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. 


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