Saturday, November 22, 2008

That Kind of Person: The Genetic Fallacy

I have observed a recurrent pattern in partisan politics; the trope that "that kind of person" holds a certain opinion, and therefore that opinion is without merit. This is called the Genetic Fallacy. As an example, Adolf Hitler believed that smoking was bad for you. Does this mean that smoking is good for you?

Of course not. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. But beyond the obvious fallacy, there is something even more insidious going on here: stereotyping and demonization. For an example of the first, lets take Stuff White People Like. It should be just a joke, but some take it seriously as a list of things that "that kind of person" like. I have news for them. At least half of these things are liked by people who are not at all the people you might expect them to be. If you assume they are bleeding heart liberals, some of them might surprise you by getting offended if you call them that. I know a few people who are "to the right of God" who like more than half the things on that list--but the list is supposed to be a litany of liberal values. This is another kind of fallacy: the Strawman fallacy. Never mind who people are, let's create a fantasy and attack that.

Guess what: people don't come in brands. They aren't stamped out on a cookie press with labels on them. Everyone is a mixed bag. Some of the people I really like and spend a lot of time with hold opinions that I abhor, and I still like them. Mostly, what I find is that they haven't really considered them that much, because these are issues that don't really concern them, and for the most part, I don't challenge them on it unless they invite the challenge. They take the most common opinion on the matter offered to them, whether it be their parents or their parish or their friends, and that's that. And its all wildly divergent, like the company they keep. I do, however, have an issue with those who presume to inform them without any qualifications. I'm really not big on demagogues, cult leaders, con-artists, pseudo-scientists, and pseudo-intellectuals. Those people are just begging to be challenged, and I'm happy to oblige. Fortunately, they do come with labels attached; usually, towering neon signs, with newspaper ads weeks in advance.

Now to my second point: stereotyping invites demonization. If you have a bunch of boxes prepared for the rest of humanity, with a mindlessly facile means of categorizing them, then you will go through life dropping people in boxes. He's one of those (hate them.) She's one of these (hate them.) Not really a good way to approach the world, is it? Hatred closes the door to understanding. You will never know whether you might like these people. More to the point, you will never really understand what it is they really think, or why they think it; strawman arguments prevent you from meeting the real argument, which means that you will never have any hope of convincing someone from the other side, because you are arguing with a fictional character of your own creation. And frankly, it's a good idea if you approach people as someone you might like if you had the time, even if you don't have the time. It makes simple human courtesy a lot easier than just hating them on the basis of their choice of cheese, just because some brainless drooling pundit said that that kind of person likes that cheese.

Worst of all, thinking of people as "that kind of person" makes you "that kind of person."