Fabricating rationality by making the other side look irrational

In the past week, I have been alerted to two very different posts in two very different spheres of the online world. The similarity? They both deal with a privileged group taking an argument made by a non-privileged group and making it look irrational in order to make their own indefensible argument look rational. While this tactic is by no means limited only to privileged groups, it is one that I do see often employed by privileged groups in order to stop discussion on a bigoted remark that they have made.

Although I prefer to keep these posts short and punchy, this one got a little long, so I’m putting it behind a cut. Below I deconstruct the two examples I spoke of and then explain in my conclusion why I believe that this tactic is, in fact, privilege in action.

I. Example 1: A discussion on gender inclusive game design

Merrua is a GM who blogs about gaming, world-building, and ways to make games more inclusive. It all started with this post where she quoted another person discussing how Spirit of the Century‘s rule book had chosen to gender its list of character ideas.

Mer’s take on it was as follows:

Dont you wish that there wasnt half a dozen things you had to ignore as a women before you could play?


Again this a game worth turning into a alternate world when the sexism and racism is reversed. Hmm those dashing Irish women conquring an Irish empire and their lovely men hanging off their arms. Teeheehee. I like it.

[From Spirit of the century by merrua]

To me, this is not the rant of an angry, and especially not irrational, woman. This is the observation of a GM saddened by feeling excluded, but optimistically brainstorming ways to engage with the dynamic in a positive fashion. She is not calling for action against this book, or those who use it, nor is she saying anything even remotely extreme. All she’s doing is expressing sadness over feeling excluded and then musing about how she could play with the situation.

Matt of lategaming responds by calling her suggestion irrational [emphasis mine]:

Yes. It’s a bloody shame. So why don’t we create games where sexism and racism are reversed?

Okay, how about we compromise. Let’s look at my local gaming club and make some calculations. On Monday night we had about thirty people. And not more than 4 were women. So slightly more than 13%. Let’s build games to attract the 13% rather than the 86%!

That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

In order to paint mer’s suggestion as irrational, he creates some statistics to show how women aren’t the target audience. Even though he’s using a laughably small sample size (here’s a hint: thirty people aren’t a proper representational sample for gaming as a whole), he converts it into percentages in order to make his argument look more rational while making mer’s emotional-based argument (feeling excluded) look more irrational because it’s not grounded in “science” (in this case, statistics).

He further goes on to create the “emotional equals irrational” connection further down in his argument [original emphasis]:

Does it really spoil your enjoyment of the game if the archetypes are male? Do you find it jarring and upsetting if the pronouns in a game are exclusively male? Does it pain you to your very soul that Wells chose male characters for his books The Time Machine and War of the Worlds? Would Emma have been better if Jane Austen had named the character James and made a comedy of manners about the debut of a young squire? Why the hell wasn’t Moses a girl? Would Jesus have been a better saviour if he’d had mammary glands?

He begins with a rhetorical question, turning mer’s disappointment into her complaining that the male archetypes “spoil [her] enjoyment of the game”, going right into emphasizing the words “jarring and upsetting” in his line of questioning in order to strengthen her argument’s ties to the emotional, and ending with the clearly mocking hyperbole of “[d]oes it pain you to your very soul,” when he switches to his next tactic of comparing the game to literary works.

Suitably primed by the paragraph’s rhetorical questions, the reader is meant to take the literary role-reversals that matt posits as evidence at how ridiculous it is to suggest that gender inclusive game design, or at the very least that a GM might want to play on the lack of it, really is. Works of literature have tradition and history behind them and therefore to the typical gaming audience the idea that the stories could possibly contain prejudice, and might have been done differently if the roles were reversed, is, I suppose, supposed to be the icing on the proverbial irrational cake. Not withstanding that many authors have, in fact, re-imagined works of traditional literature in creative ways that, yes, do sometimes include switching the gender to explore how things may have turned out, of course.

Why does so much of matt’s argument rely on making mer’s look stupid and over-the-top? Well, what is matt’s argument? He lays it out near the beginning of the article: “People have wracked their brains in how to attract more women into the hobby and I have to say that I am beginning to see it as futile.” In short, his argument is that gender inclusive game design isn’t important because getting women to game isn’t possible.

