Friday, February 1, 2013

Ride my donkey

This article is on how to understand critical thinking, writing and rationality; and feigned rationality.  I was anyway planning to write one for my students, and I recently got an opportunity. Sometimes arguments are brought to one's doorstep, to be discussed threadbare. This blog article is also my response to some very recent happenings on the Internet. I guess, as a medium, Internet is still growing up and many of us are still grappling on how to discuss a topic formally and yes, rationally.

The way the events unfolded:
a) An organization I was involved with decided to chip in with some help for the marriage of some women in the villages
b) The event was publicised on Facebook
c) One person decides to object to it on the event page; stating that initially she liked the idea but on closer examination she found the approach incorrect. That by itself was quite fine. However the tone was a bit aggressive with some hidden innuendos and quite bad net-etiquette (e.g. usage of a lot of question marks, which suggests being perplexed, hidden agenda, etc) One of the founders found the tone objectionable but worked on the meaning anyway
d) A discussion ensued which resulted in some more clarification, and eventually we removed the vagueness and clarified the description of the event

I would have thought the matter would have ended with a sober response; such as: "Okay, I have now made my point. Mission accomplished. Let them at least raise at least some money, after all the organization is known for its good work"

But guess what? The matter did not end there. It resulted in a kind of a "Whoopee! Got the chaps! They changed the description  Oh, and did we laugh about it, etc". And all that on her blog.

She has remarked quite clearly that she was making a rational point, and she claims we were not really entertaining that. So let me now enter the subject of her discussion and not about the event or the organization and discuss the logical fallacies she herself is making regarding the subject of helping women, based on the exact words that she used. This is not an allegation on the person. I am merely using this opportunity to gain some insights into logical fallacies and incorrect argumentation.

I have heard this kind of pseudo-intellectual talk from my IIT days and it is high time I need to explain how sometimes arguments are made quite irrationally. I think some do this quite innocently, possibly because they really do not know formal argumentation.

The basic message that she seems to promote is that she knows what it is to improve the lot of tribal women and our organisation simply does not know what it is all about.

Note: This is not to prove one point or the other. This is just to understand how do we get into a topic and what could possibly the way to argue the point

So let me start with the initial reaction that this lady had given and I will discuss that in detail. The rest of the conversation is possibly not very important because it mostly continued in a similar vein on the part of most of the authors in that thread.

This is what she had started the conversation thread with:

After reading about your cause of funding 25 marriages for "our sisters in villages", I feel you'll are sending out the wrong message on so many levels. Women are better off without men who call off a wedding for monetary reasons. Your cause only reinforces dowry, a patriarchal society reducing these women to "inferior" beings. What about educating, empowering these women and making them self sufficient instead of just paying for their weddings????

1. After reading about your cause of funding 25 marriages for "our sisters in villages", I feel you'll are sending out the wrong message on so many levels. 

This sentence is fine. Almost. Talking about feelings is always correct. Nobody can question feelings.  The part which is a bit odd is "message on so many levels" is a dangling statement. What levels? Is that explained later? If so, then that is fine. If not explained clearly, it ends up being very suggestive that there could be some hidden agenda. It ends up as an innuendo.

2. Women are better off without men who call off a wedding for monetary reasons.
This is an over-generalization and also a sweeping statement. It implies that women are better off without men of a particular kind of ethical behaviour. Are things so clean and clear-cut?  People are complex creatures who are both good and bad; and there are women who can still derive benefit from being married to such men. This sentence also hints that the monetary reasons for calling off weddings are only due to a conspiracy against women. Poor people call off a wedding because they simply cannot afford it. Can't that be a reason? What about two poor souls deeply in love, who cannot marry because neither have enough money?

3. Your cause only reinforces dowry, a patriarchal society reducing these women to "inferior" beings. 

This is called a slippery-slope argument. She starts with a point which she assumes to be correct (She states quite emphatically that the cause "only reinforces dowry" note;  In any argument we should not start with a conclusion but arrive at it. In this case, if her hassle was with dowry we need to clearly establish that our cause is indeed to reinforce dowry) She then keeps sliding away into "reinforcing dowry", "patriarchal society" "and reducing women into inferior beings" ... if one were to hazard a guess, if that slide along that slope were to continue maybe one could easily slip in many other ills in the society too -- hmmm drunken husbands? corruption?   and it can go on and on. A casual reader could even get convinced. 

