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How the toupée fallacy enables judgmental jerks

The toupée fallacy is named for a particular example of the informal fallacy that goes something like this:

All toupées look fake; I’ve never seen one that I couldn’t tell was fake.

Like a lot of fallacies, it’s so painfully obvious when it’s spelled out that you might have a hard time believing that anyone actually entertains this kind of thought. You would immediately respond to a person who said this by replying “Look, genius, you only think that all toupées look fake because the only ones you’ve noticed have been the bad fake ones. The ones that are clearly fake.” They might respond by insisting that they’re very good at detecting the existence of toupées, but that would be beside the point– in fact, it would detract from the point they’re trying to make. If all toupées look fake, then it wouldn’t be necessary to have refined toupée detection skills to detect them.

And of course we wouldn’t care about detecting toupées at all, bad or not, if we weren’t judgmental about the act of wearing a toupée in the first place.  If we didn’t think that being “fake” was wrong, we would not care about “real” vs. “fake.” We most likely wouldn’t have a notion of “fake” in the first place. Instead of Fake Thing vs. Real Thing, there would simply be One Kind of Thing and Another Kind of Thing.

Toupées are kind of an outdated thing to be judgmental about, with the glaring exception of course being Donald Trump. Trump might be single-handedly keeping the toupée fallacy alive specifically regarding toupées. But not in general, because there are so many things people are judgmental about, so many places where people have decided that there’s a “fake” and a “real,” and I’m going to discuss a few.

Cosmetic surgery

The terms “cosmetic surgery” and “plastic surgery” are often used interchangeably, but cosmetic surgery is that brand of plastic surgery performed to enhance a patient’s appearance aesthetically.  The toupée fallacy among people who are judgmental about cosmetic surgery (and gosh, there are a lot of them) occurs because having surgery to improve your appearance is perceived to be wrong. By its own name (“cosmetic”) it’s not medically necessary, therefore it’s not necessary at all. And if you’re one of the people who thinks this way, you have an incentive to believe that cosmetic surgery is obvious– how else would you point out people who have had it and call them out as vain and silly?

But of course, only the obvious cosmetic surgery is obvious. In all other cases the “fake” is indistinguishable from the “real,” unless you happen to have before/after photos of the person in question. If you treat cosmetic surgery as kind of deception committed by a shallow person against the world, this distinction matters.  If you simply see it as a person opting to change his/her appearance for non-medical reasons, it does not. There is no real and fake– there is simply before and after.

No makeup

Wearing makeup is another way in which people– invariably women– are perceive as pulling one over on the world, specifically the heterosexual men of the world. Apparently it’s a crime to make your face look different, even on a temporary basis, because a man could look at it and not realize that you weren’t born looking that way.

The toupée fallacy here takes the form of insisting that women without makeup don’t just look better but are vaguely morally superior (by not taking part in the deception), and of course the person making the judgment can tell perfectly well whether a woman is wearing makeup or not.

Buzzfeed has a list of examples of people praising celebrity women for being “natural” and going without makeup when they are actually wearing minimal makeup or just non-obvious makeup.  If you’ve ever seen a makeup tutorial, you probably know that just as much time and work can go into a non-obvious makeup job as an obvious one.

So much of makeup is corrective– if a person spends an hour hiding her pimples and under-eye circles, and giving herself the appearance of more prominent cheekbones, how is that going to be distinguishable from someone who just has prominent cheekbones, and lacks pimples and under-eye circles?  And what is the moral difference if one of those people is wearing bright orange lipstick while the other is wearing colorless lip balm?

There isn’t one, of course. There are only aesthetic preferences turned normative judgments.

Fake geek girls

The toupée fallacy regarding “fake geek girls,” on the other hand, is not about aesthetic preference– or at least, not just about that. A fake geek girl is a girl who appears to enjoy comics, video games, tabletop games, etc. when she actually doesn’t– or doesn’t enjoy them sufficiently to count. This distinction matters to people who consider themselves gatekeepers of geekdom, and believe that there is an actual problem of girls pretending to be interested in geeky things in order to win the attention and affection of geeky boys.