I can’t speak for tabletop gaming, but I know in video games similar arguments are made. Those arguments? Are not defensible.

I could link you to the piles of articles coming out about how women are becoming a larger and larger portion of the video game community (we’re a significant force if you include so-called “casual” gaming), but since that would take a while I suggest just going to Jade Reporting and doing some browsing of the “Real Life Impact” and “Real Live Gamers” categories. There’s also my post on gender inclusive game design for a broader rebuttal to his argument that it’s not important.

And, anyway, let’s be honest here: matt would look like a callous asshole if people thought he was telling a rational person that her want to be included in a game that she plays is stupid. So by inventing some statistics, making the argument that catering towards the majority by deliberately excluding the minority is a good business proposal, and painting mer as some stupid over-emotional chick makes him look like the authority to listen to, rather than a jerk telling a woman to basically shut up and realize that gaming is for the boys.

II. Example 2: Being called out on a fat joke

Which leads me to the second example of this phenomenon: a recent blog war on fat jokes made on Sadly, No!. The pertinent threads in this one are Feministe’s Red Scrunchie Blues and Sadly, No!’s Why I’m Coming to Hate Blogging.

Like matt, Brad of Sadly, No! says upfront that he finds the people he’s arguing against to be irrational:

2.) That said, some people need to lighten the eff up. Specifically, I’m thinking of many of the people leaving messages on this thread. Holy mother of God. Let’s do a quick sample of the completely ridiculous and embarrassing comments posted there:

Brad, like matt, does give lip service to the problem (matt with his “Yes. It’s a bloody shame” and Brad in the unquoted 1.) of his post), but then goes on to use the tactic of making the other side look completely irrational. The result of this, of course, is that it allows him to avoid engaging with how his privilege interacts with the problem he is about to dismiss with the rest of his post. Where matt’s specific tactics involved using gender stereotypes (his “rational” pseudo-science against mer’s “emotional” experience as a woman gamer), Brad’s depends on deliberate and sarcastic misreadings of the comments in order to create an “us rational people versus those crazy zealots” mentality that gathers sympathy and thereby downplays the seriousness of his bigoted remarks.

This can apply to all of the comments that he commented on, but I will chose one in the middle because I think it’s the easiest to understand the actual argument. It is as follows:

The problem is that it’s not just about offense. It’s about power and privilege, all the way down from the very large scale to the little scale. You’ve seized on the fact that fatness is something you have the power to mock, and that’s only because fat people are at a social disadvantage. This pattern repeats itself in the previous, larger-scale fractal iteration that is society.

[From Red Scrunchie Blues, comment by Mandos]

What Mandos is saying is twofold: 1) fat jokes are part of a system of power that affects our lives in both macro and micro ways; and 2) part of the reason that fat jokes are funny is because they are made at the expense of a group that can’t properly fight back.

Now, are there arguments to be made about Mandos’ premise? Sure, if you don’t believe that our society has hierarchical structures then I can’t see you agreeing with the idea that fat jokes are tied to a power structure. Similarly, if you don’t believe that fat people are disadvantaged by this society, then I can’t see you agreeing with the conclusion that the pleasure in making fat jokes is rooted in holding power over another human being. Of course, there are an abundance of studies on how American society’s ideas on fat affect people’s perceptions of themselves and others, and to that end I would highly recommend going over to Alas, a Blog and doing searches on “fat” and “fatphobia” to check out some of those studies.

But does Brad engage with any of this? Well, see his response to the above comment and judge for yourself:

Fat jokes: responsible for racism, sexism and homophobia.

Where in Mandos’ comment is it mentioned that fat jokes are responsible for anything? Let’s give Brad the benefit of the doubt here for a moment; in the original comment Mandos is responding to something said upthread. Maybe that is what made the explicit connection for Brad.

Here’s what Mandos quoted:

Why don’t we fragment into small, homogeneous groups and focus intently on the deep offense we feel at other groups’ speech and language.

