While most Americans support the lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of the virus, a tiny fraction of the population has engaged in (often armed) protests. While the topic of protests is primarily a matter for political philosophy and ethics, critical thinking applies here as well.
While the protests have been miniscule in size relative to the population of the country, they have attracted considerable media attention—they make the national news regularly and the story is repeated and amplified. On the one hand, this does make sense: armed protests against efforts to protect Americans from the virus are news. On the other hand, media coverage is disproportional to the size and importance of the protests. The non-right leaning media is often attacked as having a liberal bias and while that claim can be debated, it is evident that the media does have a general bias in favor of stories that attract attention. Public and private news services need to offer stories that attract attention to draw an audience—they need an audience to stay in operation. Protests, often armed, certainly pull an audience. It can also be argued that some news services have a clear political agenda that is served by covering such stories.
While it can be argued that such stories are worth covering in the news, disproportional coverage can lead people to commit the Spotlight Fallacy. This fallacy is committed when a person uncritically assumes that the degree of media coverage given to something is proportional to how often it occurs or its importance. It is also committed when it is uncritically assumed that the media coverage of a group is representative of the size or importance of the group.
Premise 1: X receives extensive coverage in the media.
Conclusion: X occurs in a frequency or is important proportional to its coverage.
Premise 1: People of type P or Group G receive extensive coverage in the media.
Conclusion: The coverage of P or G is proportional to how P and G represent the general population.
This line of reasoning is fallacious since the fact that someone or something attracts the most attention or coverage in the media does not mean that it represents the whole population or that it is frequent or important.
The Spotlight fallacy derives its name from the fact that receiving a great deal of attention or coverage is often referred to as being in the spotlight. It is like the fallacies Hasty Generalization, Biased Sample and Misleading Vividness because the error being made involves generalizing about a population based on an inadequate or flawed sample.
In the case of the lockdown protests, the protests are extremely limited in both occurrence and size—but the extent of the media coverage conveys the opposite message. The defense against the Spotlight Fallacy is to look at the relevant statistics. As noted above, while the lockdown protests get a great deal of coverage, they are tiny events that are happing in an extremely limited number of locations. This is not to say that they have no importance—it is obviously worth knowing that a few people are engaged in often armed protests. As such we should look at the protests not through the magnifying glass of the media but through the corrective lenses of statistics. I know turn to an ad hominem attack on the protestors.
Some critics of the protestors have pointed to the well-established fact that while there are some grassroots aspects to the protests, the protestors are also being manipulated by a concerted astroturfing campaign. Astroturfing is a technique in which the true sponsors of a message or organization create the appearance that the message or organization is the result of grassroots activism. In the case of the lockdown protests, support and organization is being provided by individuals and groups supporting Trump’s re-election and who are more concerned with a return to making money than the safety of the American people. While such astroturfing is a matter of concern, to reject the claims of the protestors because they are “protesting on AstroTurf” rather than standing on true grassroots would be to commit either an ad hominem or genetic fallacy.
An ad hominem fallacy occurs when a person’s claim is rejected because of some alleged irrelevant defect about the person. In very general terms, the fallacy has this form:
Premise 1: Person A makes claim C.
Premise 2: An irrelevant attack is made on A.
Conclusion: C is false.
This is a fallacy because attacking a person does not disprove the claim they have made. In the case of a lockdown protestor, to reject their claims because they might be manipulated by astroturfing would be a fallacy. As would rejecting their claims because of something one does not like about them—like their being heavily armed or putting themselves and others at risk.
If the claims made by the protestors as a group are rejected because of the astroturfing (or other irrelevant reasons) then the genetic fallacy would have been committed. A Genetic Fallacy is bad “reasoning” in which a perceived defect in the origin of a claim or thing is taken to be evidence that discredits the claim or thing itself. Whereas the ad hominem fallacy is literally against the person, the genetic fallacy applies to groups. The group form looks like this:
Premise 1: Group A makes claim C.
Premise 2: Group A has some alleged defect.
Conclusion: C is false.
While it is important to avoid committing fallacies against the protestors, it is also important to avoid committing fallacies in their favor. Both the ad hominem and genetic fallacy can obviously be committed against those who are critical of the protestors. For example, if someone dismisses the claim that the protestors are putting themselves and others at needless risk by asserting that the critic “hates Trump and freedom”, then they would be committing an ad hominem.
