continued attempts to coerce you.  You may make the decision that it is worth spending time with family to put up with the one fat-shaming relative once a year.  You may decide it is too triggering.  The important part is that it is your own decision to make.  Once you know that it can't be taken away from you, you'll find a lot of the defensive reaction to attempts to do so start to fade. 


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Big Fat Fallacies: Appeal to Fear, Appeal to Force

See the introduction to this series and an index of posts HERE

Appeal to Fear (argumentum ad metum) 

This is a fallacy in informal logic where the arguer attempts to manipulate the emotions of their target by invoking fear.  It is part of the Fallacies of Relevance, because in an argument, the person's emotional state should have nothing to do with how well the evidence actually supports the conclusion of an argument. 

In terms of fat activism, the appeal to fear is an old acquaintance that should be forgot.  Some examples include:

  • "If you don't lose weight you will die of diabetes" (or cancer, or a dozen other nebulously "linked" diseases).
  • "If you don't make your children lose weight they will be taken away from you.
  • "If you don't lose weight, no one will ever love you."
  • "If you don't lose weight, you will never be successful."

While these statements often drag in other logical fallacies, especially slippery slope and false dichotomy, their primary weapon is fear.  

Argument from Force (Argumentum ad baculum)

Often presented as a subset of the appeal to fear, the argument from force uses fear in a much more personal way; a direct threat.  The most common example used in logic to illustrate this goes something like: "You should really change my grade.  My father is the dean and won't be happy when I tell him you flunked me."  

Like the appeal to fear, this "argument by the stick" drags in information completely irrelevant to the argument, but is intended to coerce the listener into agreeing with the arguer.  

In weight stigma, this kind of argument is especially difficult to deal with.  Examples include:
  • Doctor: "I don't want to see you back again until you've lost ten pounds." or  "I don't want to have to label you non-compliant."
  • Co-Worker: "You should really participate in my 'biggest loser' office contest.  I don't think our boss would appreciate your uncooperative attitude."
  • Boss:  "You need to lose some weight if you want to keep this promotion; the regional director has very specific ideas of who gets to represent the image of our company."
  • Partner: "I hope you never get fat.  I could never be attracted to a fat person."
Note that none of these arguments have anything to do with adipose tissue, or even health.  They all rely on threats (withholding medical care, workplace status, promotion or love) in order to convince.  While arguments from force can be phrased in such a way that they sound caring, it is important to recognize the one thing they have in common; a threat.

Dissecting the Fallacy

When confronted with an argument from fear, the first step is to sort out what the person is presenting as far as facts.  Tackle the facts separate from the emotional content, and you find that the emotional content is often just a boogeyman in disguise, no matter how convincing it sounds. 

So there's three key questions you need to ask, straight out of Dialectic Behavioral Therapy techniques:

1. What am I being told to be afraid of? 

When dealing with a fallacy, you're not dealing with facts, or even the conclusion the person is stating.  Your primary focus is the subtext.  In this case, the subtext is "you should be afraid of this thing."  

2.  How realistic is this fear?

What is the actual likelihood that this feared thing will take place, and how bad would it be if it did?  It is important to disengage statistics from personal experiences.  If fat people are paid, on average, less than thin people, you cannot take away the idea that losing weight would improve your personal job prospects, or risk for (largely genetic) diseases.  Statistics talk about groups, not individuals. 

Causation vs. correlation falls into consideration here as well.  We still don't know, for instance, whether high levels of fat causes diabetes or diabetes causes weight gain ,or whether both are attributable to a third factor.  

The fact that this is a fallacy means that if you look closely at their argument, the facts don't hold up.  The difference in life expectancy by weight category is vastly exaggerated (and in some weight classes, non-existent).  Fat children mainly stay with their parents with a very few (albeit horrific) exceptions.  Fat people fall in love and get married often enough to support a plus-size wedding dress industry.  Fat people get their doctorates, or become Surgeon General of the U.S. Terrible things do happen, but it is important to be able to realistically evaluate the chances of it happening to you personally.  

3.  Is this thing within my control?

There is a very long list of studies that show long-term significant weight loss is an impossibility for the vast majority of people.  So even if the fear is realistic, a permanent weight change may not be within your control.  Also consider that if the thing to fear is actually caused by something other than your weight, such as genetic or epigenetic factors, biological or environmental limitations, or the decisions of other people, then your control is highly limited.  

Remember that your control in any situation is limited to your own thoughts, words, boundaries and actions.  
Deciding What to Do
You should first consider whether the relationship is worth preserving, and whether the speaker is operating from genuine (if misplaced) concern or actual malice.  

