The Fallacy of Equivocation: Jews and Blacks and Gays, Oh My!

One of the first issues one confronts in social ethics is that of the Fallacy of Equivocation. In the simplest of terms, the fallacy stems from cross-applying one thing to all things. A truly basic example would be the argument “Carpenters use a plane to smooth wood. The Boeing 747 is a plane. Therefore the Boeing 747 smooths wood.”
In that example it’s clear where the mistake is: “plane” has two different meanings but the proof only uses one. The trouble for social ethics is that this happens quite a bit when we use ideas that have different meanings, but the definitions are distinctions of nuance rather than clear divisions. One extremely useful ethical dissection tool is the Fallacy of Equivocation of Suffering. This gets complicated in a hurry.
First, it must be accepted not all suffering is equal. Picture someone who has grown up on a fluffy cloud, spoon-fed, never so much as a skinned their knee. On the day of their 30th birthday someone walks up and sticks them in the leg with a knitting needle. This is the most pain they have ever experienced in their entire lives. On a scale from 1 to 10, this is 50.
Now picture someone who, since the day they were born, every afternoon at 3pm their father beat them into unconsciousness with a belt. On their 30th birthday, someone walks up and sticks them with a knitting needle. On a scale of 1 to 10, for them, this was maybe a 2. They might not even remember it tomorrow morning.
Therefore, getting stuck with a knitting needle cannot be rated as a 10 or a 2, it depends on experience. Therefore, physical pain cannot be equally determined for all people. Equivocation of suffering is a fallacy.
Second, equivocation of pain is not a fallacy. It must be accepted that pain is a fundamental aspect of living beings with a central nervous system. It is so much a part of just being alive that people who cannot feel pain have a specific medical term just for them. Congenital analgesia is incredibly dangerous to children, for example they run the risk of chewing off their own tongues when teething. Pain is fundamental. Therefore, pain, to some degree, can be equivocated. I cannot know what it is to saw my own leg off, but I have felt the pain of being cut, I can know I would not enjoy cutting off my own leg.
So equivocation of pain is both a fallacy, and not a fallacy. That’s why this gets complicated in a hurry. Because it isn’t just about physical pain, it’s also about suffering.
Now, say we have someone who has never so much as suffered a bad hair day. When they say “The smoking section is by the trashcans?! Jesus, this place is like Nazi Germany!”, it can be reasonably argued that they’re actually right. For that person any rule they don’t like is a horrible indignity and an attack on their freedom. For that person, the knitting needle isn’t just painful, it’s cruel. It’s why teen angst is so common, and also a cliche. The young adult period is when many people are having many experiences for the first time, which is why teen poetry so frequently sucks. It’s maudlin and simplistic and a host of other things specifically because it’s covering familiar ground like it’s never been seen before.
Which is where Hitler comes in. Hitler, and the Nazis generally, are an idea as much as they are a historical fact. In the same way that the word “gazillion” means ‘an indeterminately large number’. “Nazi” is infrequently used to mean “a member of the German National Socialist Party” and often to mean “an extremely strict and regimented task master who follows arbitrary guidelines without reason.” For someone who has little scope of history or education in political realities, a member of congress can be a “Hitler” just by passing a ban on smoking in public parks. It’s how a 20something, heterosexual, white, male, living in the modern US, can say with a straight face that he’s the ones who is the real victim of prejudice. To him, he is. For him, the knitting needle is a 10, and Hitler was a 10, therefore the knitting needle is Hitler.
This is where the equivocation fallacy comes into play, pain and suffering are not the same. Moreover, “Hitler” and “Nazi” also have more than one meaning, both are vernacular insults. Therefore “Nazi” and Nazi are not the same. Calling someone “a Nazi” is insinuating that they are mindless totalitarians, thoughtless racists, or just plain mindless and thoughtless control freaks. Which is why Godwin’s Law that, in any online discussion, someone will eventually compare someone else to Hitler or the Nazis, is a Law. Hitler is that person’s best, most powerful insult. But Hitler’s easy, he’s well known and there are still people alive who lived through the holocaust. That’s why Godwin’s Law is a Law, because lots of people have heard of Hitler and not nearly as many people have heard of Idi Amin. If Idi Amin were as well known, Godwin’s Law would be about Amin instead. It’s not the actual Nazis, it’s the accusation “Nazi”.
Which is how Hitler isn’t the knitting needle. Many have heard of Idi Amin, or if they haven’t they at least know they’re not Hitler, the person. Which means everyone in the discussion knows immediately that shouting “Hitler!” in a crowded newsgroup is essentially a Hail Mary. Which is why the argument’s basically over after that and why Godwin’s Law was later modified with the corollary that anyone who invokes Hitler or the Nazis cedes whatever point it is they were trying to make. Because Godwin’s Law isn’t about 1930s Germany, it’s about calling someone “Satan” or just saying without saying “Shut up!”
