Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Straw Men and the Chick-fil-A Kerfluffle

As I've followed the heated Chick-fil-A kerfluffle, one thing I've noticed is the plethora of straw men.

The "straw man fallacy," as it's called in critical thinking textbooks, is the fallacy of rejecting a view (or argument) by attacking a related but different view (or argument) that's easier to discredit. You thoroughly discredit a position that your opponent wasn't actually endorsing but act as if you've refuted your opponent (perhaps hoping no one notices the trick, perhaps not noticing it yourself). The fallacy is, I believe, named after the practice of burning in effigy a straw stand-in for the real target of outrage.

Sometimes the straw man fallacy is deliberate, sometimes inadvertent. I think the latter is more common: We don't listen carefully, we jump to conclusions, or a pithy retort springs to our lips before we can examine whether it's really fair. We fail to notice a distinction, and so attack what strikes us as outrageous rather than what the other person actually meant (a point which suggests that the straw man fallacy is related inversely to the principle of charity). I'm sure I'm guilty of this myself.

So, for example, Abe encounter progressives who are upset by Chick-fil-A's unapologetic financial support of organizations committed to perpetuating discrimination and social marginalization of sexual minorities. Abe then represents them as being upset about Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy exercizing his right to express an opinion, and trumpets how importance freedom of speech is to the American way of life and how awful it is that people are trying to deny Cathy this right. That's the straw man fallacy. To be opposed to practices that promote discrimination isn't the same as being opposed to someone's right to express an opinion.

There are other examples, from both sides of the debate. I know that some who came to Chick-fil-A's defense were actually opposed to Cathy's anti-gay practices but were equally appalled by certain city mayors who seemed to be threatening the right of Chick-fil-A franchises to operate within their cities. They were worried about the precedent that would be set if the right to do business could be jeopardized by where you donated money--but they were treated as if they thought there was nothing wrong with those donations. Defending someone's right to do X is not the same as saying X is right.

I'm sure you can provide your own examples.

My own favorite example comes in response to my own post about the Chick-fil-A business. Not many days later Methodist pastor Brent White, on his blog, vigorously critiqued a distorted variant of my post--rendering my argument easy to attack by ignoring terms like "many" and "in most cases," and by uncharitably interpreting an ambiguous use of the phrase "these people" so as to make the people referenced a much broader class than I had intended to be talking about. I suspect, given his tone of righteous indignation, that the straw man fallacy in this case was inadvertent--that his sense of affront led to a failure to read with care and charity. The result is that the view he was attacking, although it wasn't mine, burned very brightly indeed--as straw is wont to do.

So the question is, what do you do when you've been "straw-manned"? In fact, I think the most useful response is to use it as an opportunity for clarification. If a distinction has been missed, you now have the chance to make it explicit. If a qualifier has been overlooked, you can call attention to it. If you've left something out of your discussion for the sake of focusing on a particular issue--but what you've left out leaves you open to misinterpretation--you can fill in the blanks.

It's easy to get mad and defensive when you've been straw-manned. But it's better, I think, to treat it as an opportunity. One might say something like this: "I actually agree that the position you're attacking is mistaken for the reasons you offer. But I'm afraid you've misread or misheard me if you think that view is mine. Perhaps I wasn't as clear as I could have been. Here's what I meant to say..."

If you're a blogger, I think responding to straw-manning in this way is especially important. Because if one person has misconstrued your position and dismissed it based on the misconstrual, then it's quite likely that others have as well.

But if all of this is right, then I suppose I should do all of this in relation to Brent White's critique of my Chick-fil-A post. Here's how White understands my argument:

The author, Eric Reitan, says that the Christians who turned out last week during “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” did so because they have an “allegiance to an untenable theory about the Bible, a theory about how the Bible’s words are connected to divine self-disclosure, a theory that, as I see it, cannot stand up to any serious engagement with the Bible’s actual content and history.” They are, he says, inerrantists.

