The bad logic of "Good People Can't Be Sexists"

One of the things that makes me averse to getting into deep conversation lately about morality and about people’s sexist and racist behaviour is that we appear to be hard-wired to think the whole conversation is binary — you did a bad, objectionable thing, therefore you’re Evil. You are criticized for doing a bad, objectionable thing, but are generally good, therefore you’re being hounded by Feminazis and Thought Police. Any nuance in the conversation is smashed out by our resorting to binary thinking again and again.

In mathematical terms, the problem is that good and bad, sexist and not sexist, are absolutes. When we render them into pure two-valued logic, we’re taking shades of gray, and turning them into black and white.

There are people who are profoundly sexist or racist, and that makes them bad people. Just look at the MRAs involved in Gamergate: they’re utterly disgusting human beings, and the thing that makes them so despicably awful is the awfulness of their sexism. Look at a KKKer, and you find a terrible person, and the thing that makes them so terrible is their racism.

But most people aren’t that extreme. We’ve just absorbed a whole lot of racism and sexism from the world we’ve lived our lives in, and that influences us. We’re a little bit racist, and that makes us a little bit bad – we have room for improvement. But we’re still, mostly, good people. The two-valued logic creates an apparent conflict where none really exists.

Now, I know, the vast majority of us are fully capable of nuance, are able to talk about a bad thing that someone did and recognize that it’s out of character, that it’s not part of a pattern of behaviour that needs to be criticized, and we can talk about that thing without leaping to the conclusion that we should drum the person out of the community unless they’ve made a habit of committing said bad behaviour and defending it or even doubling down. I know the vast majority of us are able to recognize the problem of these bad behaviours having been enculturated into the person in question, and that criticizing that behaviour is not actually a criticism of that person as “a misogynist” for saying something inadvertently sexist. I know that it takes a significant number of such transgressions to form a pattern of behaviour that goes beyond accidental or incidental. And I know that once we have identified the people who consider themselves Culture Warriors against the Feminist Horde, and we see them brigade in, rush to defend behaviour time and again that is objectively harmful just because they absolutely loathe the people doing the criticizing, it’s easy to be dizzied by the downward spiral the conversation takes as soon as you see their names spring up in the comments. It does become difficult to have to have the same conversation over and over with dishonest interlocutors taking us back to square one every time a topic is broached.

I also, however, know there are a few people who’ve been burned often enough by so-called allies that they’re willing to chuck an ignorant fool under the bus for the least transgression even if it was a transgression of negligence. In my experience, the latter is exceedingly rare, but the Disloyal Opposition would certainly prefer to control the narrative by painting us all as Social Justice Warriors who are incapable of such nuance ourselves. It makes it easier for them to defend what we all know is a bad behaviour if they can suggest it’s somehow a pattern of overreaction every time someone criticizes someone else for mistreating others. If they can control the narrative by making it be about Feminazi PC Police who have relegated certain Bad Words to Thoughtcrime, they’re basically only going to win over reactionaries and conservatives, but there are enough of those even amongst self-identified politically-liberal folks that that is problematic enough for having good, serious discussion without falling into an acrimony trap.

This article is a great discussion of the leap to binary thinking when it comes to discussions like these. I confess I have little patience lately for such discussions specifically because any effort at nuance is often impossible when it comes to fighting sexism or racism within our communities. Movement atheism and movement skepticism are so rife with libertarians and MRAs, it’s honestly difficult to find traction when trying to make a rational argument about sexism against someone so willing to Burn The Witch-Hunters for merely criticizing objectively bad behaviour.

Hat tip to Donovan King for pointing me to this excellent essay.

The bad logic of "Good People Can't Be Sexists"

2 thoughts on “The bad logic of "Good People Can't Be Sexists"

  1. 1

    It does become difficult to have to have the same conversation over and over with dishonest interlocutors taking us back to square one every time a topic is broached.

    I can understand that sort of frustration, but I would like to point out that for some people (many?) the issue is that being informed of ‘square one’ axioms is not the same as agreeing with those axioms. They want to discuss them because that is where the disagreement lies, not because they are inherently sexist, misogynist or evil trolls.

    You can describe this as a pattern of behavior that goes beyond accidental or incidental or even “dishonest”, but I think you miss their point when you do so. If you don’t want to discuss those square one concepts with those who don’t agree with them, that’s your choice. But when you make that decision, you are making a decision not to argue for the basic axioms you are building your ideals upon.

  2. 2

    In a similar vein, I had similar bad logic used on me the other day, as it plonked all allies into the bad ally camp if they didn’t agree with the original binary falsehood. The original false binary statement was:

    “Australians don’t want to see Indigenous Australians as “war-like” because it destroys the narrative of a peaceful white occupation and of a passive people. Instead Adam Goodes is forcing us to confront the bloody war that was fought and the thousands that died. Questioning that narrative terrifies white Australians because it calls into question every pitiful excuse we’ve made for our treatment of this allegedly passive people”

    I’d have to say SOME (non-indigenous) Australians would agree with that statement, as they are fundamentally terrified of a strong indigenous culture. Not all Australians are unaware of what happened in our past – and I’d say most of us who are aware are shamed and sorry for that, which is why so many marched on Sorry Days and pushed for an apology. Not all indigenous Australians are war like, nor are they all passive. There’s so much binary black and white thinking, it actually takes a fair amount of unpicking to come up with a truthful statement that reflects the original intent.

    I objected to the original statement. We have made great strides in the last 40 odd years through reconciliation, land rights, sorry day, and a formal apology to the stolen generations (another shameful period in our more modern history). Is it enough? It’s never enough, but it’s a great start.

    I was then treated as a pariah in the most possible condescending way:

    This argument basically turned into – if you don’t support my white and black false statements, therefore you are not a good ally. I felt so defeated – as if my core anti-racist beliefs and strong pro-indigenous actions and support over a lifetime are meaningless and thus somehow racist, just like the blanket “white Australians” in the original post. I left the argument as there’s no point – we are both for indigenous equality and rights, but in my view being such a dick about it actually puts off good allies such as myself, making me less likely to support him in any future endeavors.

    Where do I go from here? I’ve tried logic. That failed. I tried demonstrating my long term unwavering support for indigenous rights and so on, but that didn’t work, I still look like a dick. I don’t want an award or anything, I just want this type of false argument to go away as I would imagine it would both piss off actual indigenous people, and it belittles all allies as effectively still being racist white supremacists regardless of good deeds or support.

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