I have been dealing with a common and recurring logical problem that I see in cultural and political discussions, and it has come up often enough lately that I’d like to actually give it a label and a definition. I’m going to call it the “fallacy of incorrect scoping” or more generally the phenomenon of “the incorrect scoping of blame“.
I’m using the term “incorrect scoping” to refer to any time there is some trait X that is bad, and because that trait is correlated with group Y, people will identify it as a “Y problem” or as a “X&Y problem”, even though the only thing that is actually causing the problem is X. This is a more specific form or subtype of the fallacy of illusory correlation.
Example 1: Muslim extremists. People are inundated with stories about Islamic religious extremists doing terrible things, and they refer to it as a problem of “Muslim extremism”. But the fact is: radical Christian extremists also bomb buildings and want to pass oppressive laws, radical Hindu extremists in India also bomb buildings and want to pass oppressive laws. The problem isn’t about the religion of Islam per se, it is about the mindset of fundamental religious extremism. Talking about “Muslim extremism” may be a technically accurate description of a specific event you are talking about, but it incorrectly defines the scope of the broader problem: religious extremism in general.
Example 2: Those lying bitches. A lot of angry frustrated guys ask questions on the internet like “Why are women so hard to figure out?” and “why do women lie all the time?” They are destined to never get a useful answer to the question, because the problem they are having is not really about women: it’s about people. Interacting with people, especially people you are romantically or sexually entangled with, is damn hard. Everybody is insecure, everybody is mysterious, everybody has communication styles that are different from your own. You may be having a specific problem with women in your life, but by talking about how “irrational women are” incorrectly defines the scope of the broader problem: it takes a lot of work to understand and bond with anyone who is different from you.
Example 3: Gay sex fiends. A writer for GQ jokingly asked Taylor Lautner if Dustin Lance Black had hit on him when they worked together, and Black immediately assumed that the GQ interviewer was asking based on the presumption that all gay guys are sex fiends who can’t control their impulses. Now, I don’t have any privileged access to the GQ writer’s mental states, so I am not sure what was going on in his mind; however, given the tone of the entire interview an immediate alternative interpretation came to mind: It’s possible that GQ writer was just thinking in terms of stereotypes about men, not stereotypes about gay men. Essentially, the doltish GQ interviewer was doing the equivalent of what a 1950’s interviewer would have said to a hot actress: “I bet the director couldn’t keep his eyes off ya, huh toots?” So although I’m not certain one way or the other, I suspect that Black’s reaction might have been a case of incorrect scoping: the source of the problem may have simply been that the interviewer was making a stupid joke based on stereotypes about men, not about gay men in particular. Jumping immediately to the accusation of homophobia may have been, therefore, a case of the incorrect scoping of blame.
Example 4: Manspreading. A fourth example just came up in a Facebook conversation I had. A casual acquaintance of mine posted a link to an article about “manspreading.” I mentioned that the real issue–that is to say, the real problem that needs to be fixed–is not itself a gendered phenomenon. The problem is rudely taking up too much space on public transportation. Men do it more often with their legs, women do it more often with their bags, and even if on the whole men do it more often than women, we should address this as a general, ungendered matter of politeness: don’t spread, it’s rude.
I didn’t use the term “incorrect scoping” in the Facebook discussion, but this is clearly another example of the same fallacy. The bad behavior that we need to fix is people rudely taking up more space than they should on public transportation. It just so happens that men do this more often than women. This leads to people incorrectly scoping the problem as with the gendered term “manspreading.” But maleness actually has no causal connection to why this is a problem. Taking up too much space is a problem regardless of gender. Thus, talking about it as a “man problem” incorrectly defines the scope of the broader problem: being inconsiderate to others.
All four of these cases are hot-button issues. There are people who get insanely pissed off when I dare to suggest that we should omit the word “Muslim” when talking about “radical violent religious extremism”. I was even accused of being a sexist (and a “meninist”!) for suggesting that “spreading” across multiple subway seats is rude regardless of what gender a person is. People get very emotionally attached to their incorrect scoping of problems, and will fight tooth and nail to defend it…. even when they recognize that it is “technically” incorrect.
