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.   

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