[From Red Scrunchie Blues, comment by Sadly, No! Investor Services]

Well, no, the frame is actually pretty much the same as without the quoted response. Although the idea of intersectionality — that no group stands in isolation but rather affects, and is in turn affected by, the groups around them — is tied in more closely. But, still, I can’t see where Brad could have taken the idea that Mandos is saying that fat jokes being responsible for anything, much less racism, sexism, and homophobia combined. In fact, that particular comment thread was started, not by fat jokes at all, but rather by a commenter on Sadly, No! making fun of Hugo by stereotyping geeks!

I mean, that, in itself, seems to prove the very intersectionality that Brad is seeking to paint as irrational. Arguments made about negative stereotypes about one traditionally marginalized subgroup of society were turned into generalized commentary by Brad himself, and then the generality was seamlessly brought back to the original subject of fat jokes by Mandos. So seamlessly, in fact, that Brad decided to use the comment for his sarcasm without realizing that following the path back to it’s origin would show that there actually is rationality behind the argument that Brad is erroneously claiming that Mandos is making.

All of which, I suppose, unintentionally proves my point, which is that Brad is using deliberate misreading and sarcasm in order to cover up the reality that his argument is completely irrational while painting the other side as the irrational ones.

III. Conclusion: So what’s this got to do with privilege?

So what does all this have to do with privilege? Quite a lot, actually.

If you look at the favored tactics here, they rely on elements that already reinforce hierarchy. Matt, for instance, uses the gender stereotyping of rational:irrational::science:emotion*, which (as any geek can tell you) carries the connotation of male:female::rational:irrational. Brad, for his part, relied on using the tool of sarcasm, which is possibly the number one way that privileged groups used to shut down conversation.

Not only that, but I also argue that privilege allows you the unerring belief that your argument is right, no matter what the evidence says. Although I deconstructed matt and Brad’s arguments rather brutally above, I don’t actually believe that they believe their arguments are wrong, baseless, or irrational. I don’t think that they sat around and thought to themselves, “Gee, today I’m going to take a totally indefensible position and make it look defensible by taking an opponent’s rational argument and making it look irrational!”

What I do think, however, is they took their belief in their own correctness and took the well-worn path that other people relying on privilege have made for them: that of making one’s argument on the basis that the opposition is so out there that only an idiot would agree with them. They might even think of it in terms of “exposing” the reality of the illogic of the other side, because that’s the frame I usually see on this argument (seriously, watch some Fox News broadcasts to see what I mean).

But, that’s just it. Did they ever stop to question their own methodology? In all of their time trying to show how baseless their opponent(s) were, did they ever think to examine their own logic in arriving at the conclusions that they did? Privilege is not being forced to question yourself, your actions, or your arguments because, if you get called on something, you have tradition backing up your choices and the power of majority opinion to agree with your defense.

*: The English translation of that is, “Rational is to irrational, as science is to emotion,” which means that rational is equated with science and irrational is equated with emotion. Sorry for those of you who hate the SATs. I do too, actually, but the format was useful so I decided to use it.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Add to favorites
  • Reddit
  • Tumblr

17 thoughts on “Fabricating rationality by making the other side look irrational

  1. Great post! This is super helpful to me.

    Rationality is a tool of the mechanistic science that maintains the status quo. Saying things have to be rational to be valid is privileging a white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist school of thought. Every other way of thinking is invalid in the eyes of the dominant culture. We’ve got to play by their rules for our critiques to be heard.

  2. Hi Andrea,
    I understand that there’s a war on the old boys network for the position of privilege but I think that you’re way off base with your representation of tabletop roleplaying games and your flawed comparison to video games due entirely to ignorance of the media.

    It’s not about whether I’m right based on tradition (because it’s a fact that tabletop roleplaying is dominated by the male gender, based on sales to said males, representation in clubs and forums and cmmon knowledge which isn’t some sort of tradition-based conspiracy invented to keep women subjugated) nor is it about whether I’m right about breaking a cliché (and making it meaningless).