This kind of person commits the toupée fallacy by assuming that he (generally “he,” but not necessarily) has both the authority and the ability to assess a woman’s actual interest in/knowledge of geeky things and compare it to how much she appears to enjoy these things. Because– again– there is something wrong with appearing to enjoy geeky things more than you actually do. Apparently.

Transmen and transwomen

This is far and away the place where committing the toupée fallacy has the worst consequence– it is literally a matter of life and death.

Transphobia often involves believing that you can tell the difference between trans men and “real” men, between trans women and “real” women, and that this difference matters because being transgender is fundamentally wrong.

Natalie Reed is a trans woman who wrote a blog post specifically about this issue called Passability and the Toupée Fallacy, which discusses the incredible injustice of demanding that trans people “pass” as their claimed gender identity in order to be treated as…well, as people.

To “transition” is to take measures (such as wearing different clothes, getting “top surgery,” hormone replacement therapy, etc.) to change your appearance to more closely match that gender identity, and some trans people transition while others do not. There are various reasons why a trans person might not transition. They might feel more comfortable in their current appearance. They might simply not have the financial ability. For those who do transition, there is a societal expectation that they will or should do so “enough,” if they want to have their identity respected. And in reality, there are people who will never accept that someone’s gender now can differ from the one to which they were assigned at birth. To these people the different gender identity will always be the “fake,” while the previous one was the “real.”

We are moving away from this perception, albeit glacially. It amazes me how strongly society believes that it, not the individual in question, controls their identity.

Because in each of these cases, control is ultimately what we’re talking about. When someone declares they can decide that who you are is “fake,” whereas what you used to be, or what somebody else is, is “real,” they are trying to control you.

They are saying their perception of you matters more than your own of yourself.  They’re saying that even when they can’t tell the difference between the so-called-fake and the so-called-real, this distinction matters, because there’s something wrong with the so-called-fake. Else they wouldn’t consider it fake to begin with.

That’s why this fallacy matters. I wish it only applied to toupées.

Good Arguing: the low-hanging fruit

So I’ve talked in the last few posts about making good arguments by addressing the substance of your
opponent’s position rather than attacking irrelevancies. I described the practice of strawmanning, which is constructing an inferior version of the argument you’re trying to demolish because it’s easier, and how that shouldn’t be mistaken for actually defeating the position you oppose.

But what about when you’re addressing a whole group of people who share a belief, and you deliberately choose to address only those who are saying the worst things, making the worst arguments, if they’re bothering to make arguments at all? That is, what if you only pay attention to the low-hanging fruit? Is that also a kind of strawmanning?

Well, yes and no. It could be, but not necessarily.

Because here’s the thing– life is not philosophy. Philosophy is what humans do when they get time to stop and think without anyone trying to kill them or ruin their reputation, when there’s food on the table and a bed to sleep in and there are no pressing issues at hand like legislators trying to pass laws that make it illegal to do things like philosophy. Steelmanning, for that matter, is something philosophers do when those philosophers are feeling particularly chill. An angry philosopher cannot be counted upon to steelman. Even though they should.

In real life, people are constantly making terrible arguments for terrible things, and horrifyingly, many of those people are influential (I would say “They’re called ‘politicians,’ but politicians are merely the most visible of this sort). When that happens, it’s important to point out those terrible arguments and say “Look at this stupid, hateful thing this person is saying,” to minimize the potential ideological damage they can cause.

That’s what a lot of bloggers do, and I respect them like crazy for doing it, because it’s a tiring, endless, and often thankless task. My friend Ed Brayton has been pillorying terrible arguments on religion, science, and politics on his blog since 2003, or maybe longer. And he’s never going to run out of material, because there will never not be people making these arguments. Often the same ones, for years upon years, sometimes re-skinned in order to continue arguing badly for a slightly different position. That’s fighting the good fight. I don’t believe in a Lord, but if I did, that would be the Lord’s work. You know the quote usually attributed to Mark Twain, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”? We will always need people who help the truth put on its shoes.

