it ain’t necessarily so

There are a few unfortunate belief trends in any sort of groupthink. The first is to assume that whatever is said often must therefore be true. That is, to assume that currency is accuracy. Not so. Another is to assume that those outside the group are all apiece. That is, to assume that everyone that isn’t like us is exactly like all the others who aren’t like us. “They” are all alike.

So, for example, in heterosexist discourse, the Bible “clearly says” that homosexuality is wrong. But the responsible person is the one who seeks evidence before embracing an assertion. And of course, one sort of usually legitimate evidence is that of the general credibility of the one who makes the assertion. A generally reputable person asserts something, there is no known reason to disbelieve this particular utterance of this generally reputable person, so one accepts the assertion as truth.

But eventually, some proposition becomes self-authoritative, thus without any evidential footing whatsoever. I’m not talking about truisms that can be readily verified. I’m talking about propositions that are taken carte blanche as true merely because they are common beliefs. I’m talking about propositions that are clutched to the chest of a society despite evidence that clearly defeats them. I’m talking about cherished false beliefs.

For example, it is a plague of the internet that people, upon receiving via email some bit of gossip, some threat, or some promise that looks as if its official in some fashion, forward it to all their friends and relations without so much as a glance at Fact Check or Snopes.

One might think that I’m now going to offer some argument about the problems in heterosexist argumentation. But then one would be wrong.

My concern is actually about the groupthink tendencies in the gay community. We are just as guilty of assuming the oft-repeated as by default true. We are just as guilty of mindlessly embracing commonly stated propositions as self-evident. Again, I’m not implying that the fact that proposition p is often repeated entails that p is false. I’m saying that this repetition is insufficient to ensure p is true. And it is irresponsible to pass such things on without thought, without reflection and maybe a little fact checking, especially when not much is required.

I’ve got a few beefs, but just one annoys me enough to blog about just now. And that is the presumption that when somebody S takes a strong homophobic stand, it is likely that S is a closet gay. Let me restate that formally:

Presumption (call it P):  When somebody S takes a strong homophobic stand, it is probably because S is a closet gay.

Let’s spell this out in argument form:

  1. S makes a public homophobic stand.
  2. Therefore, S is a probably closet gay.

Okay, so this is not a good argument. There is absolutely no inference from 1 to 2. There are a couple ways to improve this argument, neither of which justifies this conclusion. I call them the Universal Gay Generalization (UGG) argument and the Statistical Gay Generalization (SGG) argument.

UGG

  1. S makes a public homophobic stand.
  2. Anyone who makes a public homophobic stand is a closet gay.
  3. So S is a closet gay.

We now have an argument, whereby the conclusion can legitimately be derived by the premises. That is, I’ve made explicit the inference needed to get from 1 to the conclusion (now 3). But 2 is clearly untrue. Thus, the inference from S making homophobic claims to S’s being a closet gay is not a good one. It just doesn’t follow.

Of course, this is, one hopes anyway, not the inference had in mind by those who say that people who make homophobic diatribes are closet gays. It is true that some of the most vitriolic anti-gay stands are made by closet gays. But arguing that because some vitriol comes from closet gays that all vitriol comes from closet gays is absurd. Rather, I think this second argument is more likely the one had in mind.

SGG

  1. S makes a public homophobic stand.
  2. Many people who make a public homophobic stands are closet gays.
  3. So S is probably a closet gay.

I think this is much more apiece with the thinking involved when somebody presumes P. But SGG is just as bad an argument as UGG. In this case, the argument is a statistical generalization, and the conclusion is therefore a claim of probability. That makes (to my mind) SGG a better argument than UGG, but it’s still not a good argument. The problem here is that 2 does not supply sufficient evidence to ensure anything at all about S’s motivation. The problem here is that ‘many’ does not say anything at all about the percentage of homophobes that are also closet gays. Say there are sixteen thousand vitriolic homophobes who make public stands. And say a thousand of them are closet gays. S is one of these people, but then the odds of S being a closet gay are fifteen to one. Certainly this does not probabilify S’s being a closet gay, even though many of these homophobic people, a thousand of them, are closet gays.

It’s simple logic, certainly not beyond the capacity of the average intelligent adult to evaluate. A lot of people who do x are y, but there is no evidence pro or con to say that a majority of people who do x are y. So it is unwarranted to conclude that because this person did x, this person is probably y. It does not follow that because somebody is an outspoken homophobe, that somebody is a closet gay.