    You claim that I am a male chauvenist depending on tradition and privilege because I made the connotation of gender role to “rational: irrational”. I didn’t make that reference. You were looking for it and you make that connection. I refer to Mary as an individual not as the figurehead of a supposed emotional, irrational feminity.

    I’m very much in favour of equality between the sexes. Something you’d find out if you investigated the subjects rather than hammering out a verbose and factuallty bereft riposte. From your own web pages here I can see that equality is certainly not on your cultural manifesto.

    Most amusing of all is your text in red. Flaming and personal attacks are not permitted in comments, just in post content?

    I’m glad to see that hypocrisy is not just the personal satrapy of those with a penis.

  3. matt: I’m not going to debate the specifics of whether or not the premise that you were discussing with mer was right or not, because I’m not out to change your mind on that.

    You claim that I am a male chauvenist depending on tradition and privilege because I made the connotation of gender role to “rational: irrational”.

    I never claimed that you were a male chauvinist. I didn’t even say that you were engaging in misogyny. I was tying in your actions to a concept called privilege, which is explained in posts like Privilege Is Driving a Smooth Road And Not Even Knowing It.

    The key difference is that misogyny and chauvinism are based in a hatred of women, while privilege is something that majority groups (in this conversation, men, but in other conversations white people, heterosexuals, cisgendered people, etc) experience whether they want to or not. It is, in short, the ability to unthinkingly draw on a tradition that has given you advantages over another group, usually with the end result that your advantageous position is reinforced while your opponents disadvantageous position is reinforced.

    The point of my Privilege in Action series is to illustrate through real world examples how well-meaning people can still do harm because of unexamined privileges.

    You were looking for it and you make that connection.

    I will refer you to this post on that subject: Bias and Privilege.

    Was I specifically searching your post for evidence to back up the claims I was making in this post? Of course, that’s how debate works. But if it wasn’t already there, I couldn’t have found it.

    I’m very much in favour of equality between the sexes.

    I never addressed whether or not I thought you were in favour of equality. Most of the people whose posts I deconstruct for this series do, in fact, consider themselves to be pro-equality. But, that’s just my point. It’s not enough to just be pro-equality and say things like, “I think women are equal to men. I think women can do whatever men can do.”

    You have to examine your own actions, too. You have to actually listen to what women are saying, and not just the ones who agree with you. Even if you don’t like the way they say things, or what they say. Even if you don’t agree with it.

    In the end, I truly am sorry that you came away with the feeling that I was attacking you, personally. That was not the intent of my post, and perhaps there were places where I could have softened my language. I’m not sorry for what I wrote, but I am sorry that I didn’t give more consideration to how the person whose post I was writing about might feel because of how I said the things that I did.

  4. Of course it was a personal attack. How much more unambiguous can “jerk” and “asshole” be? That’s water under the bridge however and I don’t bear grudges.

    I have several games in development at the moment and I have invited tabletop gamers to join me at a round table, whether that be online, in a pub or at a convention panel to discuss what it takes to make a game that does not suffer from this tradition-based bias. Posts like http://community.livejournal.com/irishgaming/6557.html highlight that the feeling is not universal by any means and that part of your frustration might be better aimed at the videogame market and not this market which, in comparison is well served with gender neutrality.

    I’m not paying lip services to gender equality here. My business partner and equal is a woman, full of her own strengths and insecurities. And damn, we argue. And we find common ground that isn’t based on the fact that I hold the “male” trump which beats her “female” card.

    You don’t know me and therefore I don’t think you have the basis to make a judgement like that. On the other hand as a “friend” of mine commented on my blog, I dislike everyone equally… http://www.lategaming.com/2007/03/02/more-on-sexism-plus-registration-and-comments/#comments and it’s possible I need to check my “arrogant arsehole” privilege at the door.

    Thought provoking stuff in all and I like that it’s started conversations.

  5. Lake Desire said:

    We’ve got to play by their rules for our critiques to be heard.

    The ironic thing to this whole thing is that most of my writing does just that. I do, I hope, give weight to emotional arguments and experience-based ones, but overall I argue from a rational/logical perspective. Even this post, where I criticize the equation of logical with rational with correct I do it by drawing on a logical, evidence-based argumentation style rather than an emotional one.