Really? For the record, while I’m not aware that my position on marriage and homosexuality differs from Dan Cathy’s, be assured, dear reader, that I am not an inerrantist. John Wesley wasn’t an inerrantist. Neither was Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine, Athanasius, Origen, or St. Paul, for that matter.

This is classic straw-man reasoning. After all, go back just a few words in the very sentence White quotes, and you hit on the qualifying phrase "more often than not." While a universal claim can be refuted by a short list of counterexamples, the corresponding non-universal claim cannot be thus refuted. "All X's are Y's" is refuted by finding an X that isn't a Y. But "Many X's are Y's" is not thus refuted. For White's retort to work, he has to attribute to me a universal claim I didn't make.

But while this is adequate to expose the fallacy, I don't think stopping there is sufficient if one's aim is to use the straw-manning as a springboard for helping to clarify one's position.

So let's step back a little further and put the passage White quotes into its broader context. I begin by claiming that the Chick-fil-A "appreciators"--more precisely, those who stand with Cathy in endorsing the social and legal marginalization of gays and lesbians, as opposed to those who showed up simply to stand against any infringement on Chick-fil-A's right to do business--are guilty of a short-coming in love. But I think the problem lies with their actions more than with their motives: while what they are doing is unloving towards their gay and lesbian neighbors, they don't want to be unloving. They mean well. There is a disconnect between motives and actions.

Of course, this way of putting the issue is premised on the view that the categorical condemnation of homosexuality and the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage really is harmful to gays and lesbians. It wasn't my aim to make the case for that premise in a definitive way (one can only do so much in a blog post)--and so all I did was sketch out my case.

Here's the sketch, put in slightly different terms: Those of us who have really paid close and compassionate attention to the lived experience of gays and lesbians--those of us who have really sought to uncover the fruits of conservative anti-gay teachings--have a very hard time finding those teachings even remotely plausible. In practice, systematically excluding gays and lesbians from access to the bedrock instiution of society, treating their intimate life-partnerships as something less than familial, regarding their love as sin and hence treating their most meaning-bestowing relationships as something that ought to be broken up--all of this damages the lives of gays and lesbians in a holistic way. Hence, all of this is unloving in practice, no matter what the motives.

But it seems to me that many of those who engage in this unloving practice are no less loving in their underlying character and motives than most of the rest of us. So what is the source of the disconnect between heart and action? One answer lies in false beliefs.

So which false beliefs can cause well-meaning people, motivated by love, to endorse practices that bear such bad fruits--often tragic ones--for our gay and lesbian neighbors?

There are, of course, multiple answers. Back in the respective eras of Wesley and Calvin and Luther and Aquinas and Anselm and Augustine and Athanasius and Origen and St. Paul, the answer wouldn't be belief in biblical inerrancy--since, as White rightly points out, inerrancy is a fairly modern notion. But before the modern era, people knew next to nothing about homosexuality. The concept of sexual orientation as we understand it today was essentially unknown. The cultures of these eras lacked the conceptual categories that would have enabled those with a homosexual orientation to make their experience understood in the way that we can understand it today.

And so, in these earlier eras, it is quite likely that the theologians White mentions would have had false beliefs about homosexuality and false beliefs about the effects of church teachings (since those most affected by those teachings lacked the public voice to make their experiences known and understood). If, in relation to sexual minorities, there was a disconnect between their motives and their actions, I'd locate the source, not in a doctrine of inerrancy, but in understandable ignorance.

But the question I was posing wasn't about what caused the disconnect among long-dead theologians. It was about all those decent, ordinary American Christians who showed up on Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day to "appreciate" and facilitate Dan Cathy's financial support of discrimination and social marginalization. What explains the disconnect between their ordinary decency and their committed endorsement of the indecent treatment of fellow human beings?

