Does Reason Want to Win?

Carol Iannone

I recall my delight when I first discovered the “logical fallacies.” These are the rhetorical devices that people employ to deflect free and open argument aimed at arriving nearer to the truth about a given issue. “Ad hominem” is one of the better known, discrediting the speaker in a personal way rather than answer his points directly. Nowadays this fallacy is liable to consist in labeling a person or position as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it,” as Hillary Clinton described her “basket of deplorables.” This is done so as not to deal with genuine and well-founded concerns people may have about, say, ongoing mass immigration undercutting wages at the lower end of the economy, or Muslim immigration possibly sheltering jihadist terror.

Another fallacy is “false dichotomy,” also called “either-or” reasoning. So, for example, if you criticize contemporary feminism, it means you want women to be barefoot and pregnant. Or “hasty generalization,” as when finding a gap between the average earnings of men and women, assigning discrimination as the cause. Of course, the “wage gap” being designated the result of discrimination has been around for so long, persisting in the face of repeated and convincing refutation, that it is hard to call it a “hasty generalization,” but in its formation as a concept, it fits that description. And then there is “ad populum,” using an idea that most people might naturally favor, such as “equality,” at least as a generalized principle of the equal worth of all human beings, to condemn every action, situation, or development if it falls short of numerically measurable equal outcomes for all groups.

Yet another fallacy is “begging the question,” or “circular reasoning,” where an issue that needs examination is just baked into the analysis. Sometimes, too, these are called unwarranted assumptions or unexamined premises. In a recent article, John Fonte uncovers a number of these in Freedom House’s recent annual reports on the state of freedom in the nations of the world. Fonte begins by pointing out Freedom House’s “illustrious past”: “Founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, the organization became a bipartisan rallying center for the free world in the great ideological struggles of the 20th-century first against Nazism, and then against totalitarian Communism.” But, Fonte continues, “the once bipartisan Freedom House has taken a strong partisan turn to the Left in examining nations that it recognizes as free societies,” including Great Britain and the United States, which has slipped to a score of only 86 out of 100. “Further,” Fonte explains:

this bias is particularly blatant in discussing controversial public policy issues about which people of good will in democratic societies sincerely disagree—immigration, refugees, border security, labor relations, criminal justice, and social issues such as marriage, abortion, and gender equity. Freedom House frames these public policy issues in terms of human rights, thereby excluding them from the democratic political process, and misuses them to advance partisan progressive political goals.1

To a great extent, fallacious reasoning—inapt generalizations, unwarranted assumptions, faulty premises, and the like—is behind the huge changes in the liberal arts curriculum of recent decades and the jettisoning of much of the Western canon in favor of “underrepresented” works by women and minorities, works which now proliferate through the disciplines as well as in the specialized subject areas created to feature them. According to proponents of these works, only unfair bias and discrimination has kept them out of the canon for college level study, and any mention of the idea of objective standards is really an excuse for arbitrarily “privileging” the work of white men.

I was disappointed one day in a class on the logical fallacies—which I thought would help strip away fuzzy thinking and sharpen argumentation, as it had in previous years—to have some students counter, what’s wrong with using these strategies, as long as you win? That attitude has come to prevail in most sectors of our public discourse. The automatic smearing of opponents as racist or homophobic or you name it is widespread now, and goes a long way toward shutting down careful consideration of the issues.

Can reason win in the face of this? After decades of enforced political correctness we may well wonder, since it is precisely the function of PC to curtail the kind of open discourse that can uncover the logical fallacies in our thinking and arrive at a place closer to the truth of any issue or situation. This shutting down will especially occur if the process of open argumentation begins to seriously unsettle the premises of certain movements or advocacies. Thanks to Nietzsche and his numerous postmodern acolytes, the search for truth gives place to the will to power, and many are reveling in the use of it.

We should note that the intentions behind fallacious reasoning are not necessarily malign, although, of course, they sometimes are. Often, people have come almost unthinkingly to see some movement or advocacy as a self-evident good and thus refrain from looking too closely at its premises. Such, it seems, can be the case with women and the workplace.

Ivanka Trump has been advocating for a national paid family leave benefit, possibly the most left-leaning policy proposal of the new administration. "The policy outlined in the administration's recent budget proposal,” she wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal last year, emphasizes the need for mothers and fathers to “have access to paid leave to encourage both parents to share parenting responsibilities and to strive toward minimizing hiring biases."2 She further claimed that paid family leave will "have an especially positive effect for women" and will be critical in "solving the persistent gender and minority pay gap that exists in part because of prolonged periods away from the workforce and challenges with re-entry." The WSJ and other wings of public policy deliberation have characterized the national paid leave benefit proposal as a new entitlement, and one that will cost corporations dearly in loss of flexibility and profits. The unexamined assumptions in Ms. Trump’s letter could practically be used as the basis of a whole class in argumentation.

