Tone Argument as Logical Fallacy

There’s been something wriggling in my mind about the tone argument, and why I think it is (a) a perfectly valid concept that is (b) often misused. The other day, while looking up a link on logical fallacies, it finally occurred to me just what it was I was trying to say.

The tone argument is a logical fallacy. Now, stop a second: I don’t mean that it’s a logical fallacy to tell someone they have invoked the tone argument. I mean that “I would listen to you if your tone was better” belongs on the list of logical fallacies with slippery slope, post hoc ergo propter hoc, and all those other things you learned in your philosophy and/or writing class. And just like those logical fallacies, it is both valid as a criticism of someone’s rhetoric and yet often overly simplistically and uncritically applied.

If you’ve never been introduced to logical fallacies, you can pretty much just Google it and get a good explanation. They’re exactly what it says on the tin: common logical mistakes. To use one of my favorites, there’s post hoc ergo propter hoc, “after this, therefore because of this,” which is basically using correlation to argue causation. See my belief that the Reds lose every time I actually watch a game. Another common one is the slippery slope, which basically claims that this step from the top of the hill will inevitably lead aaaallll the way down to the disastrous/ridiculous bottom. If we legalize same-sex marriage, people will want to marry their dogs.

Now, here’s where things get tricky. Some slopes are slippery. What makes a slippery slope argument a fallacy is that there is no logical reason to assume that Step A will lead to Place B, that there is a substantive difference between the two metaphorical locations. It’s not actually that big of a logical disconnect to argue that legalizing same-sex marriage would clear the way for poly marriages (to which the wise retort would be, “okay, prove to me that that’s a bad thing”). Many things in many legal systems are based on precedent, so arguing that one thing may lead to another is not inherently bad logic. The key is context and connection.

And herein lies the problem with logical fallacies, and why I often teach them with a great deal of caution: like many formulas, they are seductive in their concreteness, so seductive that people throw them around indiscriminately and forget that, like all rhetorical concepts, they are contextual. An ad hominem attack is an irrelevant attack on a speaker/writer’s character. Pointing out that a speaker who is arguing from personal experience has lied in the past about her/his background is not a logical fallacy. (Note: example is entirely hypothetical, so please don’t try to suss who I’m talking about ;). Pointing out that a writer/speaker who is arguing from personal experience in a discussion of driving laws once posted nude pics, not so relevant.

Which brings me to the tone argument.

I have been on the receiving end of comments that basically said, “you know, I can’t argue with anything you said, but I’m still offended by the way you said it.” And given that the arguments in question were usually, if anything, under emotional and aggressive for the topic (if anything, I often hedge too much), I obviously believe in the tone argument as a logical fallacy. I believe that some people attack an argument’s tone when they have nothing else to dispute but don’t want to concede, that such attacks are often insincere and derailing and, well, false. However, there are two contextual keys to the validity of calling something a tone argument:

  • Generally speaking, the person who is saying, “I would agree with you/support you/support your cause if you were nicer about it” has no intention of ever agreeing or supporting in any way. Admittedly, getting into motive is tricky, and I hate to say, “you know it when you see it,” but this is obviously going to be subject to interpretation. However, this argument often comes down not to, “I agree with you, but I think you could have phrased it better,” but, “I would agree with you if you phrased it better.” The fallacy is not objecting to wording but putting a price on agreement or support.
  • Some circumstances and topics certainly call for anger and vitriol. However, the key to this one is your purpose. Vitriol pretty much only works when (a) it’s aimed at someone other than your audience and (b) your audience already pretty much agrees with you. It’s great for rallying the troops, but for getting people to agree with you who didn’t before, it pretty much sucks. In this case, the logical fallacy is the assumption that the person offended by the writer’s anger is part of the writer’s intended audience. In other words, if you find yourself saying, “It’s not about you,” it’s probably a legitimate tone argument.

So yes, the tone argument absolutely exists and is absolutely used to derail and demean and otherwise distract from the fact that the person invoking it has no real argument against what they’re objecting to. That doesn’t mean that every single criticism of someone’s wording is a tone argument. That doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about how things are phrased. And it really, really doesn’t give people a free ticket to be an utter asshole.

Admittedly, I struggle with this, because hi, rhetorician, which is as much about how you say something as what you say. But as I’ve said a time or twelve, I also very much believe in purpose and context and audience. There are certainly combinations of these where anger and even vitriol is not only appropriate, but necessary. As I said above, it’s seldom particularly useful to be vitriolic toward your audience, although there are layers, there. I have been known to send a fairly pointed response or two to a blogger or company rep. However, usually when I do that, I know I have little hope of persuading the person I am actually addressing. I might hope to impress on them that their words or actions have genuinely upset me, but usually, by the time I’ve gotten to overt vitriol, I’ve given up on them, and am instead hoping that a secondary audience (other readers, usually) who are at least open to my ideas will be galvanized. So when someone says that they’d have listened if I’d just been nicer, and can just shrug and think, “no, you wouldn’t have,” and move on.