There is another side to this. It isn’t just that the argument is invalid (or weak, as the case may be). It is also lends a stereotype of closet gays that is just as unwarranted as the stereotypes of open gays. Gays hate to be stereotyped in negative ways, just like anyone else. But among the anyone else are closet gays. It is true that some closet gays are homophobic. Certainly true that a lot of them have self-hatred. But it does not at all follow that all or even most closet gays are homophobic. Closets, gay literature often notes, come in all shapes and sizes. And some are not colored by hate. Some are colored by self-preservation. Some closeted gays, like I was until recently, are supportive of gays and would never dream of saying anything unkind (let alone hateful), but are themselves closeted because they cannot think of any other way to ensure their own personal survival in an unkind world. Presumptions like P not only stand on abysmal reasoning, but they suggest that everyone in the closet is a homophobe, which is itself a presumption that lacks evidence.

The presumption that when somebody makes a public homophobic stand it is because that somebody is a closet gay is simply unfounded. In fact, the claim is untrue. It is true that many people who make homophobic statements are closet gays. It is also true that many closet gays make public homophobic statements. But these together only entail that many closet gays are homophobic and that many homophobes are closet gays. The two groups share some members. That is all these tell us. Specifically, these give no reason to conclude that a particular homophobic individual is a closet gay. And it does us no favors to focus our judgment on a group of people who are not any different than we are, we whose closets are roomier than theirs. All this does is make public our own particular brand of unfortunate groupthink.

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8 thoughts on “it ain’t necessarily so

  1. Bubba

    Interesting point, and I agree with your conclusion in general, but I can’t help but note that the argument as you stated it diverged significantly from my own construction of it which, while weak, I believe is considerably stronger.

    Both candidates you advanced for the hidden premise were categorical premises. They are handy, especially when attempting to verbally recreate Venn diagrams, which was your strategy. The reason it is so tempting to conclude that a vitriolic homophobe is hiding homosexual desires, however, is not about group composition, it is about psychological motivation.

    I have often noted, in dealing both with the chronically mentally ill and with friends and colleagues, that the aspects of other persons that anger us most are the ones we see mirrored in ourselves. If someone succumbs to a temptation we neither recognise from our own experience nor understand, our response is generally pity and bewilderment. If they should succumb to a temptation wherewith we orselves wrestle daily, however, our response is more likely to include rage and the urge to destroy them, lest their weakness infect us.

    So, when we feel the need to make over-the-top, hate-filled comments about drug users, for example, it is often rooted in our fears of our own propensity toward addiction. Similarly, when someone speaks out, violently and hatefully, against homosexuals, it is natural to infer (assuming she is being sincere and not merely pandering) that this person’s actions are motivated by a recognition in herself or her life of something she sees paralleled in what she is decrying. Granted, it need not be that she is homosexual. Indeed, it need not be about sex at all; not even sex is just about sex–human motivation is a complex and messy thing. Closeted homosexuality is merely the simplest case that fits this causal model. It is Ockham’s razor run amok.

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  2. flayed Hypatia Post author

    Okay, so then the argument seems to run something like this:

    1. S makes a public homophobic stand.
    2. I would only make a public homophobic stand if I were a closet gay.
    3. So S is probably a closet gay.

    This argument is far weaker than SGG, in that at least SGG has a sample size of more than a single individual. Your argument draws an inference of probability, a generalization of one’s motivations, based on a sample size of one. Your argument draws a generalization about the motivation of anyone who does x based on what one believes would motivate oneself were one to do x.

    But this is doubly unhelpful. First, the sample size is ridiculously small (just oneself), and the sample size cannot possibly be made larger, since we have no direct access to anyone else’s motivations, only to our own. (You might say you have access to others’ motivations, but then this access is indirect only, had via what the person with the motivations tells you or your own reading into their behavior. Not helpful.)

    Second, and I think the more damaging issue, is that this inference is based solely on one’s subjective interpretation of the situation. That is, one draws a conclusion based entirely on what one fears (to use the notion you mention). And not only is it the case that emotions are hardly ever a good indicator of truth, it is also abundantly simple to draw a lengthy list from history where fear in particular is an indication of false judgement or of unjustified generalizations. That is, we have reason to disbelieve conclusions derived from our fears.

    Now of course, this doesn’t mean that conclusions derived from fears are necessarily always false. It means that we should look for other justifiers for the conclusions before embracing them. And these arguments offer no such justification.

    So maybe this third argument is the more likely one had by people who make such generalizations. But this argument is far weaker than SGG, an argument I presented in an attempt to make the most reasonable defense of the presumption P. There is no justification for a generalization, especially such a sweeping one, on a sample size of one. Nor is there justification that x is true because one fears something similar to x. It is understandable that people have such fears and that they make such generalizations. It just isn’t reasonable.