So, where is all of this going? A white, married, 20something, in the modern US is not a holocaust Jew. This seems an absurd statement. But this is where the nuance of equivalent suffering comes to a head. The argument “Obama wants to take our guns, just like Hitler” is historically inaccurate. It simply is, Hitler made guns easier for most German citizens to access than they had been before he became Chancellor. But this is not about the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, or the failures and eventual fall of the Wiemar Republic. It is a statement of suffering, it is someone saying “Taking my firearm takes my freedom, and that’s what Hitler did to a lot of people, and now he’s remembered as a monster, so we shouldn’t take my freedom away because that’s what monsters do.” And if equivalent suffering is a fallacy, it is a good argument. They will have their rights violated, and that’s what happened to the Jews under Hitler. Except this is where the fallacy/not fallacy dividing line becomes extremely important. Because the Jews, under Hitler and the Nazis, were starved and gassed to death.
Even without legal and historical nuance included, one need never have lived through the holocaust to know that it was a hard slog indeed and it’s not a comparison one should be making casually. Also, it is not necessary for different groups to compare how much they have suffered to agree that suffering is bad. A black should not be held to the standard of a WWII Jew in order for their perspective to be valid. A homosexual should not be quiet simply because they don’t have a tattoo of a lot number on their arm. A woman is not wrong that corporate sexism is bad simply because it does not include regular lynchings. And more to the point, for the privileged to use “Hey, I’ve suffered too” makes it a silencing tool. Because what is being pointed to is an inequality, not a uniformity of pain. And what an argument of ‘we’ve all suffered in our own way’ does is deny that inequality. If a homosexual is talking to a heterosexual, the heterosexual does not get to say “Yeah, I totally understand not being able to marry, my second wife and I had a hell of a time getting my first marriage annulled.” The inequality is in the statement, the homo isn’t having trouble getting married, they legally can’t.
If a man says to a woman, “Hey, I totally understand the glass ceiling, it took me three years to make partner,” that man is undermining the woman’s worth in two different ways. First because he’s comparing abilities where an equivalent is nowhere evident, but second because he’s excluding social factors that haven’t even been considered let alone disproven. It’s called a straw man, where one assumes how someone came to a conclusion, and then disagrees with the assumptions but not the original statement. The woman isn’t asking the man to comprehend how difficult it is to achieve, she is stating that it was hard for her to achieve specifically because she is a she. More importantly she is talking about how hard her achievement was in addition to his.
He, on the other hand, has ignored everything she said and focused on his own career and his own suffering and eschewing her augmentation. Interestingly while admitting that he outranks her without giving any logical reason that should be true. His fallacy of equal pain is that since he had to work hard to get ahead, he understands having his ass slapped at the Christmas party by his boss.
And any pale-skinned American who says “I totally get racism, people don’t believe it’s my picture on my driver’s license after I’ve worked in the yard for a couple of weeks,” really just needs to be smacked. Racism isn’t about people mistaking hue, it’s about Class, perceived origins, and up to 500 years of systematic exclusion and political manipulation.
The appropriate answer, for example, to #BlackLivesMatter or is not #AllLivesMatter. The hint for the white guy, of course, is that it’s never taken a constitutional amendment to make him a person. Again, inconvenience is being equated with daily or even weekly harassment. One could also argue that what is hidden just below a statement like that is the argument ‘Sure it’s a pain for you, but you people suffer all the time. My suffering is more rare because it’s just me, therefore it’s more deserving of attention.” A devaluation if ever there were one.

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The Piebald One

The Dark Fool dances like a harlequin, like a rabbit in a field when no one is watching. His diamonds are so deep they’re embedded in his very skin. He spirals and hops and he makes jokes that hide and reveal more and less than he knows. Here he records some of what plays in his mind, his own little mark upon the stones, like those who came before and have left us with as many questions as answers. Oh, and there’s gonna be a lot of sarcasm, some irony, and way more than enough absurdity to go around.

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