Excuse Me, But Your Pants Appear To Be On Fire

What do you do when someone makes a claim of personal experience that just isn’t believable? Specifically, do you accuse them of fabricating the claim?

I’m sure many of you have heard by now about the anti-choice blogger who mistook an Onion article for a serious editorial. In a response to that article, he made the claim that the reason he thought the article was genuine was because he would “meet people like her in the field all the time.” Most readers of feminist discussion forums have encountered other experiences of dubious veracity, such as the tale of the poor man harangued for opening a door, or the malicious women’s studies professor who lowers the grades of her male students.

With most of these stories, I suspect they never happened, and are just invented to support the author’s point, but of course due to their nature I can never prove this. The best I can do is look for supporting evidence – an earlier mention of the experience, for example, or similar experiences reported by other (perhaps not so biased) people.

The options I can see for dealing with someone who makes an unbelievable claim to support their point:

  1. Give them the benefit of the doubt and treat the claim as true.
  2. Acknowledge your doubt, but treat the claim as conditionally true.
  3. Express your doubts to the truth of the claim, suggesting that the story may be misremembered or incomplete.
  4. Accuse the commenter of making up the story to support their point.

The consensus usually seems to be to give the claimant the benefit of the doubt, at least in the immediate discussion. The basic idea is one of creating richer discussions: with respect to verifiable data, requiring everybody to constantly cite their sources for everything they say bogs down the discussion (and indeed, is a common tactic for derailing a discussion). When it comes to claims of personal experience, where often no verification is possible the rationale is one of quid pro quo: if we acknowledge others’ experiences as genuine, people will give us the same benefit when we bring up our own personal experiences. This will create a more productive discussion than one personal data it is off limits, at least when we’re talking about a subject where there is not going to be much “hard data” or where “hard data” is likely to be biased.

Accusing someone of lying throws that social contract away, and opens the door to counteraccusations of lying, or of ignoring truth in favor of ideology. But what does saying “if she really said that, she’s wrong” accomplish? The impression is that of a “no true Scotsman” fallacy – that we’re just sweeping the inconvenient feminists under the rug.

Obviously, calling someone out on a fabrication isn’t going to convince them of the rightness of your position. The usual rationale for it is to appeal to third-party readers. However, these readers are also going to be able to come to their own conclusions; if that were the sole purpose, it probably wouldn’t be worth raising the point. However, the introduction of the fake anecdote tends to do more than just appeal to the people willing to believe it; it derails the conversation as other commenters respond in order to distance themselves from it.

So, readers, what do you all do when you’re confronted with this? How has it worked out?

One thing I would not ever advocate is accusing someone making a claim of rape, assault or abuse of making it up. These sort of claims should *always* be taken seriously, because victims of these crimes have had a long history of being ignored, or called liars, and because they’re intensely personal – it does a lot more harm for a victim not to be believed about these matters.

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6 thoughts on “Excuse Me, But Your Pants Appear To Be On Fire

  1. There are really two subsets of this.

    One is when the person is stating a factual occurrence: “I held a door open for a woman and she slapped me on the face, calling me a patriarchal asshole”.

    With those, I think there’s not much you can do, other than your four choices listed above.

    But sometimes the statement is more based on intepretation. Being “racist,” “patriarchal,” “man hating,” and “biased” are good examples.

    With those, if I disagree I find it is often helpful to ‘go general’ first if it seems not to fit my initial perception: Often, the issue is simply that they’re using a different definition of the word. And though people will occasionally (sadly) get pissed at this, it’s a lot less challenging and less likely to result in a fight.

    So picture two different conversations:

    him: “What that guy did was really racist”
    me (thinking ‘that’s odd, it didn’t look racist at all…’) “what do you mean by ‘racist’ in this context?
    him: “Any interaction between a white and a black.”
    me: “Ah. I see.”

    her: “What that guy did was not racist at all.”
    me (thinking ‘that’s odd, it sure looked racist to me’) “What do you mean by ‘racist’ in this context?”
    her: “There is no such thing as racism, unless it’s illegal”
    me: “ah. I see.”

    You can then argue (or not) but at least you avoid the miscommunication.

  2. Sailorman: what I mostly had in mind was your first subset, when somebody introduces “evidence” that’s not very credible.

    Interpretation’s a different story – you can accept facts as (conditionally) true while disagreeing about what they mean – that’s a good portion of what feminist discussion does. But there’s not much you can say about what someone claimed happened to, without saying something along the lines of “no, you’re lying” or “I don’t think we’re hearing the whole story here.”

  3. yeah, jfpbookworm (what’s your preferred nickname, btw–j? jfp? or do you prefer the whole thing?) I agree with you entirely. But i think there’s a 5th way.

    For example, the “bitch feminist who yelled at me for holding the door” one often pops up in the context of the “feminists hate men” argument. And in the science discussions that I’m often in, there are equivalent ones. (in homebirth debates, for example, there’s the ‘evil doctor who stood by and laughed while strapping me to the table and performing a section without anethesia’ one)

    For those, the common counter is “The plural of anecdote is not data”.

    In essence, this is the same thing as saying “So what? Even if true, one nasty woman doesn’t define feminism” but it is 1) shorter; 2) more general; and 3) doesn’t require you to even conditionally pretend you think it’s true, so it feels better to say.

    Sometimes of course they’ll throw the phrase back at you if you use an anecdote of your own. But that’s OK at least to me, because I try not to get in anecdote wars anyway and it’s not a bad thing to get a reminder to avoid them.

  4. I typically will express dramatic surprise at the story, then focus on the point being made. In the case of the door-opening-man, I’d retort that it’s a one in a million scenario and hardly representative of all feminists everywhere.

    I’m someone with some pretty weird stories, and I hate it when I’m not believed, so I try to at least act like I’m accepting the story. It’s such an issue with me, I sometimes let it go even when I know someone’s lying (for instance, because I was there). If a man was glared at for opening a door, then told the story as above, he, apparently, *felt* slapped in the face and yelled at. Whatever. Either way, get over it, buddy.

  5. Anecdotal evidence is usually enough when talking about personal experience (especially if there is no other data). When an individual makes claims about his or her life, it does no good to deny his or her claims, as those stories are part of how he or she identifies his or her self.

    That being said, with the anonymity on the web, some individuals may make up stories to help prove claims that otherwise would have no data to back them up. Does this really matter? Unless we are talking about a scientific debate that necessitates more than anecdotal evidence, those stories (true or not) are a way of creating possible worlds that some may exist in. Even if the individuals that are providing an experience are fibbing, these stories help to portray their own world view to some extent or another. So, unless you wish to have the debate shift to the validity of truth, humor them. I am not saying that you should accept the stories as true, but rather that there are instances where true is irrelevant (the good and the beautiful come to mind).

    I wish I had come across this post earlier.

  6. How did I miss this whole thing? I’m mostly just happy you pointed me to this weird article and his defensive crap about how he wasn’t wrong. Oh.My.God.

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