On the other hand, if I am genuinely trying to get people to listen to me and consider my ideas, then hostility and vitriol are probably not the best way to do it. If I want people to think about why a thread on hats at the royal wedding might bother some readers of a progressive blog, then opening with a sarcastic sneer at the blogger is probably not the best idea. If I want people to accept my critical comments about a book/tv show/etc, then saying that hearing people praise such horrid works makes me lose my faith in humanity, probably not a good idea. If I want to ask a question about a show that someone has just excitedly posted is coming back with new episodes, asking, “hey, did it ever stop sucking?” might just not be the way to go about it.

(And yes, those are real examples, and no, I’m not linking or naming names right now, because I kind of want to keep this about the principle and not the particular. Which isn’t to say you can’t disagree with me on them, of course.)

And again, to come to a major point, it doesn’t mean that every instance of, “You know, you’re kind of being an asshole” is a tone argument. Just as a relevant discussion of a writer’s character is not an ad hominem attack, saying, “You know, telling me to go to hell in the same breath that you ask me to explain what I mean does not exactly incline me to engage you in discussion” is not a tone argument. It’s a logical, reasonable, understandable response.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying: every discussion of tone is not a tone argument. And like anything else, people are going to disagree on whether something is or isn’t one. And also like so many other things, I don’t particularly hope to reach the handful of people who state things in the nastiest, most vitriolic, most derisive way possible and then cry “tone argument!” when anyone objects. What I wanted to do was work through just why those situations bother me, and maybe give myself and others a ground on which to discuss the complexities of the tone argument.

(See: purpose! Yeah, yeah, I’ll stop now.)

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Update on the “Octomom” case

God, how I loathe that term, and will not be using it again, but it is the one people are familiar with.

Nadya Suleman’s fertility doctor has had his license revoked for a pattern of neglect and poor practice. Since I’ve talked about the case before, I feel like I ought to say something.

This is exactly what should have happened.

It has frustrated and even infuriated me that Suleman has been used to debate fertility science without the slightest awareness that not only is her situation rare on about seven different levels (no, there are not vast swaths of women in the US on public assistance getting IVF), but that it went against best and standard practices of fertility treatments. Apparently, the doctor transferred twelve embryos, which the article points out is six times the standard number for a woman Suleman’s age. Standard practices work specifically to avoid high order multiples.

I suppose you could ultimately have a philosophical argument over whether the patients involved (yes, there was more than one) should have been allowed to dictate their own treatment and demand the transfer of 7 or 12 embryos, but at least now, under current medical practices, doctors are expected to override (or at least refuse to carry out) what they consider to be medically unsound decisions. And as such, this is exactly what should have happened.

1. The body that has oversight over doctors stepped in and made a decision. They listened to government input (in this case, a judge), but ultimately made a decision based on their own expertise and practices. No new laws were made or oversights were created based on an exceedingly rare case. Rather, the oversights that already exist were applied.

2. The body made the decision based on medical criteria and professional standards of care, not on any sense of whether Suleman was a good parent or worthy of having children or should have been “allowed” to have more children than she already had.

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Fat and Angry: To Those Who Love Us

(Note: Possible triggers for weight and body issues.)

Meta note the first: this essay largely refers to the hypothetical overweight person as “she,” because what I know is being an overweight woman.  I welcome the perspective of overweight men, because I do believe that while we share some experiences, we don’t share others.

Meta note the second: I am well aware that no experience, feeling, or attitude is universal.  I know there are exceptions to everything I’m saying here.  If you, as an overweight person, wish to add your perspective, I welcome it.  If you, as a thin person, want to tell me that I’m totally wrong because your cousin did XYZ…well, let’s just say proceed with caution.

Meta note the third: I’ve waffled quite a bit on the tone of this piece.  On the one hand, there’s the whole flies/vinegar/honey thing.  On the other hand, if parts of this sound irritable, well, frankly, I’m irritated.  I could go into detail about why, but I’m pretty sure you can imagine why a 5’2″, 245lb woman in our culture might be just a tad annoyed about attitudes toward fat people.

Okay, end of meta notes.  I know, I can never say anything in a single sentence.

Last spring, when I was doing massive amounts of training (kind of like now), I observed that the more progress I make in my fitness, and the better I feel about my body, the angrier I get about fat hatred and its attendant issues. I mean, it’s not that hard to suss: I was/am feeling good about a body that is still an object of at best concern and at worst outright scorn by much of my culture. The changes all my labor has produced are not trivial, but they’re not particularly visible, either, unless you’re paying very close attention.