    Of course logic-based argumentation styles are important for making one’s point, but sometimes I do wonder at the reasoning behind my favouring this style and avoiding emotional-based posts and arguments as much as possible.

    [And, wouldn’t you know it, before I used my magical comment-editing ability I kept using “rational” where I meant “logical”, which of course is another way that the false dichotomy is perpetuated… Proof positive that no one is immune, eh?]

  6. LakeDesire writes: “Saying things have to be rational to be valid is privileging a white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist school of thought.”

    This is such angry, inflammatory, bigoted language. Rationality or even logic has nothing to do with race, gender, society, economics or history.

    Rational != emotionless!

    Emotional decisions are not irrational decisions.

    I’m an emotional white male (we do exist!). My “rational” decisions are based on my mood, ie emotions, as well as my logic and my experience. These are all factors. There are times when I am irrational and that when I let the mood of the moment ignore my own principles of fairness or good conduct or when something I want now would be expedited by the decision yet may not be good for me in the future. You likely have different terminology for it but I see irrational decisions as being those you regret after the fact.

  7. matt said:

    Of course it was a personal attack. How much more unambiguous can “jerk” and “asshole” be? That’s water under the bridge however and I don’t bear grudges.

    That would be the part that I would definitely rephrase. It was a last minute add-in and as such I didn’t look it over as carefully as I should have.

    Here’s the part again, emphasizing what I had put in there to try to make it clear that I wasn’t calling you an asshole, but rather trying to say that the argument that you were making was, at it’s core, callous:

    And, anyway, let’s be honest here: matt would look like a callous asshole if people thought he was telling a rational person that her want to be included in a game that she plays is stupid. So by inventing some statistics, making the argument that catering towards the majority by deliberately excluding the minority is a good business proposal, and painting mer as some stupid over-emotional chick makes him look like the authority to listen to, rather than a jerk telling a woman to basically shut up and realize that gaming is for the boys.

    Again, it was poor phrasing on my part and I see exactly why the “look like”s that I put in didn’t convey my point and rather came across as an ad hom attack. But I just want you to know that it most certainly wasn’t my intent to do so, and that I apologize for my screw up.

    I’m not paying lip services to gender equality here. My business partner and equal is a woman, full of her own strengths and insecurities. And damn, we argue. And we find common ground that isn’t based on the fact that I hold the “male” trump which beats her “female” card.

    I believe that you are a sincere guy who does his best to like, respect, and treat the women in your life equally. And because of that, I really do urge you to check out the links in the On Privilege part of my sidebar. I’d recommend my Nice Guy list, but right now as it stands it’s more of an intermediate level resource than a privilege primer. I would stay away from the letters and the checklists (they’re more advanced material because they don’t pull their punches), but definitely browse through the Privilege 101 section.

    One of the things that I see running through your dialogue with me is that you’re invested very much in looking at individuals and individual acts. These are, of course, very important and without having strong individual connections with non-privileged individuals then there can be no gain in equality.

    That being said, the individual is not the end-all-be-all. The reason is, of course, because we are all different. What satisfies one woman is, as you’ve seen, something uncomfortable to the next, and blatant sexism to a third woman. If we place all of our emphasis on individuals, then we can cater to the easiest demographic: the woman who is satisfied with what leaves other women feeling hurt, excluded, and even angry.

    What understanding privilege is about is seeing the underlying power structures that create inequality and doing our part, both as privileged and non-privileged people (and almost everyone is both), to be aware of and hopefully dismantle those systems in order to achieve equality for all, not just a select few who by either privilege or luck have come out on top.

  8. matt said:

    This is such angry, inflammatory, bigoted language. Rationality or even logic has nothing to do with race, gender, society, economics or history.

    Matt, please keep in mind that this is a feminist blog and, though this particular post is aimed at a broader audience, it is generally a resource for feminists who are immersed in feminist theory. What this means is that the general readership here is working on the assumption that they don’t have to do a “feminism 101” every time they post.