There is something incumbent upon these pickers of low-hanging fruit to do, however. If you’re going to do the– again, very necessary– task of addressing the worst arguments out there for the sake of diminishing their power, you must be careful to not pretend that these are the only sort of arguments that people who hold that position, people in that same ideological group, are capable of making. Unless, of course, they are.

What I’m saying is that you should not effectively straw-man people who hold position X as a group by deliberately choosing to destroy only the arguments of people who agree with position X but are crap at supporting it, and then acting as if you have defeated position X itself by doing so. You have not proven, for example, that man-made climate change is a lie by laughing at people who think that every time you drive somewhere, a polar bear starves to death. These people are wrong, but they do not speak for the truth or falsity of man-made climate change. Proving that there are environmentalists who are idiots does not prove that environmentalism is idiotic. Tugging at the low-hanging fruit doesn’t bring down the tree.

Which is why, if you are asked to evaluate the merits of a position in general rather than to address specific arguments in favor of it, I’d say you are obliged to not restrict yourself to considering only the worst arguments. In fact, you really should ignore those arguments entirely and focus on the best arguments, because it’s only fair to consider a position invalid if no valid arguments can be made in support of it. It’s not the fault of someone who holds a legitimate position if there are people who share that position and are troglodytes, mentally or morally or (as is often the case) both.

Like steelmanning, this is not always easy to do. It’s really, really tempting, especially when considering an issue that is personally relevant, to pick out the loudest and most obnoxious of those who oppose your position and make them the standard-bearers for the other side. But that is the seed of prejudice, isn’t it? That’s how people come to believe that all members of ideological group X are stupid or immoral by virtue of holding X position, on the grounds that some members of that group are stupid/immoral. That requires ignoring the existence of the more intelligent or moral members of that group and their arguments in order to maintain the belief that position X is untenable.

But it goes against our tribalistic impulses to think this way. It feels good to have ideological kindred who are in the right, and those who oppose us who are wrong, placing individuals on one side of that line or the other and leaving them there. Alliances of this sort are shaken up all of the time when it’s discovered that somebody has views in common with people in that group, and that group isn’t this group, but it still matters because people in that group are horrible and this group is good. Oh, you’re a vegetarian atheist feminist…who owns guns? Go to hell! Gun-owners are a bunch of angry psychopaths. None of your other positions matter now.

Some of that tribalism and low-hanging fruit picking was, disappointingly, on display by Daniel Dennett in this article on Richard Dawkins’s pattern of stirring up enmity on social media:

I thought Richard’s responses were right on target. If some radical feminists (and others) think that all rape is equally bad, do they think it is not quite as bad as murder? If so, are THEY condoning rape? And if they think rape and murder are always equally bad, they really have lost their bearings and do not deserve our attention. Richard has been immensely important.

The problem is, most of the people I saw reacting with hostility to Dawkins’s tweet that ““Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think,” didn’t think that at all. For that matter, I didn’t actually see a single person claim that all rape is equally bad, “radical feminist” or no.

What I  saw was a lot of people saying things more along the lines of Ashley Miller’s position, which was basically to point out that making blanket declarations about the relative significance of other people’s suffering (out of nowhere, as in a tweet) as a supposed attempt to deliver a lesson on logic is a really callous and bizarre thing to do. Especially when those declarations might arguably be factually incorrect (i.e., that some victims of aquaintance rape, which is the majority of rape, actually suffer more than they might’ve if raped by a stranger, because of perception and treatment by others after the fact, and having to live with the violation of trust that acquaintance rape represents). And of course, that has precisely nothing to do with whether Dawkins has been “immensely important” or not. It seems clear that Dennett’s only intention was to support his friend, and the most expedient way to do that was by picking some seriously low-hanging fruit.

Which is, I hasten to point out, a more reasonable assumption than to say he was simply strawmanning. You could say that literally nobody, anywhere, was claiming that all rape is equally bad. That Dawkins was strawmanning in constructing this person who allegedly holds this position, and then Dennett joined him in beating that strawman to death. But when you’re talking about a position rather than a specific argument or person, you can pretty much count on there being somebody out there who does authentically hold it. I’m sure there are people out there who think all rape is equally bad. I’m equally sure that they’re the least important people to consider when answering the question “What do you think of the criticism of Richard Dawkins’s tweet?”