“Hiring biases” being responsible for unequal male/female workforce participation is one such assumption. This term actually sounds a little more reasonable than outright “discrimination,” but it also presumes what should be explained. A fairer assertion may seem the recognition that the wage gap can arise at least “in part” from women taking “prolonged periods away from the workforce,” presumably for the purpose of having and raising children. Notice, however, that the resultant wage gap becomes a problem that needs “solving,” rather than the result of decisions that may have been sensibly taken. Remember when the women’s movement was supposed to be about “choice”?

Also assumed in Ivanka’s reasoning is the desirability of having government policy to “encourage mothers and fathers to share parenting responsibilities,” which, in this context seems to mean that both should play identical roles in the family structure and participate equally in the workforce. As Thomas Sowell would counter, “Women make different career choices than men, and wisely so, because men do not become mothers, and being a mother is not the same as being a father. And we can’t make them the same by simply calling them both ‘parents’ or saying that ‘the couple’ is pregnant.”3

And, finally is the idea that paid parental leave will especially help women, in making it that motherhood should detract as little as possible from that all-important workforce participation. Ivanka adds with satisfaction that those who take parental leave are more likely to be back on the job a year after the birth.

Parental leave is surely a help in getting the household with a newborn underway, but 12 weeks is not much when you consider the 936 weeks for which parents are responsible in the life of a child, and they do not completely resolve the demands of combining work and family, especially for women. On my last visit, my dental hygienist told me that the various New York City programs under Mayor Bill de Blasio that increased the hours of care for preschoolers were helpful, but that she still couldn’t manage things for her school-age son without her mother’s assistance. And that’s for just one child.

Ivanka’s hidden assumptions are actually somewhat more open and accessible than those professed during the W20 Summit panel discussion on women and work that she attended in Berlin in May 2017, hosted by Angela Merkel and featuring prominent female figures from around the world, including Christine Lagarde and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands.

Ivanka’s championing of paid parental leave cut no ice with the European audience who booed and hissed when she began to talk about the Trump administration’s efforts for women, probably because of the allegations of sexual misconduct that had recently been raised against him. Europe has already signaled that women’s rights may well give place to Islam in the instances where they conflict, as they did, quite literally, in the mass attacks by Muslim men on women in public places on New Year’s Eve 2016 in Cologne and other German cities. Those hissers and booers might think of places where their hisses and boos could do more good.

In any event, the discussion moved inevitably beyond getting women into the workplace toward the question of why more women don’t hold executive and managerial positions in the organizations in which they are already working. One of the panelists, Nicola Leibinger-Kammüller, the president and chairwoman of the German tool and electronics company Trumpf GmbH, declared that women often resist such demanding roles in the workplace because of children. They want time to spend with them, she related, they are concerned about schoolwork and grades and such.

This set off a flow of comments on how to offset this particular “problem,” an extension of the original problem of women taking time away from work altogether to have children. Merkel declared that we cannot wait fifty years for attitudes to change so that we see complete equality, and she commended her own administration’s more aggressive measures in hiring and promoting, which she did not specify. Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland acknowledged that while it may arouse controversy, society must explicitly prompt women to delay marriage, take jobs, make money, presumably more than society already does. Lagarde asserted with confidence that with the assurance of child care, women will take executive roles. Ivanka agreed, emphasizing that the single largest expense in households in the U.S. is child care, adding that fathers want to be equal participants in the family.

Once again, the assumption was that work and maximizing workforce participation is the prime good, and motherhood a problem to be managed and offset, not an existential and desirable state of being in itself. Whether or not child care is available and affordable, it just may be that some women want the ability to supervise and have time with their own children instead of trusting them to caregivers. And Leibinger-Kammüller was referring to women who are working, but just resist the advancement that might mean more hours and more responsibility.

Sensing that things were developing uncomfortably, Queen Maxima began to demur, asserting that if feminism entails equal rights and “choice,” then she is a feminist, with the implication that she wouldn’t go beyond that. Applause and agreement followed her statement and the discussion seemed to draw to a close.

I applaud the queen as well, one of a number of quite queenly commoners who have married into Europe’s royal families in recent years, and she was right to resist the direction the conversation was taking. But what happened in this panel should be by now familiar. The feminist cover story may be about “choice” for women, but inside the magazine one finds implicit or explicit coercion toward career and job market, whereupon someone notices the chill and proclaims that feminism is about “choice,” and everyone pretends to agree.