Again, there are multiple answers. But the modern notion of biblical inerrancy has developed enormous currency among contemporary Christians in the pews, even in mainline churches that do not (at the level of their theology) endorse inerrancy. While I haven't done a sociological study of the matter, I suspect from my personal experience that the opposition to homosexuality among conservative Christians today is most often supported by an appeal to "what the Bible says"--an appeal of the sort that at least implicitly presupposes biblical inerrancy (in the sense that, without inerrancy as a hidden premise, the conclusion simply wouldn't follow).

But this is hardly true of all those who oppose homosexuality and same-sex marriage. White is absolutely right about that (which, again, is why I said "more often than not"). Among Roman Catholics, appeals to various natural law arguments or to Church authority are likely to be invoked. Others offer a range of arguments based on the purported social harms of normalizing homosexuality--which is why I have considered various arguments of this sort on this blog. It's also why I haven't contented myself with critiquing arguments against same-sex marriage, but have sought to make positive arguments in support of it.

And because conservative Protestant theologians from mainline denominations are likely to be conscious of the limitations of proof-texting and more conventional natural law arguments, my first published work on this issue (back in the '90's) took on a holistic biblical and natural law argument offered by a Lutheran theologian, one which tried to read into the Bible a "heterosexual order" to creation and attempted to ground opposition to same-sex relationships in their "violation" of that order.

Perhaps, at some point, I should summarize the argument from that paper (co-authored with John Kronen and published in Faith and Philosophy on this blog. Perhaps I should also devote a post to the various permutations of the natural law argument. There's something to be said for completeness.

But to take up all of these possibilities in the Chick-fil-A blog post would have distracted from its more focused aim--which was to zero in on what I take to be the most influential force underwriting anti-gay discrimination among lay Christians today. And that's why I prefaced my discussion of inerrancy and the way it prevents people from connecting compassionately with their gay and lesbian neighbors by saying that "more often than not" (not "always") the source of the disconnect between motives and actions on this matter can be attributed to an unreflective assumption of inerrancy.

And to be clear, I didn't mean "more often than not" in the history of Christianity. Prior to the modern era, the source of the disconnect was more likely, as already noted, to be invincible ignorance about the nature of homosexuality. Wesley and Luther and Calvin, etc., formed their understandings of sexual ethics without the benefit of being able to appreciate what it is like to be gay. They knew none of the things that can and should inform our thinking today. The question is why so many today don't inform their thinking in the light of this new knowledge. For some it may be misguided allegiance to a traditional teaching that was formed in the midst of profound ignorance. For others it may be something else. But for most Christian conservatives in America today, it seems to be allegiance to "the Word of God."

When I said that "these people aren't biblical scholars," I was referring to most of the conservative Christians lining up to give money to Chick-fil-A last week. Most of them were, I suspect, convinced they were standing up for what the Bible teaches--but not in some nuanced sense of "what the Bible teaches," according to which the teachings of the whole may deviate from and override the teachings of the parts. They weren't there because they had done a study of the Bible as a whole, uncovered the roots of its overarching sexual ethic (perhaps in the light of a careful critical reading of L. William Countryman's Dirt, Greed, and Sex) and taken a side in a controversial theological debate about what the Bible's sexual ethic is (if it has one at all) and how its authority for contemporary Christians should play out in the case of homosexuality.

Perhaps one or two among thousands fit this description. If you're one of them, I'll note here that your arguments should emphatically not be discounted just because they aren't the most prevalent. If they are to be rejected, they should be rejected because they aren't sound. If you are in this camp, you should know that I haven't been convinced yet by the arguments of your peers, and I think your burden of proof is extremely high given the despair and suicidal self-loathing that the views you support sow in too many gay and lesbian hearts. But if you want to share your own substantive positive case for the moral rightness of something that I have observed to cause so much life anguish for my gay and lesbian friends, I'll skeptically consider what you have to say, perhaps in the book on this topic that I've started working on.

But I'll also note here that you aren't typical of those who showed up for Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. My post was about the typical conservative Christians who stood in solidarity with the Cathy family and the Chick-fil-A franchise, who stood with Chick-fil-A because of shared values. And what would these average conservative Christians waiting in line, if asked why they believed Cathy was in the right to use Chick-fil-A profits to support discrimination, have said?