Again– nobody is immune to doing this.

But it’s still unfair and logically sloppy to do, and that’s what I’m driving at. By all means, tear apart bad arguments when you see them. Practicing critical thinking is doing yourself and the world a service, and I’m sure you know that we could all, always, use more of it. But be careful, and be precise in doing so. Don’t act as though you’ve taken down the queen when you’ve merely eliminated a pawn, even if the pawns in this game seem endless. Taking care to remember that there are good, intelligent people who hold positions you oppose, and their arguments are very likely to be better than others, is a good way to avoid ideological prejudice. When you are arguing against a position in general rather than a specific argument or person, steelman the hell out of that position.

And then when you’ve done so, keep that thought in the back of your mind whenever talking to people who hold that position, because hey– most arguments people make in favor of anything, even the beliefs they hold most dear, happen in real life. Most people argue on their feet, with the weapons they’ve got at hand. As a consequence, they probably won’t offer the best defense of that position possible, and they certainly won’t do so all the time. And yeah, that includes you too.

Good Arguing: How to steelman (and why it’s hard)

In the last couple of posts I’ve been exploring different ways in which it’s possible to make bad arguments against someone’s position by ignoring the substance of their argument in favor of some distraction from it or distortion of it, even a completely fictional version of it. The tactic of constructing an inaccurate version of an argument in order to demolish it is called strawmanning.

Strawmanning is easy to do, and advantageous when the only people you care about impressing are people who already agree with you, and who also aren’t particularly concerned about you representing your opponent fairly– they just want to see you rip him/her apart, or at least a sufficiently convincing facsimile thereof. And since it’s very likely that the image of your opponent is already more of a caricature in the eyes of those who agree with you (that’s tribalism, in a nutshell), the chances are relatively low that someone on your side is going to pull back from basking in the warmth and comforting glow of the effigy which you’ve just set ablaze to tug at your sleeve and point out– hey man, that’s an effigy.

A strawman version of your opponent’s argument is easier to demolish for precisely the same reasons that the first little pig’s straw house was easy for the big bad wolf to demolish– it’s flimsy. It was constructed in haste with little thought put into it (who lives in a house made of straw, anyway?), and takes but a few forceful huffs and puffs and logic to blow it to smithereens. So if you, rhetorical big bad wolf that you are, could actually choose to have the person you’re arguing against live in a straw house rather than something sturdier, you would, wouldn’t you? It makes everything so. Much. Easier. And you’re angry, because damn that pig for having the gall to say…whatever horrible thing pigs say. Why should he get the benefit of a charitable, sturdy interpretation of his house I mean, argument?

Well, because that’s what logic– and fairness– demand. You want your opponent to engage the argument you’re actually making, rather than some shoddy imitation that’s easier to dismantle, so shouldn’t you extend the same consideration? And if his/her argument is really so pernicious and threatening, doesn’t that make it especially important to make sure that you’re addressing it accurately, in order to publically demonstrate its problems to every witness, so that they can avoid being taken in by it?  Does the group of people you care about convincing of the problems with your opponent’s argument include the opponent him/herself? And if not, shouldn’t it?

This is why steelmanning is so important. And so difficult. And so important.

Steelmanning is exactly what it sounds like– you turn the analogy of the strawman on its head, and imagine constructing a stronger, better version of your opponent’s argument. Perhaps even better than the one he/she initially constructed. You take the time to contemplate your opponent’s concerns, including the unspoken ones, and address them. You create the most convincing, best possible version of your opponent’s argument, and you lay it out for everyone to see. And then– only then– do you you show why it’s wrong.