In each of these cases, people seem to be emotionally attached to their incorrect scoping of the problem because it is related to a political agenda. If, for example, your political focus is sexism in the world, then you may be more likely to want to scope bad things that men do as “problems with men” even though “maleness” isn’t actually a causal component of the problem. If you are a Christian and feel threatened by people who belong to other religions, then you will be more likely to scope any religious extremism by non-Christians as being particular to that non-Christian religion. It is defensive, it is emotional, and it is tribal at its very core. But it is also illogical, and quite simply wrong.
Why does the fallacy of incorrect scoping matter? Why do we need to catch incorrect scoping when it happens, and to point it out and try to correct it? There are three very specific reasons why we should try to avoid the incorrect scoping of blame.
1) It’s a red herring. It’s a distraction. It gets in the way of finding the correct solution. If your goal is to actually try to fix the problem (rather than just bitch about it), then focusing on a characteristic or group that is not actually causally connected with the problem will lead you to incorrect theories and incorrect solutions. It will be a waste of your time.
Example Scenario A: Women you date lie to you. All the time. Everyone end up dating, ends up lying to you, and it pisses you off. So you ask: What is wrong with women? Why are women so deceptive? Is it in their genes? Is it because women think they are better than me? Is it because Evil Feminism has taught them to not respect men? What is it?
Most people whom I’ve talked to in this situation, however, are overlooking something: Their guys friends lie to them too. The reason both guys and girls lie to them is that they are insecure, emotionally needy, and they ask questions that they do not want to hear the answers to. So they put everybody around them in awkward situations: they get upset of they are told the truth, so people lie to them. People who are obsessed with the question “Why do women lie?” never get around to asking “Why do people lie to me?” By asking the wrong question, they never get the right answer.
Example Scenario B: Black people in some cities commit more crimes than white people do. Why is that? Is it “black culture” that promotes violence? Is it the evils of The Rap Music? Is it that black people are just genetically predisposed to be violent? What the hell is wrong with black people?
But in every single city where this statistic is the case, black people are disproportionately afflicted with poverty. Moreover, poor white people commit more crimes than rich black people do. The problem isn’t “black people”, it’s that poverty makes people angry and desperate and scared. By asking the question “Why are black people committing these crimes?” we are actively diverting attention away from the real problem, and the real answers that could be put in place to solve the problem.
2) It’s not fair. I know it seems like a squishy “emotional argument” whenever people bring up fairness. But in this case the fact that it is “unfair” has real measurable and material effects in the world. Racial profiling is an example of the fallacy of incorrect scoping: I’m trying to combat terrorism, I know that many terrorists who have a grudge against the United States are Middle Eastern, therefore I consider Middle Eastern people to be a problem that I want to keep my eye on.
This is not simply “unfair” to Middle Eastern people in an emotional sense, it actually leads to poor results. If (just to make up random example numbers) 80% of terrorists are Middle Eastern and 10% of Middle Eastern people are terrorists, targeting Middle Eastern people means you not only will be inconveniencing a huge number of innocent Middle Eastern people, but you have basically simply given up on catching that 20% of terrorists who are not Middle Eastern. All because you were too lazy to say, “Hey, instead of looking at ethnicity, maybe we should try to focus on detecting actual terrorists.”
3) It’s lazy. The most common response I get to the previous point is that it’s just plain old too hard to come up with an accurate way to identify terrorists, so we just have to make due to with the “easy approximation” of using ethnicity instead. Something along the same lines even came up in the conversation I had about “manspreading”: if an ad campaign just says “everyone should be more polite” it won’t get people’s attention and wouldn’t work. Therefore we just have to use the more controversial and offensive term “manspreading” because… well, how else will we actually draw attention to the issue?
If you’re not convinced by the fact that incorrectly scoping blame is both 1) wrong and 2) a dickish thing to do, then at least consider this one final thought: your only real defense is that you’re lazy. You don’t want to be bothered to have a nuanced conversation. You don’t want to be bothered to figure out the more accurate trait to identify. You just don’t want to bother.
To me, that’s means you’re not really invested in solving the problem. All you want to do is bitch about it. You don’t want to try to improve your relationships: you want to bitch about women. You don’t want to try to reduce extremist violence: you want to bitch about Muslims. You don’t want to try to get people to be more polite on the subway: you just want to bitch about men.
Because if you actually cared about solving the problem, you wouldn’t be so lazy: you’d take the time and effort to correctly identify the source of the problem, and use that to find a useful solution.