Here is the formal explanation of the fallacy of the slippery slope: 

Slippery slope arguments when told extremely fast, which does not allow much time for the listener to react can often convince the listener. It is a popular technique among glib salespeople. Hmmm.. You want a devious website? here is one describing the use of slippery-slopes for sales 

4. What about educating, empowering these women and making them self sufficient instead of just paying for their weddings????

What about all that? This one is called a non-sequitur fallacy. She has stated some premise and her conclusions do not seem to be connected to the premise. For example; if I were to add this to her sentence thus: What about giving wholesome, nutritious food to the ladies? it would go quite well with what she is stating. And the list can then continue to more "good" alternatives which on closer examination may not have much to do with the premise.

Non-sequiturs are used dramatically in comedy shows and I've seen some hilarious non-sequiturs used on Radion 91.1 FM after the end of their fillers each day on "Babbar Shair"

In some arguments, non-sequiturs can be easily spotted and are indeed, quite humorous.  But in some emotionally worded (or sometimes cleverly worded) arguments, it may be difficult to spot non-sequiturs.  Read here more about the fallacy of the non-sequitur here  Pay extra attention to the subtle ones

I have just enumerated a few fallacies that I found just in the first paragraph of the initial statement itself made by this lady. I have possibly missed several other logical fallacies in that thread. I am sure there are many in her blog too but I am not going into all of them here. I do have one comment on the specific article she wrote about this on her blog: She is making a Straw-man argument there, which is best explained here:

Now my students reading this may wonder, so what is the answer to this question of helping tribal women. My answer is: The answer is not very simple and surely cannot be gleaned over an Internet discussion. My recommended strategy to extract an answer is to examine the subject using the Socratic method; which I will explain later in another article. Briefly, the Socratic method starts with a position of innocence and then questions each premise carefully for internal contradictions. It takes time but in the end, one often gets to know what could be the correct answer (often the answer is contextual -- works for one situation but may need to be re-examined for another context)

It is sad that the lady assumed some kind of controversy here. I tried telling her later in a private message that gender issues are extremely complex and taking binary (i.e. on-off positions) are too simplistic. Sadly, she did not respond to my query. It turns out that she has even blocked me on Facebook, for some strange reason.

Whether the organization is really doing something deep is not the issue here; at least I know for the fact that there is a lot of genuine effort that would indeed help some monetarily.  It may be just a small little thing but I know for a fact there is no conspiracy here.

Yes, indeed, the money collected could be used for the wrong reasons and one need to guard against that. If points on how to protect and use the money correctly were discussed, the discussion would have been more productive. We could have passed on constructive suggestions to the charity who is behind this effort.

It is amusing to see that the author fervently believes that she is really making a "Rational" argument here. In fact her blog proudly declares this "When rationality, music and causes collide " I wish she would read up on logical fallacies. Else, she is welcome to attend my classes.

Some of my friends wonder why I bother so much about fine points on argumentation. Firstly, I must confess, like anyone here; I too am bothered about my own argumentation capability. As an architect, and later as an IT person, I have heard just too much arbitrary arguments which wastes too much time and in the end, only the points of the more "impressive" personality seems to be registered. I get vexxed when students make such points because later on they are to conquer the world and I wonder how they would do so. A healthy amount of skepticism and a capability to look deep inside all the corners of an argument can indeed reap a lot of benefits. And when I hear claims of feigned rationality, well, I can seriously get on the verge of being impolite.

You may be wondering why this article is called "Ride my Donkey" I picked that from something that I heard Kamal Hassan say in an interview which was aired once-again after his recent controversy. He had to change the name of a movie simply because some politician thought of deriving mileage from that controversy and you can hear Kamal say about it here:

(See the part after 9minutes 30 seconds) He says that he was used as a donkey for someone else's political agenda.

So it is not just the big guns like Kamal Hassan who are used as a donkey for various agendas. Some smaller souls who are trying in their own way to get some help where it is needed also get taken for a ride. I am not really sure whether a donkey was ridden in our case. I hope not. After reading her blog, I did get the feeling that the person was consciously or unconsciously reinforcing her own image as a "women" saviour; for reasons best known to her.

And let me end this on a positive note to the lady if she decides to read this. It is with the same positive humor she ended her blog: Madam, please do take my blog as a educational lesson. It could, just might, help you sometime. All the best wishes in your endeavour to help women. I am sure you will now make really good arguments

P.S: I am deliberating not mentioning this lady's name or give a link to her blog here. I hereby declare that is NOT made as any justification or defence of the organization I am involved with; referred to in this topic. This is my personal stance as a teacher, and it is meant purely for educational purpose only and it is not to slur anyone