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  3. Bubba

    No, the sample size is NOT ridiculously small. I am not extrapolating from my own isolated experience, and I am a little disappointed that you would go to such an effort to misconstrue my comments in this way. The supressed premise, as I thought I had made abundantly clear, is a psychological law that is verified not merely by the theoretical literature but also by my experience of my own motivations and those of others. Of course, you are free to retreat into solipsism, claiming that we have no access to the subjective states of others, but this is quite plainly false. We may not infallibly know another’s subjective states (or our own, for that matter), to claim that we are then precluded from knowing anything at all is irresponsible. I am not claiming, moreover, that those who leap to the conclusion of closetedness are behaving reasonably, merely that the argument, as you presented it, was ad hoc and divorced from the way people actually think, reasonably or otherwise.

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  4. flayed Hypatia Post author

    Solipsism.

    First, I was not attempting in any way to misconstrue your comments.

    Second, solipsism is the position that holds either 1) there are no other minds (e.g., other things with mental states) or 2) we have absolutely no access to any other minds even if there are some.

    My position is neither of these claims. My position is that we have no direct access to other minds, and that is not to be conflated with either of the above. I don’t know what you’re thinking. You don’t know what I’m thinking. I don’t know what motivates you. You don’t know what motivates me. I can have good ideas, maybe even some probability if I know you well, but this is still insufficient for me to draw generalizations. That’s all I’m saying.

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  5. Bubba

    So, you’re not claiming that we know nothing about how other people’s actions relate to their motivations, merely that we have no “direct access,” thus we cannot be absolutely certain of another subject’s motivational matrix, thus we cannot legitimately infer that, given S did X, and given that one of the most common/most powerful motivations for other agents who have done X is Y, that there is a significant probability (not a certainty–we don’t even have that regarding our own motivations much of the time) that S did X because Y? I don’t see the distinction (though that could be due to lack of imagination on my part); moreover, if we accept the strictures you’ve posed, I don’t see how social psychology (which I suspect is a legitimate science) is even possible. Is it?

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  6. Bubba

    I guess my fundamental misgiving with the argument as you stated it is that it just doesn’t fit how people think. You might as well have argued 1. Some militant homophobes are left-handed. 2. S is a militant homophobe. 3. Ergo, S is left-handed. Put this way, the argument is plainly quite silly.

    The problem with imposing that (Venn diagramatical) structure onto the unconscious inference is that there is no immediately apparent causal relation between left-handedness and homophobia, whereas there is an immediately apparent (and reasonably well-documented) causal relation between closeted homosexuality and public homophobia. This causal link makes the inference both psychologically plausible and more nearly reasonable. That’s all I was trying to say.

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  7. flayed Hypatia Post author

    I know. And all I am trying to say here is that the fact that in some cases self-directed homophobia causes homophobic outbursts is insufficient evidence to conclude that usually the one making such an outburst is doing so because s/he has self-directed homophobia (i.e., is a closet gay of a certain stripe).

    I don’t deny there is causation involved. I do deny that the causal connection involved in many cases is sufficient evidence to conclude that it is involved in most cases. It seems to me that to make such a conclusion as this generalization is to engage in another form of prejudice.

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  8. Bubba

    So, do you believe that the incidence of closeted homosexuality is higher among militant homophobes than among the population in general, given this causal connection? If you do, then you must atleast concede that homophobic outbursts by S are a reliable indicator (remember, nothing here is 100%, but human beings have evolved a very effective capacity for “reading” other members of our species in precisely this manner) that S is more likely to be a closeted homosexual than any random member of the general population? And I think it’s important to remember here that human reasoning is not the same as mathematical reasoning–we were not evolved for apodeictic certainty, but rather for survivability, which required a highly reliable, though not infallible, ability to see the hidden motivations of others behind their actions.

    Also, I wonder at your calling this inference (and no, it’s not a generalization–we’re talking cause and effect here, not group membership) “another form of prejudice.” Does this mean we owe our opponents the presumption of heterosexuality, that they are presumed innocent of being like us until proven guilty? If so, I’m not so sure that’s a healthy outlook.

    Of course, and this just now occurs to me, the teleology of the inference would seem to be of great importance. If the inference to closetedness serves as the foundation for an ad hominem dismissal of our opponents’ arguments (assuming our opponents actually offer arguments, which is sadly rare) then it would be illegitimate not as a conclusion, but as a premise. If, on the other hand, this inference offers us the most charitable interpretation of the behavior of those who attack us, thus helping us to come to view them with compassion, then, even if you were right that the inference is illegitimate, as a premise it would have a certain performative legitimacy, akin to the presumption of innocence.

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