To many Americans the protests seem not only odd, but dangerously crazy. This leads to the obvious question of why they are occurring. While some might be tempted to insult and attack the protestors under the guise of analysis, I will focus on a neutral explanation that is relevant to critical thinking.
One obvious reason for the protests is that the lockdown comes with an extremely high price—people have good reason to have negative feelings and it is natural to express those in a protest. But there is more to it than that—the protests are more than people expressing their concerns and worries about the lockdown. They are political statements and are thoroughly entangled with many other matters that include Trump support, anti-vaccination views, anti-abortion, second-amendment rights and even some white nationalism. This is not to claim that every protestor endorses all the views expressed at the protests—attending a protest about one thing does not entail that a person supports whatever is said by other protestors. And, of course, many groups and individuals try to exploit protests for their own purposes—so it is important to distinguish the views held by various people and groups to avoid falling into assigning guilt by association. That said, the protests are an expression of a very polarized political view and it strikes many as odd that people would be protesting basic pandemic precautions.
One driving force behind this is what I have been calling the Two Sides Problem. While there are many manifestations of this problem, the idea is that when there are two polarized sides, this provides fuel and accelerant to rhetoric and fallacies—thus making them far more likely to occur. Another aspect of having two sides is that it is much easier to exploit and manipulate people by appealing to their membership in one group and their opposition to another.
In the case of the protests, there has been a weaponization of public health. Trump’s re-election depends heavily on public perception of his handling of the pandemic and most heavily on the economy—so taking the pandemic seriously hurts Trump as does not re-opening the economy. Those who recommend the lockdown are experts—and I have written about the anti-expert bias in the United States. The weaponization of the crisis to help the right follows the usual tactics: disinformation about the crisis, claims of hoaxes, scapegoating, anti-expert rhetoric, conspiracy theories and such. Part of what drives this is the in-group bias: the cognitive bias that inclines people to assign positive qualities to their own group while assigning negative qualities to others. This also applies to accepting or rejecting claims.
This weaponization is not new or unique to the pandemic—American politics has been marked by politicizing and weaponizing a vast range of things so that one side or the other can claim a short term advantage at the cost of long term harm. Critical thinking requires us to be aware of this and to be honest about the cost of allowing this to be a standard tool of politics.
While there are many aspects to the lockdown protests, one of the core justifications is that the lockdown is a violation of Constitutional rights. The constitutional aspect is a matter of law—and I will leave that to experts in law to debate. There is also the ethical aspect—whether the lockdown is morally acceptable, and this issue can be cast in terms of moral rights. This discussion would take us far afield into the realm of moral philosophy, but I will close with an analogy that might be worth considering.
While the protestors are against the lockdown broadly, opposition to wearing masks is an aspect of the protest. While there is rational debate about the efficacy of masks, the moral argument is that the state does not have the right to compel people to wear masks. It can also be presented in terms of people having rights that the state must respect. One possibility is that people have the right to decide what parts of the body they wish to cover. If so, the obvious analogical argument is that if this right entitles people to go without masks, it also entitles people to go without clothes. If imposing masks is oppression, then so is imposing clothing in general.
Another possible right is the right to endanger others or at least freely expose other people to physical bodily ejections they do not wish to encounter. If there is such a right, then it could be argued that people have a right to fire their guns and drive as they wish—even if doing so is likely to harm or kill others. If there is a right to expose other people to physical bodily ejections that they do not want to be exposed to, then this would entail that people have the right to spit and urinate on other people. This all seems absurd.
As a practical matter, people are incredibly inconsistent when it comes to rights and restrictions, so I would expect some people to simply dismiss these analogies because they do not want to wear masks but probably do not want people running around naked. But if masks are oppression, so are clothes.
Anne W LaBossiere says
This piece of writing is a very timely one. The explanation of a protest being anchored on astroturf as opposed to rising out of a grass roots commitment to a cause made good sense. I appreciated the clarity of explanations about what protests might mean ; be interpreted by others and sometimes enhanced by media coverage.’As usual,your summarizing and closing sentence were right on. Reading this has given me some new lenses through which to view the next protest I see covered on TV or print media. Thanks, Mike, for doing this.