Did we go from choice to necessity? Actually, Simone de Beauvoir set out the hard line at the dawn of the contemporary women’s movement when she asserted in a colloquy with Betty Friedan in 1976, “No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.”4 (Emphasis added)

Friedan demurred to some extent, “I follow the argument, but politically at the moment I don’t agree with it. The fact is, we have hardly any child care centers in the United States. We’re fighting for them, but there is such a tradition of individual freedom in America that I would never say that every woman must put her child in a child care center.”

Friedan may here seem happily less of the flinty eyed ideologue than de Beauvoir, but her difference with the Frenchwoman lay only in means, not in end. While not favoring an outright prohibition on stay-at-home motherhood, a non-starter anyway, she writes in The Feminine Mystique, which she dedicated to de Beauvoir, "A massive attempt must be made by educators and parents—and ministers, magazine editors, manipulators, guidance counselors—to stop the early marriage movement, stop girls from growing up wanting to be ‘just a housewife.’"

Well, I think we can say that in the ensuing decades, “the massive attempt” has been made, so much so, that full-time mothering is no longer an option for most younger women, if for no other reason than most younger men don’t support it.5 (Yes, there are household economic reasons too, but that is, in part, a result of female workplace participation: Housing costs have skyrocketed since two-income families began to compete for housing in good school districts.6 In fact, there might be potential for a cause and effect fallacy to be discerned here.)

The two approaches clashed most visibly in 1979, when the EEOC sued Sears, Roebuck, and Co. for discrimination because of male female statistical disparities in the more lucrative commission vs. the less lucrative non-commission sales slots, and the retailer fought back. Sears enlisted labor historian Rosalind Rosenberg from Barnard College to testify that the disparities were not due to discrimination but to the women employees’ own preferences and priorities in making decisions in the workplace. The EEOC brought in Alice Kessler-Harris of Columbia University, who insisted that women have always sought to maximize their earnings and workforce participation, so disparities must be due to discrimination. Rosenberg pointed out that this position actually contradicted Kessler-Harris’s own published research.

Sears eventually won the case in 1986, but the interface between scholarly research and public policy had been exposed. Prof. Sandi E. Cooper of the College of Staten Island called Rosenberg’s testimony “an immoral act,” as quoted by Samuel G. Freedman, whose New York Times article is my source for the following discussion.7

Kessler-Harris had to explain her testimony: “This issue is purely this,” she said, “You would not lie in your testimony, but you also would not say or write something as a historian solely to hurt a group of people. And the consequences of Rosalind's testimony can be interpreted that way.”

Hmmm, isn’t there something about “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” being generally expected in civil trials? Plus, for Rosenberg to testify that research reveals that women have different priorities from men in the workforce is not necessarily hurtful, and surely was not meant “solely to hurt a group of people.” This is an either-or fallacy, one evidently shared by a committee of female historians who passed a resolution at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in December 1985, saying that “as feminist scholars we have a responsibility not to allow our scholarship to be used against the interests of women struggling for equity in our society.” In an earlier version of the resolution, Rosenberg had been specifically named. Also, according to Freedman, “Publications such as Radical History Review, New Directions for Women, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Nation wrote about the case, generally assailing Professor Rosenberg.”

Rosenberg quite properly countered in an interview in what sounds like a manifesto issued by the National Association of Scholars, “Scholars must not subordinate their scholarship to their politics, even if their scholarship appears to be heading in a politically dangerous direction. If the scholars allow their politics to drive their scholarship, they will be left with bad scholarship and misguided public policy.”

Thankfully, Rosenberg did have her academic supporters. Catherine Clinton, an assistant professor of history at Harvard declared, “I'm someone who calls myself a feminist and owes my origins to the women's movement. But it would be throwing away my integrity to let politics determine my scholarship, and it would undermine the integrity of women's history. I hope it hasn't become sacrosanct so quickly.”

Despite Rosenberg’s testimony, and Supreme Court rulings against quotas and reliance on statistical disparities alone to prove discrimination, corporations have gone in the direction of seeking parity for different groups in their workforce. Female participation in the workforce became paramount and statistical disparities continued to be cited as evidence of discrimination. In the American workplace the gold standard benchmark for “equality” has become the 50-50 metric.

Even to question that metric can occasion instant dismissal, as it did for Jamie Damore, software engineer at Google who wrote a lengthy memo questioning his company’s goal of attaining gender equality in engineering and high tech. Damore questioned Google’s diversity programs, claiming they ignored differences in the biology, attitudes, and interests of men and women that might explain uneven outcomes.

