Category Error: A Case Study In Bad Logic

Did you know that hating white people was racist, and that hating men was sexist?  Did you know that bashing on millennials as a generation (as tempting as that can be for many) was ageist?  If the obviously rhetorical questions I just asked were not blazingly obvious, and if you had to think for any length of time about the undoubtable truth of these prepositions, then it is possible you struggle with a common logical fallacy known as category error.  It is my intention today, in the tradition of my discussion of the implications of logic [1] that I have previously done, to make this error more commonly known and better understood.  This sort of error deserves to be better understood, because one cannot have a sound understanding about contemporary public discourse without grappling with the immensity and frequency of this sort of error as it exists today.

All three of the rhetorical statements that this essay began with, namely that hating white people was racist, that hating men was sexist, and that showing hostility to millennials was ageist, are all based on the categories that these people belong to.  Whatever one’s feelings about the unity of the human race, white people are considered to be members of a race, and those who are descended from anywhere have an ethnolinguistic identity that lumps them into a certain category in the mind of others.  To speak of white privilege, for example, is to affirm that there is some sort of identity of whiteness that confers an (unfair) advantage to it.  To hate white people on the grounds of this identity alone is racist, just as racist as it is to hate people of color because of the unfair advantages they receive on the basis of that identity.  Similarly, to hate men on the basis of that biological reality is to concede the existence of that biological reality, something which would argue against gender as as mere social construct, since in that case those who choose to construct their gender identity differently would therefore be exempt from that hate, something that is clearly not the case [2].  Similarly, a great deal of ageism relates to the way that older people feel discriminated against when it comes to salary and promotion, but there is a significant amount of ageism related to youth, specifically in the lumping together of everyone born together between 1980 and 2000 as a foolish millennial, blamed for being liberal snowflakes and wannabe democratic socialists and tone deaf to the need to grow up and take personal responsibility and pay one’s dues.

Why would one deny these obvious truths?  What would lead one to claim that one could hate whitey without being racist, for example?  As is often the case with bad logic, there are many reasons that people try to justify category error.  For one, people often seek to conflate questions of identity and politics with questions of political legitimacy and power.  That is to say, there is a common and mistaken belief that is held by many that problems of hatred are only problems when the people hated are historically powerful groups of people.  That is to say, one can hate Christians without being a religious bigot because of the power of Christendom, for example, but that discrimination or speaking against pastafarians would be hateful.  When the people doing the hating are themselves powerful as a result of their control of important institutions of government, media, and education, for example, the hypocrisy often takes a self-serving turn, in that it becomes commonplace to hear people decry those that hate them or people like them while themselves regularly and habitually engaging in behavior that is hateful and violent towards those they deem as “others.”

The issue of course is that male and female are categories of human, that white people and non-white people are categories of human, and that members of different generations are members of different categories of human.  Whatever identity people have, it is subsidiary to their identity as human beings created in the image and likeness of God.  The problems within our society are not the result of the proliferation of understanding of these questions of identities and how they shape our lives, and how it is that people from different backgrounds often live very differently as a result of those identities.  We are not the first generation to wrestle with the practical implications of Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28-29 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  The problem is that our pride in our smaller identities has often led us to be thoughtlessly cruel to other people because they are on the other side of the line, and to assume that human rights are dependent on the smaller identities of which we possess.  It is precisely that attitude, where rights and freedoms and legitimacy are seen as continent on subcategories of identity rather than belong to human beings as a whole that has led to a great deal of the tragedies of the twentieth century, and that promises so much disaster in our own time.

[1] See, for example:

[2] For striking confirmation of this awkwardness of reality, let us consider the argument that exists within the contemporary world about “transphobic lesbians” who appear to react to the biological reality of the men they encounter with and not the female identity claimed by those people.  If gender were merely a social construct with no biological basis whatsoever, then it would be impossible to be a transphobic lesbian, since the reality of the person claiming to be a female would trump any sort of question as to their mere anatomy.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Category Error: A Case Study In Bad Logic

  1. Pingback: On Why Hypocrisy Is Easy | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Still The Best Hope | Edge Induced Cohesion

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