I’m working on the next volume in my fallacy book series, so I’ll post the entries as I write them. Any useful criticism would be appreciated.
This fallacy occurs when a person uncritically assumes that the cause of a perceived mistreatment (such as not being hired or receiving a poor grade) is due to prejudice (such as sexism or racism) on the part of the person or persons involved in the perceived mistreatment. The form of “reasoning” is as follows:
1. Person P believes s/he is being mistreated by person or persons M.
2. Person P regards himself or herself as a member of group G and believes this group has been subject to prejudice. Or P believes that M regards him/her as a member of G.
3. P uncritically concludes that his/her perceived mistreatment is the result of prejudice against G on the part of M.
This is a fallacy because the mere that that a person perceives himself or herself as being mistreated does not provide sufficient justification for the claim that the alleged mistreatment is the result of prejudice. After all, even if the situation does involve mistreatment, it might be the result of factors that have nothing to do with prejudice of the sort being considered. For example, imagine the following situation: Jane is taking a chemistry class and always comes to class late, disrupting the lecture when she strolls in. She also blatantly checks her text messages on her mobile phone during class. She earns a B in the class, but is assigned a C instead because the professor is angry about her behavior. Jane would be correct to conclude she has been mistreated given the disparity between what she earned and what she received, but she would not be justified in assuming that it was “just because she was a woman” without adequate evidence for the professor being a sexist.
This mistake is reasoning is similar to the various causal fallacies. In these fallacies an uncritical leap is made from insufficient evidence to conclude that one thing caused another. In this case, a leap is being made without sufficient evidence to conclude that the alleged mistreatment was caused by prejudice.
Reasonably concluding that an alleged mistreatment is the result of prejudice involves establishing that the mistreatment is, in fact, a mistreatment and the most plausible explanation for the mistreatment is prejudice. Without taking these steps, the person is engaging in poor reasoning and is not justified in his/her conclusion-even if the conclusion is, in fact, true. This is because good reasoning is not just about getting a correct conclusion (this could be done accidentally by guessing) but by getting it in the right way.
If a person has good reason to believe that the alleged mistreatment is a mistreatment and that it is a result of prejudice, then the reasoning would obviously not be fallacious. For example, if Jane was aware that she earned a B and was intentionally assigned a C, she would be justified in believing she was mistreated. If the professor made sexist remarks and Jane knew he downgraded all the other women in the class and none of the men, then Jane would be justified in concluding that the mistreatment stemmed from prejudice.
Not surprisingly, the main factor that leads people to commit this fallacy “honestly” is because the group in question has been subject to prejudice. From a psychological standpoint, it is natural for a person who is aware of prejudice against the group in question to perceive mistreatment as coming from that prejudice. And, as a matter of fact, when considering a perceived mistreatment it would be quite reasonable to consider the possibility of prejudice. However, until there is adequate evidence it remains just that-a mere possibility.
In addition to cases in which the fallacy is committed as an honest mistake, there are cases in which this type of “reasoning” is cynically exploited as an excuse or even as a means of revenge (charges of prejudice, even if completely unfounded, can do a lot of damage to a person’s career in many professions). As an example of an excuse, a person who has done poorly in a class because of a lack of effort might tell his parents that “the professor has this thing against men.”
In addition to the fact that this is a mistake in reasoning, there are other reasons to avoid this fallacy. First, uncritically assuming that other people are prejudiced is itself a sign of prejudice. For example, to uncritically assume that all whites are racists is just as racist as assuming that all Jewish people are covetous or all blacks are criminals. Second, use of this fallacy, especially as the “reasoning” behind an excuse can have serious consequences. For example, if a student who did poorly in a class because of a lack of effort concludes that his grade was the result of racism and tells his parents, they might consider a law suit against the professor. As another example, if a person becomes accustomed to being able to fall back on this line of “reasoning” they might be less motivated in their efforts since they can “explain” their failures through prejudice.
It must be emphasized that it is not being claimed that prejudice does not really exist or that people are not victims of prejudice. It is being claimed that people need to be very carefully in their reasoning when it comes to prejudice and accusations of prejudice.
Sam: “Can you believe this-I got a C in that class.”
Jane: “Well, your work was pretty average and you didn’t put much effort into the class. How often did you show up, anyway?”
Sam: “That has nothing to do with it. I deserve at least a B. That chick teaching the class just hates men. That’s why I did badly.”
Bill: “Hey, I earned an ‘A’, man.”
Sam: “She just likes you because you’re not a real man like me.”
Ricardo: “I applied for six jobs and got turned down six times!”
Ann: “Where did you apply?”
Ricardo: “Six different software companies.”
Ann: “So, why didn’t you get a job? Was it because you don’t actually have any experience in software?”
Ricardo: “All the people interviewing me were white. A person like me just can’t get a job in this white world.”
Dave: “Can you believe that-those people laughed at me when I gave my speech.”
Will: “Well, that was cruel. But you really should make sure that you have your facts right before giving a speech. As two examples, Plato was not an Italian and Descartes did not actually say ‘I drink, therefore I iz.’”
Dave: “They wouldn’t have laughed if a straight guy had said those things!”
Dave: “Yeah! They laughed just because I’m gay!”
Will: “Well, they didn’t laugh at me, but I actually did my research.”