Let me state up front that you have NO responsibility to educate others about fat, or to teach them how to be a decent human being.  You can choose to take on that responsibility, but remember that fixing ignorance is extremely hard work that uses up many Sanity Watcher's points.  If a relationship is valuable to you AND you think the person can be convinced, you can choose to make the attempt.  If either or both of these factors are absent, then you can find an exit strategy.  This can be as simple as blocking a troll on Facebook, or as complicated as switching doctors.  

A third factor in your decision may be the audience.  If you don't care what a troll thinks, but you would like to use them as a learning experience for your readers, you can engage (just don't expect to ever convince them.)  If you don't care about a stranger's opinion, but they fat shame in front of your child, you may choose to set a good example.  

If a person is using a fear tactic out of genuine concern, look for even further subtext in what they are saying.  Are they genuinely afraid of losing you?  Do they genuinely want you to be happy?  If so, address that subtext directly.  Offer them information on Health at Every Size, fat studies, and other information debunking the common fears about fat.  Start with the ASDAH website, or Linda Bacon's website which have resources and training information they can browse.  Get them a book from Pearlsong Press that you think they can process.  Re-assure them that you are happy, or are finding your own path to happiness that doesn't revolve around your weight.  Refer them to blogs by happy fat people.  Let them know that they are diminishing your happiness by rejecting your decision to love your body. 

Concerning the argument from force, however, I strongly believe that person who threatens you is not a person who truly cares about your well being and personal autonomy.  Arguments from fear and force are red flags for a toxic relationship.  The best solution may be an exit strategy from that relationship.   

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Big Fat Fallacies: Introduction

Samuel Clemens said "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."  Logical fallacies are a fourth type of lie, and one that is often entirely unintentional.  While false facts can be refuted, fallacies are more insidious.  They set up the illusion that the conclusion of their argument is supported by their argument when it is not. This can be confusing, because what you're really fighting is the subtext; the things that aren't being said directly.  Pointing out the fallacy means you'll be accused of missing the point, changing the subject, or putting words in someone's mouth.   But being able to spot these fallacies not only helps you think more critically when you read or encounter a claim about weight, avoiding them yourself gives your argument better credibility against attacks in turn.  

This is the starting point and index for my series on informal logical fallacies used against FA or HAES. Since every philosophy textbook you read will have a slightly different approach and interpretation of fallacies (even as to whether they exist or belong in philosophy), I should specify that I am drawing from A Concise Introduction to Logic (11th Edition) by Patrick J. Hurley, and Dr. Michael C. Labossiere's Fallacy Tutorial Pro 3.0 as appearing on the Nizkor Project website, for definitions of informal fallacies.  
Each fallacy will appear as a link once there is a post covering it.  

 Fallacies of Relevance:  These bring in information that is completely irrelevant to a person's conclusion, but pretend to give strong evidence as to why you should agree. 
  1. Appeal to Fear/Argument from Force
  2. Appeal to Pity
  3. Appeal to the People
  4. Argument Against the Person
  5. Fallacy of Accident
  6. Straw Man
  7. Missing the Point
  8. Red Herring
Fallacies of Weak Induction:  These arguments are phrased in a way that gives the illusion that the evidence strongly supports the conclusion, but the support is actually quite weak on closer examination.
  1. Appeal to Unqualified Authority
  2. Appeal to Ignorance
  3. Hasty Generalization
  4. False Cause 
  5. Slippery Slope
  6. Weak Analogy
Fallacies of Presumption:  These assume information when making a point, and try to distract you from the fact that the evidence assumed is actually weak, non-existent, or modified by certain unstated facts.
  1. Begging the Question
  2. Complex Question
  3. False Dichotomy
  4. Suppressed Evidence
Fallacies of Ambiguity: These rely on ambiguous meaning in a word or phrase to twist them into the illusion of support for a conclusion.
  1. Equivocation
  2. Amphiboly
Fallacies of Grammatical Analogy: These erroneously transfer attributes from parts to the whole (or vice-versa).
  1. Fallacy of Composition
  2. Fallacy of Division

Some Definitions

 If you've never encountered logic, there are some basic terms that will be thrown around in these posts that might need explanation.  This section will be expanded as needed as the series continues. 

Argument: A collection of statements including one or more premises which claim to support a conclusion.  

Premise: A statement used to support a conclusion.

Conclusion: A statement claimed to be supported by one or more premises.

Example 1: 
Premise: A if B
Premise: B
Conclusion: Therefore A.

Example 2: 
Premise: Doctor Who has had over 800 episodes
Premise: Star Trek has had 726 episodes in all series combined
Conclusion: Therefore, Doctor Who has been a longer television series than Star Trek.  

(unstated conclusion: I am a big ol' nerd!) 

Fallacy: in informal logic, a flaw in an argument that is not based on false premises alone.  In other words, there is more wrong with the argument than just incorrect facts; there is something fundamentally wrong with the argument itself.