To the best of my knowledge, use of the term “steelmanning” to refer to this practice originated with Chana Messinger. To quote her on the subject:

But Chana, you might say, I’m actually trying to get something done around here, not just cultivate my rationalist virtue or whatever nonsense you’re peddling. I want to convince people they’re wrong and get them to change their minds. Well, you, too, have something to gain from steelmanning. First, people like having their arguments approached with care and serious consideration. Steelmanning requires that we think deeply about what’s being presented to us and find ways to improve it. By addressing the improved version, we show respect and honest engagement to our interlocutor. People who like the way you approach their arguments are much more likely to care about what you have to say about those arguments. This, by the way, also makes arguments way more productive, since no one’s looking for easy rebuttals or cheap outs. Second, people are more convinced by arguments which address the real reason they reject your ideas rather than those which address those aspects less important to their beliefs. If nothing else, steelmanning is a fence around accidental strawmanning, which may happen when you misunderstand their argument, or they don’t express it as well as they could have. Remember that you are arguing against someone’s ideas and beliefs, and the arguments they present are merely imperfect expressions of those ideas and beliefs and why they hold them. To attack the inner workings rather than only the outward manifestation, you must understand them, and address them properly.

Now, of course, the concept of taking on the most robust version of your opponent’s argument, even if you have to construct it yourself, has been around a lot longer than the term “steelmanning” itself. You could simply call it arguing charitably. You could, as philosopher Daniel Dennett has been known to do, actually insert a stand-in for your opponent in the text of your own elucidation of your position, to fire objections and criticisms of that position in “real time,” giving you the opportunity to answer those criticisms. Of course, when you have multiple opponents, this means you probably won’t have the time and space to answer all of their potential criticisms. But again, you can choose the best of these and answer them– or at least, the best of them so far as you can honestly assess.

Dennett outlines the practice of charitable criticism in his recent book Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, attributing it to Russian-American psychologist Anatol Rapoport:

Anatol Rapoport… once promulgated a list of rules for how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent’s work. First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism. I have found this a salutary discipline to follow– or, since it is challenging, to attempt to follow. When it succeeds, the results are gratifying: your opponent is in a mood to be enlightened and eagerly attentive.

Sounds good, right? Sounds like a total “best practice” for argumentation. This is something everybody should be doing right? So….why is, when we look around, we see so few people actually doing it? So few people, when deciding how to depict a position they oppose, selecting materials by reaching immediately for the straw rather than the steel?

Well, I know one thing with certainty– it’s not because they’re incapable.

There is no level of intelligence or education at which a person moves beyond having the incentive to strawman. The incentives, as I’ve described, include that that it’s easier and faster, but also there is the fact that it’s simply more satisfying to pin down and torture a good straw man when you’re angry, and when you’re speaking to people who are already angry for the same reason that you are, or whom you would like to make angry for the same reason.

A rhetorical crime has been committed, and by golly we want someone to answer for it. We want to haul in some guilty party and hold them to account, and when the guilty party is an argument, the penalties for getting the wrong man tend to be few. Violation of due process of the laws of logic for suspect arguments is not an offense for which most really suffer. We’re biased in a multitude of ways, perhaps most predominantly in favor of our own sense of being right. Being right feels good. Righteous indignation feels good. Watching people whose righteous indignation you share royally trouncing an argument that you find offensively wrong?  Gosh, that’s nice. That’s why we value an intelligent, caustic, sardonic ranter on our side so highly. Perhaps more than is really healthy on a sociological level, we value these people. There’s a reason for that.

But there ways to make steelmanning a great deal easier and more likely. Here are some I can identify:

  1. A polite disagreement, where passions are low. 
  2. Time is not a highly significant factor. This suggests that strawmanning is much more likely in verbal debates than in print.
  3. Opponents know each other. It’s much easier to represent your opponent’s position charitably when you’re familiar with his/her views on other things which aren’t directly related to the topic of contention. 
  4. Space, or rather the lack thereof, is not a significant factor. If you take the time to recreate a better version of your opponent’s argument before answering it with your own, there had better be some room to do it. Which means that you’re more likely to find steelmanning in a book than an essay or blog post. A blog post or essay than a verbal argument. A verbal argument than a sound bite. 
  5. A reasonable expectation of continued interaction, on some level. 

