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 reasoning is as follows:
Premise 1: Person P claims they are being mistreated by person/group M.
Premise 2: P is in group G and believes G is subject to prejudice or P believes that M thinks they are a member of G.
Conclusion: P’s mistreatment is the result of M’s prejudice against G.
This is a fallacy because merely being mistreated does not, by itself, prove that the mistreatment must be due to prejudice. This is because the mistreatment might have no connection to the alleged prejudice.
For example, suppose that Jane is taking a chemistry class and always comes to class late and is very disruptive about finding her seat. She spends the class on her phone, reacting loudly to whatever she sees. While she does earn a B in the class, the angry professor downgrades her to a C because of her behavior. While Jane would be right to conclude that she has been mistreated, she would not be justified in concluding that she was downgraded “just because she is a woman” and the professor is a sexist. Without any evidence of sexism, this would be poor reasoning.
This mistake is reasoning is like 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 a plausible explanation for the mistreatment is prejudice. Without taking these steps, the person is engaging in poor reasoning and is not justified in their conclusion. As with any fallacy, the conclusion might be true but 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 reason to believe that the mistreatment is is a result of prejudice, then the reasoning would 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 throughout the course and Jane knew he downgraded 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 in good faith is because the group in question has been subject to prejudice. From a psychological standpoint, it makes sense for someone who knows about prejudices against their group to suspect mistreatment as arising from that prejudice. People can also have a sincere false belief that they are victims of prejudice. This might arise from their view of what counts as being mistreated. For example, a group might think that being restricted in their ability to freely harm other groups they dislike is a form of mistreatment. Such a false belief could result from a fallacy, but the Victim fallacy does not require that the person be mistaken in their claims.
When considering a perceived mistreatment, it is certainly reasonable to consider the possibility of prejudice. However, until there is adequate evidence it remains just that, a possibility.
In addition to cases in which the fallacy is committed as an honest mistake, there are cases in which this reasoning is exploited as an excuse or even used as revenge. 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 feminist professor has this thing against men.”
The fallacy is often used as a bad faith tool in politics. The tactic is for a person or group to claim, in bad faith, that they are victims and then accuse those who disagree with them or oppose them of mistreating them because of their alleged prejudices. The fallacy can be misused by accusing people who are mistreated because of their group membership of committing it. This can take the form of falsely accusing them of “playing the victim card” or similar thing.
In addition to the fact that this fallacy is a mistake in reasoning, there are other reasons to avoid it. First, uncritically assuming that other people must be acting from prejudice is itself a prejudice. For example, to uncritically assume that all whites must be racists is as racist as assuming that all Jewish people must be covetous, or all blacks must be criminals. Unfortunately, people do exploit this and assert, in bad faith, that accusing someone of prejudice proves that the person is prejudiced. See the You’re the Racist! Fallacy.
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 lawsuit 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.
Third, exploiting this fallacy in bad faith makes it difficult to have a good faith discussion of mistreatment and prejudice (which is often the intention behind using it in this way).
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 carefully in their reasoning when it comes to prejudice and accusations of prejudice.
Assessing this fallacy can get complicated because of debates over what counts as mistreatment, what counts as prejudice and what serves as evidence of prejudice. For example, some might think that a loss of advantages and privileges counts as mistreatment. As another example, some might think that being denied equal access to health care and education are not mistreatment.
As would be expected, there are often bad faith attempts to define these terms. And bad faith accusations that others are defining them in bad faith.
Defense: The main defense against this fallacy is considering whether there is evidence for prejudice beyond the (alleged) mistreatment. If there is not, then the inference that it is due to prejudice is not warranted. But you need to be careful to not “overcorrect” and ignore evidence of prejudice.
While the fallacy does not require that the claims in the argument be made in bad faith, exposing bad faith claims can sometimes decrease the psychological force of the fallacy and make it easier to expose it as poor reasoning.
Sam: “Can you believe this! I got a C in that class.”
Jane: “Well, your work was 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. I was raised to be a monster and now I am a victim. A victim because of how manly I am. Like the Frankenstein.”
Bill: “You mean Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein is the guy who created the monster.”
Ricardo: “I applied for six jobs and got turned down six times!”
Ann: “Where did you apply?”
Ricardo: “Six different software companies.”
Ann: “What did you apply for?”
Ricardo: “Programming jobs to develop apps for Android.
Ann: “But you majored in philosophy and haven’t programmed anything. Is that why you didn’t get the jobs?”
Ricardo: “No. All the people interviewing me were white or Asian. A person like me just can’t get a job in the white and yellow world of technology.”
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 is not a Disney dog and Descartes did not actually say ‘I drink, therefore I am.’”
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.”
Dave: “Maybe they just don’t know you’re gay.”
Will: “Yeah, that must be it.”
Bill: “Christians are the real victims in America!”
Jesus: “What? America is mostly Christian.”
Bill: “Look, there is a war against Christmas. Some cities don’t let people put up nativity scenes on government land unless other religions get to put up stuff! Also, people say “happy holidays” sometimes! This is all obviously because Christians are victims of prejudice. They hate us!”
Jesus: “Who are they?”
Bill: “They. You know.”
Jesus: “But Christmas is a federal holiday. You can start buying Christmas stuff in September in almost any store.”
Bill: “Yes, almost any store! More proof of the war on Christmas and Christians.”
Jesus: “Gotta go, need to talk to my dad.”