The Muslim Face – on policing the resistance from within

The recent furore in the University of Yale for inviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali to deliver a speech has been for me the most unsettling of all the controversy that had Hirsi Ali in it. The thing about Hirsi Ali is that she is representative of the dichotomy that ex-Muslims in general, and ex-Muslim women in particular, have to go through, especially in countries where Muslims are a minority. One is to be seen as a traitor of one’s community for speaking out against the atrocities committed within and other is to be seen as an apologist for speaking out against unwarranted and bigoted suspicion and fear with which Muslims are seen by the majority. Kenan Malik has spoken about this in his article “Is There Something About Islam?“, in which the following anecdote is very telling.

The Danish MP Naser Khader once told me of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing Danish newspaper that was highly critical of the Danish cartoons. “He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims”, Khader recalled. “I said I was not insulted. And he said, ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’.”

Ayaan chose to not be that real Muslim and chose to be the traitor. For which she became the darling of the conservative and the right, while attracting the scorn of liberals and leftists from privileged classes.

And it is this dichotomy that unraveled at Yale, once she was invited to speak. There are two things to be considered here. First is the academic freedom of Hirsi Ali as an ex-Muslim woman. Michelle Goldberg in the Nation have put this matter very well, by comparing Hirsi Ali’s and Steven Salaita’s cases.

… it’s worth recognizing that arguments privileging “respect” and civility above freedom on campus are always double-edged. If you believe that Hirsi Ali shouldn’t be allowed to speak because she denigrates Islam and makes many students uncomfortable, then it’s hard to see how you can simultaneously claim that Salaita, a professor who has tweeted, “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948,” deserves a place in the classroom.

Second is the expectations that are put upon ex-Muslims when they choose to criticise Islam and the practices within their respective communities. Here is the letter by the Yale Muslim Students Association, where the following statement is something that I found to be extremely repugnant.

While we have legitimate concerns from what we know, and while we cannot overlook how marginalizing her presence will be to the Muslim community and how uncomfortable it will be for the community’s allies, we are hopeful that the discussion is constructive and that Ms. Hirsi Ali speaks only to her personal experiences and professional expertise.

Not only does the above statement have the implication that they are being generous by not denying her her experiences, but they expect her to limit her expression to her experiences and “expertise”, read she’s not qualified to speak on Islam. So she is allowed to express herself but not allowed to interpret her experiences with Islam. Similar arguments were made by Hindu apologists against Kancha Ilaiah, a Dalit ex-Hindu writer and academic, for his trenchant and passionate criticism of Hinduism. In fact as a friend once pointed to us in Nirmukta, Hirsi Ali’s and Ilaiah’s experiences parallel each other. Both are denied the right to be passionate and also denied the right to hate the very institution that was the cause of their experiences. Despite being much close to oppression than privilege they are denied to opine and interpret on the same institution in the manner they deem fit.

But it doesn’t stop there. Here is the statement by the Yale Humanist Community, one of the signatories of the above letter,

As a diverse group of undergraduates with a membership that includes ex-Muslims and atheists from Islamic cultures, we do not believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents the totality of the ex-Muslim experience.

True, she may not represent the totality of the ex-Muslim experiences, but her experiences do belong to that totality. Her experiences and interpretations of the same constitute the larger ex-Muslim experience, and she has every right to be taken as seriously as any other ex-Muslim in that regard. One may disagree with plenty of her opinions, especially ones regarding minority rights of Muslims, but one simply doesn’t get to trivialise her experience by making such patronising statements as saying she does not represent the whole.

Another argument that comes against Hirsi Ali is that feeds the anti-Muslim/Islamophobic frenzy of the right and the conservative. But how fair is it to police her speech and expression by putting the blame of bigotry of the, well, bigots on her? Bigots have historically appropriated and misconstrued sane arguments for their own agenda, many a times even by going against the original intentions. How fair and constructive is it to point fingers at her, instead of engaging her?

Such policing and patronising of resistance within Islam while bringing down the credibility of secular humanism, greatly harms the larger struggle for a tolerant and secular future. Excluding the likes of Hirsi Ali will do none of us any good.

Arguments From Analogy in Victim Blaming

[important]”Analysing Arguments” is an ongoing series which analyses arguments found in daily life. Some good background material for this is Coursera’s enormously popular course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, and the book Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. You might also find the primer How to Argue Online useful. Other installments of the series are listed in the analysing arguments tag here and also on nirmukta.com.[/important]

Summary

This post analyses various arguments from analogy (“AFAs”) used in victim blaming. It also talks about victim blaming in general – what we mean by blame and responsibility, and the psychological causes of victim blaming. Finally, it argues that victim blaming is wrong in general. If you’re already well-versed in debunking the AFAs, you might want to read only the section on Moral Responsibility, and then skip to the last two sections at the end. If you are interested in the AFAs, please read How to Analyse Arguments From Analogy first, so that you’re familiar with the structure of AFAs and how to evaluate their strength.

Contents:

The Components of a Victim-Blaming AFA
Moral Responsibility
The Lollipop/Lollipop Owner
The Bear Attack Victim
The Careless Pedestrian/Helmetless Biker
The Job Interviewee
The Laptop/Car/Home Owner
The Late Night Walker and the Football Fan
The Psychology of Victim Blaming
Why Victim Blaming is Wrong

The Components of a Victim-Blaming AFA

To recap from the first post, an AFA has the following form:

1. Object A has property P (and possibly Q, R…).

2. Object B also has property P (and Q, R…).

3. Object B has property X.

——————————————————

4. Object A also has property X. (From 1-3.)

A victim blaming AFA has the following components. This is something I settled on after thinking about it for ages – there are variations of it which could work, but I think this is the best version:

A = a person who suffers harm

B = another person who suffers harm

P, Q, R etc. = (severity and circumstances of harm)

X = is (or ought to be) blamed/punished.