Instead of engaging Damore’s evidence and logic, many just censured him, if not for outright “sexism,” then for “incorrect assumptions about gender.” This is the preferred phrase of Danielle Brown, Google’s recently appointed Vice President for Diversity, Integrity, and Governance, who also insisted, paradoxically, that Google fosters “healthy debate.” Google CEO Sundar Pinchai added that Damore had crossed “the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

One might expect these responses from the famously left-leaning high-tech industry, but even the more conservative Weekly Standard seemed to accept some version of them in an article by Slate’s national correspondent William Saletan. Although Saletan faults Google for firing Damore, and believes “conversation” needs to take place instead, he goes on to take a rather complicated position closer in substance to that of Brown and Pinchai, that “instead of debating biology, let’s focus on the social effects of characterizing groups.”8

Saletan begins from his own regrets at having written about racial differences in the past, something he believes did significant harm.

I’ve been through an episode like Damore’s. Ten years ago, intrigued by [geneticist James D.] Watson’s remarks [on IQ], I wrote a series of articles about racial differences on intelligence tests. I have many regrets about it, but the biggest is that I didn’t understand the social consequences of my words. To me, batting around studies and theories about race was an intellectual exercise, and I thought it was sufficient to stipulate that you can’t judge individuals based on such theories. I was wrong. The only message people took from the ensuing uproar was that a liberal writer was endorsing scientific racism. To this day, I believe that the association I projected in those articles, between race and intelligence, did a lot of harm.

Saletan continues:

It’s clear to me, from Damore’s memo and from interviews he has given since he was fired, that he doesn’t understand the consequences of his words, either. He, too, will probably end up wishing he had written them differently. And after him, there will be other Damores. Curious people will find studies of differences, particularly between the sexes. The response from well-meaning egalitarians—that such differences don’t exist—will fail. The heresy may go underground, but it will return. And the cycle will repeat itself until we learn that the problem isn’t difference; it’s how we talk and think about it.

Saletan hopes that “we’ll take two lessons from the Damore episode. One is that it’s dangerous to traffic in stereotypes. The other is that it’s dangerous to deliver that anti-stereotype message through caricatures, falsehoods, and purges. Though he deplores such “purges,” Saletan argues that since the Google workforce is overwhelmingly male, it can feed into stereotypical thinking about men and women, and Damore’s attempt to explain that imbalance amounts to trafficking in stereotypes.

The response Saletan commends is not to point out that the imbalance may be due to sexual differences but to aim to redress the imbalance:

Damore fixates on the impracticality of perfectly equal representation. In his memo, he argues that if women, under neutral conditions, wouldn’t be 50 percent of Google’s tech workforce, the company shouldn’t aim its hiring process at that goal. To a nerd, that’s a simple equation. But in real life, the dynamics of discrimination are complex. In a world of stereotypes, striving for balance can be a hedge against inertia. If you don’t push for parity, you’ll drift further and further from it, because the stereotype that women don’t belong at your company will take over. That’s what has happened in much of Silicon Valley. (Emphasis added)

I suppose there is a difference between firing someone and shutting down debate completely on the one hand, and the conversation Saletan wants to have on the other. But that conversation also seems to presume discrimination and stereotyping, if not intentional, then in effect: Even if Google’s hiring practices aren’t based on stereotypical thinking, the imbalance of their workforce enforces such thinking. As a result, Google must make efforts to increase gender “parity,” which is another way of saying they must aim for the 50-50 metric. If you interpret “parity” to mean you must hire women only in proportion to their presence in the applicant pool, you will soon find that they don’t apply in the same numbers as men, so that too would be something to remedy. How would you know you have enough “parity” and no evidence of stereotyping? Now we have an example of circular reasoning which winds up taking Google’s own position that prompted Damore’s memo in the first place, just talking more about it before we arrive.

Another bit of circular reasoning arises when Saletan maintains that a largely male workforce may feed stereotypical thinking. To some extent stereotypes are part of life, not only because they tend to reflect a part of reality, but because they allow us not to be overwhelmed by a complex world. The inaccuracies of stereotype are checked by examining the evidence, which in this case includes understanding the biological differences that Saletan says we must not examine. There are many things in life that may disturb us, until we look into the details behind them. Saletan operates under the assumption that a sexual imbalance in the workforce is not like other things in life that we may come to see as benign when we understand them. Gender imbalances are malignant, in his view, and even with our knowledge of their biological genesis, must be repaired.

Of course, Saletan started out with yet another logical fallacy, a false analogy, one of the most significant in contemporary social history: the equation of gender differences with race differences, and by extension, the equation of the social status of women with that of blacks. This is the ur-fallacy underlying our debates about women not only in the workplace but in the culture at large, and reasoning about those things should really start there.

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