I'm pretty convinced from the body of anecdotal evidence available to me that they would have pointed to the fact that Paul calls homosexual acts unnatural and indecent in the first chapter of Romans. Or they would have invoked some other "clobber passage." Or offered a vaguer claim to the effect that "the Bible calls it a sin."

But I will concede that my evidence is anecdotal--and my experience may be colored by the fact that for the last 12 years I've lived in the Bible belt. Suppose the numbers game turns out differently. Suppose it was only 40% who fit the description I was focusing on in my earlier post--that is, well-meaning Christian Chick-fil-A supporters who failed to allow their choices to be shaped by an appreciation of the anguished cries of their gays and lesbian neighbors, and failed because they were trapped behind walls created by an unreflective allegiance to a doctrine of inerrancy.

Then I'd be wrong in my claim that "more often than not" inerrancy shaped their views. But my deeper point wasn't about how many were trapped behind walls of inerrancy. My deeper point was about how inerrancy can trap otherwise decent people behind walls, how it does so with many Christians, and how in those cases we should treat the misleading doctrine as the villain rather than the people who are misled.

But none of this is to say that every opponent of same-sex romantic intimacy is an inerrantist. That is clearly not true. I agree wholeheartedly with Brent White on that point. Where we disagree is on the issue of whether every opponent of same-sex romantic intimacy is mistaken.


  1. I've only spoken to one person that could give, in my opinion, a reasonable defense for opposing gay marriage. He was a Mormon; I find Mormon's to be some of the most informed religous practitioners. His argument, which I thought was an interesting one, it centered around the legal ramifications of churches refusing to marry gay men and women. Could a church be sued, on the grounds of discrimination, if it refused to marry a gay couple? Though I don't know if the Catholic Church has ever been threatened with legal action because it refused to marry someone that has been divorced.

  2. Guarantees of religious freedom, while they don't guarantee a religious community the right to impose its values on the majority, does protect its right to live out its values within its own community (assuming those values don't endorse raping or killing or maiming community members, etc).

    This protection is not a right to be free from criticism, to be free from being called immoral and unjust and unloving, or to be free from civil, nonviolent direct action taken by the victims of religious persecution. It isn't the right to be free from picketing and protest. But it is the right to be free from legal mandates to conduct their sectarian rituals and practices in a particular way.

    If the Missouri Synod Lutherans refuse to extend communion to other Christians who aren't of the same denomination, the right to religious freedom ensures that they can make this choice without legal repercussions. But the very same constitutional liberties guarantee the right of ELCA Lutherans to critique this practice, to say that it is contrary to the inclusive spirit of Jesus, etc. It guarantees the right of a particular Missouri synod pastor to defy the denomination's policy and practice open communion without fear of legal repercussions--but it also guarantees that the denomination has the right to impose internal sanctions such as defrocking said pastor without legal repercussions. And it guarantees the right of the particular church to thumb its nose at the synod's defrocking, leave the synod in protest, and continue to pay the "defrocked" pastor to be its pastor.

    You get the idea. Separation of Church and State and the right to freedom of religion offer some pretty robust protection of religious liberty--not absolute protection (no human sacrifice, and things get complicated when a religious community runs a secular business that employs and serves people who don't belong to the faith without requiring them to convert), but especially if we're talking about a religious ritual with religious meaning that members of the religious community participate in, decisions about who gets to partake of the ritual and who doesn't is left in the religious community's hands, and issues of injustice about such decisions are left up to the community to resolve internally.

    It is my hope that these internal mechanisms will eventually motivate churches to move towards marriage equality, but freedom of religion pretty much ensures, I think, that no legal sanctions will be imposed on those that don't.