What I wrote then was basically a rant about judgment and toxic thinking, but what I have here is something a little different.  One of the most frustrating aspects of fat hatred is how much of it is couched in the language of love.  It’s not hard to imagine how many of the things fat people are told are uttered by family, friends, partners, loved ones.  Some people really, genuinely believe that they have an obligation to be cruel to fat people, who really seem to believe not just that fat people deserve scorn and shame, but that treating them with scorn and shame is in their best interest. It is only being cruel to be kind. Because hey, if we let fat people forget that they’re bad, lazy, sub-human people, they might stay fat.

I know I am never going to reach the people who are genuinely cruel and are just using concern as an excuse to exercise that cruelty.  This is for the friends, family members, and loved ones who genuinely want to be kind, want to help us, want to find the right tactic to make us understand why we must lose weight and how to do so.

In a word: don’t.

I probably need to explain more about that, don’t I?  Okay, let me break it down.

The first principle, and the one most of the others stem from, is that we’re not stupid.  “Ignorant” might be a better term, but you get the idea.

What do I mean by that?  Well, first and most importantly, we know we’re fat.  No matter how many advice columnists suggest you voice your concern about our weight (Abby, I’m looking at you), we really don’t need you to tell us we’re overweight.  We live in these bodies.  We dress them, bathe them, see them in the mirror both clothed and naked.  We know them better than anyone in the world.  Trust me: we know we’re fat.  We know we’ve put on weight in the last year.  We know we’ve gained back what we lost through that last diet.  We know.  We don’t need you to point it out.

Also, we know the effects our weight has on our health.  And I am phrasing that very carefully, because (a) the correlation between weight and health is more complex than most people think, but (b) I’m not particularly prepared to get into a debate about it here.  The real point is this: unless you are not only a medical professional, but our medical professional, we almost certainly know what effects our weight is and is not having on our health better than you do.

And yes, we know being fat is socially undesirable.  You really, really, really don’t need to tell us any of the ways in which our lives would be easier if we were thinner.  No overweight woman who has walked into Target and seen the clothes in her size reduced to a couple of racks and a few feet of the back wall needs to be informed of the ways in which being overweight makes life just that much more complicated, or that people will judge us for our size, will consider us less attractive, lazy, sloppy, and a whole host of other bad things.  We’re not stupid.  We live this experience daily.  We don’t need you to point it out to us.

The second principle is that you should not assume that just because you know one thing about us (that we’re fat), that you know everything about us.  And yes, I am specifically thinking of our eating and physical activity.  Obviously this one is more contextual, as someone who lives with an overweight person, be it a spouse or parent, probably does know these things, but generally speaking, unless you live with someone, you don’t know their habits.  And while I have no hope of convincing the concern trolls or genuinely hateful people to strike all variations of “stuffing your face” or “put down the fork,” I am assuming that people who are actually friends and loved ones don’t want to cause pain.

You really cannot discern a person’s eating or exercise habits by their size.  No, you can’t.  I had an epiphany once that most thin people assume that if a fat person just ate and exercised at the level they themselves to, that fat person would lose a lot of weight.  And while I’m sure there are exceptions, for most of us, it is simply not true.  That thin person is eating enough and exercising enough to maintain their current weight.  A fat person who ate like them and exercised like them might lose a few pounds, but would most likely…maintain their current weight.  True weight loss requires consuming less fuel than you burn.  It requires deprivation, no matter what terms the diet industry uses.  And yes, I’m sure you had a great experience with Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig or South Beach.  That doesn’t mean I will have that same experience.  But most importantly, there is only one person aside from me who sees how I eat on a regular basis.  You cannot discern that just by looking at me.

And even if you see me eating a donut, you don’t know if that’s the first donut I’ve had in four months, or the fourth donut I’ve had today.  And even if it is the fourth donut I’ve had today, you don’t know why I’m having that fourth donut.  And if your response is that there’s never a good reason to eat four donuts in a morning, well, I guess you’re a paragon of restraint who has never overindulged, never coped with a bad day less than perfectly (and let’s face it, on the scale of bad things you could do to cope with a bad day, donuts are pretty far down the list), never felt like you just couldn’t face another yogurt and granola breakfast.  And even if I’m eating those donuts for the “wrong” reasons, do you really think making me feel worse about myself for it is the answer?  Because I guarantee, the most likely response is that I’ll say, “Well, fuck it, if I’m going to get judged anyway, I might as well have another donut.”

As a side note, because it’s a pet peeve of mine: this principle is especially true of friends and relatives you only see on special occasions.  Yes, I eat too much at Thanksgiving.  That’s what Thanksgiving is for.  Yes, I can eat a lot of LaRosa’s pizza when I visit my mom, because that’s the only time I get LaRosa’s.  Don’t judge someone’s eating habits by how they eat at a birthday party.  Better yet, don’t judge them at all.