Steelmanning is possible for all of us, though. It’s a best practice for all of us. We’re not terrible people if we fail to do it, but it’s something to aim for. It’s good arguing.

Don’t do this either

Okay, so we’ve pretty well covered how not to talk to and about people you disagree with, right? It can be summed up pretty easily by asking yourself the following question: Does this thing I’m writing/saying/drawing/etc. actually address the substance of what the person I’m talking about is saying/writing/drawing/etc.? Or does it attack irrelevancies? Because focusing on what someone says and addressing that, rather than changing the subject to their looks, their credentials, or anything else isn’t just polite– it’s good arguing. It’s Lesson #1 on Good Arguing, perhaps Remedial Good Arguing.

Another way to attack irrelevancies rather than the substance of your opponent’s argument is to attack arguments your opponent never made. This is typically called strawmanning, although if you go the lengths of flat-out quoting them saying something they never actually said, I think that’s called plain ol’ lying.

The quote is suspicious to me right off the bat for two reasons: 1) I know that Richard Dawkins considers himself a “cultural Christian,” meaning that he acknowledges the extent to which Christianity has shaped the culture in which Westerners live, and sees no conflict in appreciating those elements of culture as an atheist– a standpoint which I wholly agree with, although I don’t really like the term “cultural Christian.” It’s too confusing without the explanation. 2) I have gathered, though I couldn’t tell you from where, the understanding that Dawkins has close to zero knowledge of and interest in video games. I’d be surprised if he knows what “RPG” means.

However, that’s not going to be obvious to everybody. All that a lot of people know about Dawkins, people who despise him and people who love him, is that he’s an atheist who opposes religion. And there’s no shortage of atheists who would most likely agree with the first part of the quote (or rather “quote,” I suppose– putting scare quotes around the word “quote” is so meta), if significantly fewer who would agree with the second part.

I don’t know whether John the Secular actually created the meme he tweeted, or just found it and commented on it. If the latter, then he’s just guilty of being credulous. But that’s an important part of not attacking irrelevancies– don’t be credulous. Don’t just assume that a statement you see attributed to someone you want to attack is authentic, especially if it seems too “good” to be true. As in, laughably easy to discredit and mock.

It’s possible the meme was made as satire, but if it’s intended to be satire then it fails– no clever point is made, and gosh, if you wanted to satirize Richard Dawkins it would be so easy to do better. There’s ample material out there– no need to create new, false statements to attribute to him.

If it’s an attempt to satirize Dawkins’ detractors….no. That’s not how you do that, either. If they believe the quote, then again– they’re just guilty of accidentally buying a lie. But if you created it, or passed it along, you’re guilty of selling it to them.

Making good arguments requires skepticism. And skepticism needs people who can make good arguments.

Common Ground

In formal logic, a premise is a plank of an argument. If your premises are true and the form of your argument is valid, then your argument is sound.

1. All men are mortal.
2. Socrates is a man.
3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

If you’re trying to persuade someone of your conclusion (“Socrates is mortal”), you’re not going to get anywhere if they don’t already agree with your premises (“All men are mortal” and “Socrates is a man”). The premises are the common ground on which you can meet your opponent and find what you can agree on.

If you can’t find any common ground– that is, agree on the premises– then you might as well not bother arguing. If you can find the common ground, then you have hope that your opponent will go along with you to your conclusion. Opting to shout across a chasm instead is a pastime that many people find satisfying for reasons that can be discussed elsewhere, but this is the real substance of argument.

Interesting links of the day

Top 10 Logical Fallacies in Politics

Wonder how he managed to narrow it down to ten…. 

This is a very good list explanations and examples of fallacies commonly made by politicians.  In the world according to Gretchen, all children would learn about logical fallacies in school at a young age and then go home and apply that knowledge when watching politicians speak on TV.  They and their parents would have animated discussions about which fallacies were made and how they know, and as they approached voting age the kids would have developed a sturdy sense of skepticism about everything coming out of the mouth of anyone who had either received votes or was asking for them.

I’d settle, however, for them learning about fallacies in school.

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