The pandemic tore at the American mask, revealing to many the injustice and brutal inequality it concealed. Police violence set fire to the mask, causing many Americans to take to the streets. While most protesters are peaceful even in the face of armed assault there have been undeniable cases of looting and destruction. For example, the Wendy’s where Richard Brooks was killed was burned by protesters. The predictable response is that critics of the protests have cast the protesters as violent rioters, destroyers and looters. This approach involves two fallacies which I will discuss. But first I will use an obvious rhetorical tactic myself.
If I rushed to discussing how the attacks on the protesters often involve empty rhetoric and fallacies, this would appeal to most folks on the left and be rejected by many folks on the right out of hand. So, I will use an example that is likely to appeal to folks on the right, that of the armed lockdown protesters.
In Michigan armed protesters peacefully occupied the capital but some among them displayed symbols of white supremacy such as the swastika, the Confederate flag, and nooses. These protesters were, in addition to criticizing the lockdown, making symbolic threats to minorities. In response, many on the left cast all the lockdown protesters as racists, white supremacists and even Nazis. Since there is video and photographic evidence showing these symbols among some of the protesters, it cannot be rationally denied that they were present. But it can be argued that the inference based on seeing some protesters displaying racist symbols is flawed—even fallacious.
Since people generally do not make their reasoning clear, it often must be reconstructed. One possible line of bad reasoning is the use of a hasty generalization. A hasty generalization occurs when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not large enough to adequately support the concussion. It has the following form:
Premise 1: Sample S (which is too small) is taken from population P.
Premise 2: In Sample S X% of the observed A’s are B’s.
Conclusion: X% of all A’s are B’s in Population P.
This is a fallacy because the sample is to small to warrant the inference. In the case of the protesters, inferring that most lockdown protesters are racists based on the observation that some clearly are would commit this fallacy. It does not follow that they are not racist—the conclusion of a fallacy need not be false. At this point it is likely that someone is thinking that even if most lockdown protesters are not open racists, they associate with them—thus warranting the inference that they are also guilty. This leads us to the guilt by association fallacy.
The guilt by association fallacy has numerous variants but the version in play here occurs when it is inferred that a group or individual has certain bad qualities because of their association with groups or individuals who have those qualities. The form of the fallacy is this:
Premise 1: Group or person A is associated with group or person B
Premise 2: Group or person B has (bad) qualities P, Q, R.
Conclusion: Group A has (bad) qualities P, Q, R.
The error being made is that the only evidence offered is the association between the two—what is wanting is an adequate connection between the two to show that the inference is justified. In the lockdown protester example, the general lockdown protesters were associated with protesters displaying racist symbols, but this is not enough to warrant the conclusion that they are racists. More is needed than mere association. The more is, as one would imagine, a matter of considerable debate: those who loath the lockdown protesters will tend to accept relatively evidence as supporting their biased view; those who love the lockdown protesters might be blind even to the strongest evidence. But whatever standards are used to judge association, they must be applied consistently—whether one loathes or loves the group or person. Now back to those protesting police violence.
As noted above, people associated with protesting police violence have engaged in destruction of property and looting. But the same standards applied to the lockdown protesters need to be applied: to infer that because some protesters have been observed to be violent and destructive that most (or all) are would be to commit the hasty generalization fallacy. Naturally, if there is evidence showing that most (or all) lockdown protesters are racist or evidence showing that most (or all) police violence protesters are violent, then the fallacy would not be committed.
To infer that those protesting police violence are violent because some associated with the protests are violent would be to commit the guilt by association fallacy, just as the fallacy would be committed if one inferred that the lockdown protesters are racists because they are associated with racists. Obviously, if there is good evidence that those protesting police violence are violent or that the lockdown protesters are racists, then the fallacy would not be committed.