  3. Hi Eric,

    You seem to be saying (among other things) that, for many, the Bible is the source of their view on same-sex marriage. I understand this is a complex issue but I wonder is this gets the causality right: isn't it rather the case that one's views come from sources like education/family/social environment and appropriate excerpts from the Bible are used only as supporting material for these views? I don't know but it seems this must happen as often as the opposite.

    This goes both ways, of course. The Bible being what it is, one can find supporting material for a number of different views (especially if one ignores the historical context and so on).

    I would venture to suggest that reliance on authority (be it biblical or other) to justify a moral stance is more often than not part of the problem (and hardly ever justified). For example, it's for me the strangest thing to imagine someone who, say, strongly believes something is wrong but will do it anyway because some authority says it's good.

    1. Your point has merit. I talked about the "source" of the disconnect between the motives of conservative Christians who promote the systematic marginalization of gays and lesbians and their actions. This language is ambiguous, and probably warrant unpacking.

      The cause of the original belief that homosexuality is one thing--and it likely has the complex social sources that you mention. But the cause of the original belief may not be the cause of the disconnect between heart and behavior. For loving motives to proceed in unloving acts, the "heart" has to be insulated against the effects of the unloving acts--the person has to be encouraged to avoid paying meaningful attention to those who are harmed either (a) by encouraging the creation of social conditions under which those who are harmed are so ashamed of who they are that they keep it to themselves by staying in the closet and suffering in silence, or (b) by discouraging meaningful contact with "those sinners" who don't hide in the closet, or (c) by putting up a robust interpretive filter that is capable of explaining away or minimizing the expressions of harm.

      In other words, my interest isn't in the source of the original belief, but in what causes the belief to stay in place among well-meaning people in a world where a whole class of people is harmed by the actions that follow from the belief.

      For a belief to survive "bad fruits," especially among people who basically care about others, there needs to be a structure in place that helps to sustain insulation against meaningful awareness of those bad fruits. Social insulation of the sort described in (a) may not require an ideological belief structure. But once (a) begins to erode, one needs an ideology that strongly justifies the harmful beliefs and attendant practices--and I think that for many American Christians, inerrancy serves this role. If questioning the ideology is treated as anathema--as a betrayal of God, for example--then the adherent might have strong motives to avoid any experience that could lead to such questioning.

  4. Thank you for explaining "Seperation of Church and State". I've never heard anyone explain it that well or that succinctly. It seems to me that the meaning of the term is either mirepresented or ignored. I want to take the stance of "its not my business nor my government's business who marries whom". There are, of course, exceptions that I think was as a society can agree on (same species, age, consent, incest). Is that the wrong stance to take? Would it be better to pick a side and fight?

  5. Hi Eric

    I wonder sometimes if there's a tactical error involved in calling those who oppose same-sex intimacy mistaken? For me, I seek actively to change hearts and minds on this issue (mostly through my teaching) purely because that's where my empathy drags me, made more potent I'm sure by close friendships with homosexuals.

    In the school context, at least, the trick seems to lie in not touching upon the morality of the stance at all. Rather, an admittedly more manipulative process of exposure (via media) and subtle comparison to other 'progressive' movements appears to work very well. If the environment is carefully managed, there appears to be a level of exposure beyond which an initial resistance is rendered somehow absurd.

    At that point, more often than not the individual will do the work of rearranging their moral furniture to accommodate the new emotional urge themselves. If, by contrast, one attempts to overtly dismantle beliefs, there's a very strong defence mechanism, an instinct often bolstered by tribalism, that kicks in.

    The opponent, if sufficiently motivated, will in all likelihood find the arguments they are grasping for (perhaps they will accuse the progressive Christian of indulging in their own form of inerrancy, not in terms of interpreting particualr passages of scripture, but in terms of the holistic reading).

    Clearly this leans heavily upon my own view of the way morality is gorunded, but I do find the gentler approach is much more powerful, at least with young people.