    Lake Desire was addressing a power imbalance inherent in what feminists refer to as “the patriarchy” — in other words the system of hierarchies that we believe continue to be reinforced by culture, government, science, etc — not individual people or individual acts.

    In fact, knowing Lake Desire I would say that she 100% agrees with your assessment of how logic and emotions are interconnected and not exclusive of each other, and furthermore I know that I am happy to see (and suspect she would be too) a man who is proud to acknowledge that he does, indeed, possess emotions.

    What she was speaking to, however, was the widespread notion that those two are exclusive and furthermore that the male-logical is rational while the female-emotional is irrational. She was observing that, as society is structured right now, we have to play into this dichotomy and present ourselves as logical in order for society at large to take us seriously.

    Both she and I believe that particular logical fallacy (that logic and emotions are mutually exclusive and are rational and irrational, respectively) is wrong and would love to see it changed.

  9. Wow. An example. Matt is using his male privilege to invalidate my “angry, inflammatory, bigoted” (emotional) feminist vocabulary because I’m not speaking in the mainstream lingo. Rationality and logic has plenty to do with race, gender, history, and economic systems. Those categories inform our entire existence, even if we don’t have to see them because of our privilege.

  10. Not to get off topic too far, but I’d recommend Junkfood Science also for more deconstruction of studies about obesity and health. The maintainer is an RN and many of her posts are dedicated to picking apart faulty methodology in studies and erroneous reporting of findings by the media.

  11. I don’t see any logic in Matt’s argument. It’s just rationalization, which is a different animal altogether. Now, I don’t want to cause any hurt feelings, but arguments like the one depicted in the post – to show how irrational the woman is being – always boil down to something like this:

    “This sexist behavior is okay because the target audience likes it. It’s okay that we offend a minority in the group because they’re a minority. It’s okay that maybe the only reason the minority IS a minority is because we treat it like shit – it couldn’t possibly be that we treat it like shit in order to keep it out, oh, goodness no. And finally, it’s just fine that we males in my group are perfectly comfortable with sexism, that it doesn’t make us look at the women we love and think ‘OMG this is wrong’. It’s fine that we don’t have enough empathy for that.”

    I’m really not accusing Matt or any other individual of not giving a crap about women, but that IS what the argument boils down to. Is not caring what happens to us better than hating us? I’m not sure. Some misogynists overcompensate for the prejudice they’re aware they have. Men who give themselves a “nice guy” pass while putting up glass walls between themselves and women with no regard for the effect it has on the women – and then have the nerve to question when women say, “Fine, we’ll just play it OUR way inside our glass box” – have no idea the trouble they’re causing.

  12. BetaCandy: What you’re saying makes a lot of sense today. I eat lunch in my friend’s class and normally there are about 3-5 boys there. None I would say are raging misogynists, but they often say and act in ways that make me uncomfortable. Today one of them mentioned how his girlfriend told him that she was uncomfortable with him because he was “too manly” at times. The guy sitting next to me brushed it off because the boyfriend is in general soft spoken and doesn’t come across as the kind of guy who women would call scary.

    I tried to explain the power dynamics, he refused to get it, and then it came out that the boyfriend would sometimes hit inanimate objects when angry. “There!” I thought. “An obvious example!” When I brought that up as one of the possible reasons, it was immediately brushed off. I tried to point out the connection between hitting an object and hitting a person — in other words, even if it’s just an object you condition yourself to accept physical violence as an acceptable reaction to anger — and was shocked when the response was that the guys all wanted to be lauded for this behaviour because, after all, hitting an object means that they aren’t hitting a person.

    And not one time in all of this did they try to think about or understand either the girlfriend’s feelings or the ones I, as a woman who understands those feelings, was trying to convey.

  13. Wow. That’s a good example, all right. Lots of privilege (“I don’t need to see it from her POV, my POV is the default, so she should adjust”) and some comfy rationalization (“Hey, I’m not hitting a person”).

    Rationalization generally means, “There is no way in hell I’m going to examine what I think and see if it needs upgrading. I’m right because I’m right.”

Comments are closed.