So a victim blaming AFA essentially says: we blame/punish this victim in this case of harm, therefore we should also blame/punish that victim in that case of harm. Before we get to some examples, I want to talk a bit about the property X above – i.e., why it says blamed and punished - and hence why this called victim blaming in the first place.

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How to Analyse Arguments From Analogy

[important]”Analysing Arguments” is an ongoing series which analyses arguments found in daily life. Some good background material for this is Coursera’s enormously popular course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, and the book Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. You might also find the primer How to Argue Online useful. Other installments of the series are listed in the analysing arguments tag here and also on nirmukta.com.[/important]

An argument from analogy is similar to what we simply call an analogy, but is different in that it’s an argument, whereas an analogy is usually just a stating of a similarity. “Your driving is like Rahul Dravid’s batting” – that’s an analogy (and a compliment I once received!). It’s simply saying A is like B. But an argument from analogy – henceforth referred to as an “AFA” – is an inductive argument, which states the existence of a further similarity as its conclusion. It takes the following form:

1. Object A has property P (and possibly Q, R…).

2. Object B also has property P (and Q, R…).

3. Object B has property X.

——————————————————

4. Object A also has property X. (From 1-3.)

Here’s an example which some of us might have experienced. Say I’m up for a promotion at work, and I think I’ll be promoted, but I’m not. And then I find out that my colleague has been promoted. So I go to my boss and I argue for my promotion by saying:

“You promoted <colleague>, why didn’t you promote me?”

I’ll try to reconstruct this AFA in the above form. First, what are the two objects being compared? Easy enough – me and my colleague. I.e.,

A = me

B = colleague

Next, what are the common properties P, Q, R and so on? It’s implicit that there must be some similarities between my colleague and I, so let’s say we both joined around the same time, and have similar experience levels:

P = 5 years of relevant experience

Q = joined the company in 2009

Finally, X is the property of being promoted:

X = got promoted

So as you can now see, the conclusion “A also has property X” is “I should also be promoted”.

When is an Argument From Analogy Strong?

An AFA is stronger when it has the following attributes:

  • Many relevant similarities: the similarities P, Q, R… are relevant to X and many in number. The similarities I noted above are certainly relevant to the issue of promotion. But other similarities might not be relevant – e.g. if my colleague and I both have degrees in philosophy, but philosophy isn’t relevant to our job, then that similarity isn’t relevant to our promotion. But if my colleague and I both hit a particular sales target in the last quarter, and we both won a particular award… the more relevant similarities there are, the stronger the argument becomes.
  • Fewer relevant dissimilarities: there are fewer relevant dissimilarities between A and B. What if it turns out that my colleague passed a well-regarded industrial certification, and I hadn’t? Or received previously-unheard of praise from the customers? Or won major new business? Or hired and coached a brilliant team? If I have done none of these things, then these differences are relevant, and they would weaken my argument.
  • Diverse objects: there are other objects C, D, E… which also have similarities P, Q, R… and X. If I can identify three or four other colleagues who also share those similarities and got promoted, then my case for promotion becomes stronger.
  • Weaker conclusion: If instead of saying “You definitely should have promoted me”, I say “You probably should have promoted me”, the argument becomes stronger. Granted, in this particular example it wouldn’t make much sense, since promotion is a yes-or-no state. But in general, the principle holds – a weaker conclusion has more support from the premises of an AFA.

Here’s a real-life AFA from a few days ago – in a Wall Street Journal interview, the CEO of American financial services firm AIG said this while responding to criticism of AIG executives receiving bonuses despite the company being in bad shape:

The uproar over bonuses was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that–sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.

He later apologised (kind of). Most of us can instinctively make out what’s wrong with this argument, but it helps to break it down into the above form, to see just why it’s a weak argument:

A = executives of AIG who received bonuses

B = African-Americans in slavery/civil rights era

P = demonised by media and public opinion

X = ought to be left in peace.

The argument appears to point out an additional similarity by use of the phrases pitchforks and hangman’s nooses, but for one object (A) these phrases are rhetorical, but for the second (B) they are literal (an equivocation fallacy perhaps?). So we’re left with that one similarity P, of questionable relevance, and of course there are a host of relevant dissimilarities between A and B. As a result, this is a very weak argument from analogy.

A more detailed and academic look at AFAs can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I plan to continue with the same subject next time, where I’ll look at arguments from analogy which routinely show up in the act of victim-blaming.

 

Analysing Arguments: Two Articles on the Death Penalty

“Analysing Arguments” is going to be an ongoing series of posts which analyse arguments found in the news and online media. Some good background material for this is Coursera’s enormously popular course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, and the book Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. You might also find the primer How to Argue Online useful. Note: the above course is scheduled for its next run on August 26 2013. We highly recommend signing up – it’s a life-changer, even if you’re already familiar with logical fallacies.


In this first installment of the series, I’m going to look at two recent articles against the death penalty. The first is by Member of Parliament Kanimozhi, and the second is by American lawyer Alan Dershowitz. Both arguments are justifications: they attempt to give good reasons for believing certain conclusions. They are also moral arguments – their conclusions are propositions of value, and so their premises are a mix of propositions of fact and of value.

An electric chair. (Image via Wikimedia Commons; public domain.)

An electric chair. (Image via Wikimedia Commons; public domain.)

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