    1. Bernard,

      Our meta-ethical theories differ (and your comment here has given me an idea of a way to maybe clarify why I'm unhappy with your meta-ethics...another time). But I think we agree on what method is most likely to change the hearts and minds of people who might not be accepting of gays and lesbians and so lead to greater acceptance: by increasing exposure to their stories, their experiences, their hurt in the face of social marginalization caused by belief systems that delegitimize the intimate relationships of which they are capable.

      The difference between us, it seems, lies in whether this exposure should be construed as exposure to the best sort of EVIDENCE for the correctness of a moral view. I think it should be so construed. And for Christians, who view ethical treatment towards neighbors as loving treatment, and love as being concerned about their welfare, it seems that attention to how practices affect the course of people's lives should count as relevant evidence. One impediment to seeing things in this way is the belief that if something appears in the Bible, its being in the Bible provides such decisive evidence for what is being asserted that no possible weight of contrary evidence could override it.

      Some people resist exposure to contrary evidence for this reason--they put up defensive walls if a teacher puts them in an environment that introduces (what I take to be) the right sort of evidence, or they seek ways to escape that environment altogether. So what do we do?

      Challenging the coherence of the ideology that sustains the resistance MIGHT help in some cases. In most cases, however, the change won't happen until life circumstances make it impossible NOT to attend to (what, given my meta-ethics, I think of as) the evidence.

      In the meantime, arguments might serve a different function--such as weakening the social reach of the mechanisms that inculcate allegiance of the problematic ideology, or such as validating the sense of being wronged among those who are the victims of the ideology.

      And arguments can and do help those who are fighting internalized self-loathing based on childhood indocrtination into the teachings that marginalize them. They, of course, cannot avoid seeing the bad fruits of the teaching. But sometimes the indoctrination is strong enough that the implications of those fruits aren't clear , and they benefit from some helpful reasoning that exposes the vacuity of the ideology and permits them to embrace the badness of the fruits and their implications. This is frequently experienced as a liberation.

      So, more vigorous arguments, as opposed to the gentler approach you suggest, may be more about helping the victims of harmful moral beliefs than about converting those who endorse those beliefs.

  6. Hi Eric and Bernard: The question of what it takes to convince somebody of a moral claim is a subcategory of the question of what it takes to convince anyone of anything, for example what it took to move ME from atheism to theism. I wasn't argued into theism, because of certain intuitions I developed and certain experiences I had, I became convinced of God's reality. But the debate betwen atheists and theists definitely played a roll in my convincement in that I became convinced that the atheological objections to theism were flawed. This didn't move me to theism, but it did eliminate a stumblng block. I am thinking the same concept applies to the issue of gay rights too.

  7. Hi Keith

    I agree, and think your example is a good one. The expression I like of this is that while evidence does not determine narrative, it does constrain it.

    Eric, I have may have misunderstood you. Absolutely, when clearly bogus evidence is cast about - those who speak of the 'causes of homosexuality' for example (same causes as for heterosexuality, I would have thought) - then finding a friendly way of putting that right is something of a duty.

    I responded, I think, to your use of the word mistaken in your last line. Given that religious belief extends our narrative beyond the shared evidence, to call another's foundational beliefs mistaken is, I think, a tricky business. We can point out inconsistencies in expressed viewpoints, or flaws in evidence cited, of course. But if a person sincerely believes in a construction that yields a God disapproving of homosexuality, and we wish to claim this is mistaken, we may need to reach for something stronger than our own construction (in your case religious, in mine cultural) to back this up.

    Hence the appeal, for me, or attempting to short circuit the discussion of right and wrong altogether, exploring instead the emotional impact of our narratives and their consequences. Faith in this approach entails a sort of blind optimism, I know, one that is very similar in fact to the hopefulness of your theology.


  8. "But I think the problem lies with their actions more than with their motives: while what they are doing is unloving towards their gay and lesbian neighbors, they don't want to be unloving. They mean well. There is a disconnect between motives and actions."

    Thanks for these words. This explains perfectly how I felt, but couldn't quite find a way to express.