This same principle holds true for physical activity.  Yes, believe it or not, there are fat people who exercise, and exercise a LOT.  I do fairly intense interval training and resistance training 5-6 days a week.  If someone told me that oh, if I’d just walk 20 minutes a day, it would make such a difference, I don’t know whether I’d laugh myself sick or punch them.  (More on this in a second.)

Moreover, if a person isn’t exercising, don’t assume you know why.  The best example of this is the overweight person using the scooter in the grocery.  I bet when you see that, your first thought is, God, to be so fat that you can’t even walk around the grocery.  I admit: I’ve had that thought.  Except, there’s a funny thing: turns out that when you have a disability that prevents you from being physically active, sometimes you gain weight.  And even if the only thing preventing the person from walking is weight, do you really think she needs you to tell her that life would be easier if she lost weight?  Do you really think she doesn’t know that?  Do you really think it’s a kindness to make her feel worse?

Which brings me to the third principle: don’t offer unsolicited advice.  If you happen to be a nutritionist or personal trainer, and someone asks for your advice, that’s great, but for everyone else: trust me.  We’ve heard it.  See above.  All of these principles, but particularly the one about thin people assuming eating and exercising like they do would cause a fat person to shed 100 pounds, are why unsolicited advice is bad.  Because again, you don’t know what you think you know.  That person you’re telling to walk 20 minutes a day might be jogging 3-6 miles regularly, might be a competitive dancer, might just be doing the best they can to exercise regularly.  Or they might have an invisible disability that makes even 20 minutes of walking impossible.  Or they might be struggling with body image related depression, and your comment will trigger them.  Or they might just not want to hear it one. more. time. Because trust me: we’ve heard it.

All of this adds up to a final principle: you can’t lose the weight for me.  I know that you love me.  I know that you’re concerned.  But my life is not a Lifetime movie, and I am not one gentle, tearful intervention and a training and cooking montage away from a size 4.  My life is real, and complicated, and most of all mine.  I have made certain choices about how I deal with my weight.  Another person might make different choices.  But they’re our choices, and it’s us that will have to do the work to follow through on those choices.  And speaking only for myself, very little will sabotage the good feeling and momentum I might have at any given moment like having other people focus on my weight.

If you really want to be kind, then be kind.  It’s really not that hard to treat a fat person like a human being, like a person instead of a fat person.  It just isn’t.

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Why I Hate “One Teacher Who Made A Difference”

Apropos of maaaaany discussions of teachers lately, in obvious contexts: I hate most movies about teachers. I particularly hate movies about “one teacher who makes a difference.” I have mentioned this before, but seldom spelled out why. Here it is.

Three Reasons I Hate “One Teacher Who Made A Difference”:

1. These movies, in focusing on a single teacher, and often a single teacher in a sea of indifference, argue that all the problems with our educational system could be fixed if teachers just cared more and tried harder. Underfunding, bad policy, apathetic and/or overworked parents, a dominant culture that discourages critical thinking…trifles. No, a really good teacher can inspire anyway.

2. In constructing teaching as a sacred calling, we construct teachers as saints and martyrs. Which sounds great until you get to the part where this lets us justify not paying them shit. We expect our best and brightest to sacrifice not just prosperity but sometimes stability to be teachers out of altruism, rather than making the financial investment to attract them. See Jon Stewart’s commentary on that. (Note: you can substitute many, many professions, here, including prosecuting attorneys, doctors and nurses who work in poorer paying environments, etc.)

2b. In addition, in constructing “good” teachers as saints and martyrs, we vilify teachers who view teaching as a job, who decline to sacrifice their own relationships, families, and outside interests to devote every spare minute to teaching. My own personal favorite, btw, was a TV movie showing a teacher doing his middle-school student’s chores so she could do her homework. See point #1, btw: the family’s financial situation, which caused the student to be left with the care of her younger siblings, is presented as something that can be overcome if the teacher just cares enough.

3. There is a tendency on the part of these movies to glorify teachers who impart valuable “life lessons” (usually in the form of teaching kids to buck the system) at the expense of teaching the subject matter they are hired to teach. And yes, this is where my utter loathing of Dead Poets Society comes from. I am the first person to say that I think literature is as much about teaching ways of approaching text as it is about teaching particular texts themselves (although that varies from class to class), and hey, I’m all about questioning tradition. But it is nonetheless true that we seldom saw that teacher teaching literature. I’ve embraced a fair degree of radical thinking about writing teaching in my time, but it also remains that the world I am preparing my students for expects them to know how to organize their stunningly original thoughts in a coherent manner and present them in coherent sentences. That doesn’t make me a tool of the man. That makes me someone who is doing my job.

These, btw, are only the aspects of these movies that deal with teaching as a profession. There’s a whooooole lot to unpack about race, gender, and other social issues in many of these movies. This does a better job of invoking these issues than I could.

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