Fighting Fallacies

Avoiding the “villainification” of the Other.

Fighting Fallacies

It’s easy enough to fall into conversational logical fallacy. Who hasn’t set up a strawman or tossed out a red herring when they’re about to lose an argument on some fully formed opinion they haven’t thought all the way through? We may have just been under-read on a topic. We may have hastily adopted a position or an entire worldview based on the positions or worldviews of others. (Hello, bandwagon fallacy.) It’s understandable and quite common in both chitchat and public discourse. 

Forming opinions from emotion, personal identity, and group affiliation rather than evidence is becoming a societal norm here in the U.S. Because of that, scholars are increasingly referring to this time as the post-truth era, thus defining our whole age according to flawed appeals like emotional fallacy. We buy into emotional appeals without even knowing it, thus allowing shady interlocutors to influence us with minimal credible evidence. It’s a dynamic born of the dysfunctional marriage between manipulativeness and the lazy habit of mind that satirist Stephen Colbert brilliantly coined as truthiness, in which truth is “formed in the gut.” From behind the desk of his faux news broadcast, he’d dramatize our impulse to believe what feels good through this mock assurance:

“Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you!”  

Colbert, other media analysts, rhetoricians, and critical thinkers of any ilk could also define the epoch by binarization, either-or thinking, or false dichotomy:

“a logical fallacy in which a spectrum of possible options is misrepresented as an either-or choice between two mutually exclusive things.” 

We sort ourselves and others into categories that we inherit and then buy into. We are liberal or conservative (because there are no other options). We are Black or white (sorry, other ethnicities, races, and combos). We are us, pretty much because they are them. We are knowable, while the Other is unknown, unknowable, or too distant and distinct. We are uncommonly Good, while Others are Evil.

According to teacher-educator Cathryn Van Kessel and educator Kimberly Edmondson, this last one — our propensity to sort things into good and evil — is the most concerning. Largely focused on evil, their 2024 book, Teaching Villainification in Social Studies, explores our tendency to simply label super-bad people “evil” and leave it there. They call it villainification, “the process of identifying an individual or a small group of individuals as the sole source of a larger evil.” It’s a nominal fallacy, or the belief that “by naming something we have also explained it.”

The problem? “Villainification simplifies complex entanglements of relations by drawing a straight line to a single evil actor, ignoring ordinary manifestations of harm,” Van Kessel and Edmondson say. Hitler often equates with Holocaust in common parlance, thus reducing the actions and decisions of many, many people to the efforts of a single megalomaniac. If one truly considers the scope of the Holocaust, though, one has to wonder about the seemingly ordinary citizens who made the decision to participate in that atrocity, especially early on. For many thinkers on historical horrors like the Holocaust, it’s much easier to wrap their heads around the reduction.

This type of oversimplification of the complex social “entanglements” that lead to atrocity is akin to the equally easy out of blaming “society” for what goes horribly wrong in it. This tendency is a reification fallacy that I often hear in conversations about slavery in America. Slavery happened, the [il]logic goes, because it was “just like that then” or “everyone had slaves back then.” This is circular logic on the one hand and just plain falsehood on the other.

In the presence of this weird evasion of thought about that particular “hard history,” I often offer up ideas from the archived letters between Abigail Adams and her husband, John. In one, John complains something to the effect of, But why can’t we have slaves, honey? All our friends have them, and we could make so much more money on our farm if we did, too. The exchange that follows amounts to a masterful takedown by Abigail and results in her eventual moral victory in this important relationship negotiation, which had far-reaching societal implications. It also points to our own responsibility to engage in dialogic forms of social justice. 

According to Van Kessel and Edmondson, when considering evil, “focusing [blame] on an amorphous entity like ‘society’ can also allow ordinary individuals to pivot away from their own culpability and responsibility.” What do we want that we shouldn’t really have? What do we condone that we should actually oppose? These are important questions.

They write:

“Antivillainification, therefore, invites educators [and others, I offer here] to consider the messy space in between individual and group culpability, and thus [develop] our sense of responsibility to one another as humans in communities on this planet.” 

This type of glorious disentanglement from simplemindedness is what reading is all about. Reading complicates. Reading complexifies. Reading bridges the gaps of all the binaries and paints clearer pictures for us to see and consider. In so doing, according to LeVar Burton — that one-track mind, beam of light, and warrior of the written word — literacy is both our freedom and the freedom of society. He advises us, then, that we should read everything, and always especially “the books [that book-banners] don’t want [us] to. That’s where the good stuff is.”

That’s also where the complexities rise up and demand respect. It’s also where the bridges are, and it’s where the personal growth is. 

Sarah Trembath is an Eagles fan from the suburbs of Philadelphia who currently lives in Baltimore with her family. She is also a writer on faculty at American University and both reviews books for the Independent and serves on its board. She has written extensively for other publications and, in 2019, was the recipient of the American Studies Association’s Gloria Anzaldúa Award for independent scholars for her social-justice writing and teaching. In 2023, at age 54, she earned her doctorate in Education Policy and Leadership. Her collection of essays is currently in press at Lazuli Literary Group.

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