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I recently came across this meme. It's clearly a logical fallacy (the existence of one use of a socioeconomic tool other than white privilege does not preclude the existence of white privilege), but I'm having trouble identifying what fallacy it is. Help!

What kind of logical fallacy is it? Non sequitur?

enter image description here

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    There's a much more obvious fallacy at work as well: she didn't. :) She's always been clear that this was one ancestor some distance back, passed on as oral family history. – Graham Nov 5 at 14:05
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    @Graham - Sadly, she did list her race as "American Indian" on her Texas State Bar card, in her own handwriting: snopes.com/fact-check/elizabeth-warren-indian-card And allowed herself to be listed as a minority for years in the AALS desk book. This despite it being vague oral history in her family (prior to the DNA test, which tribes don't accept) and her not having any tangible links to any tribe. It's unfortunate, and she's apologized for it, and it's nothing to the outrageous and provably-false claims of some other politicians, but...sadly, she did do it. – T.J. Crowder Nov 5 at 15:30
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    I think whether the joke works or not for you depends more on your factual beliefs about the world than on a logical fallacy. Most Republicans say that discrimination against white people is a bigger problem than discrimination against people of color. So the knock on her in right-wing circles is that they think she called herself Cherokee to advance her career. The punch line is the implied admission that being white is a disadvantage. – Davislor Nov 5 at 21:39
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    A Democrat, on the other hand, thinks that a Native who grew up in poverty on a reservation would have major disadvantages in life, and a white person calling herself Cherokee would not have to actually give up any advantages she got from her skin color, or what school she went to, or where she grew up, or how much money her family had, etc. They also don’t think it helped her career to exoticize herself that way. So, to them, that joke might seem like a different kind of grievance-based identity politics. – Davislor Nov 5 at 21:45
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    @SwamiVishwananda I disagree. The question of asking what fallacy something is, is not meant to be inflammatory and provoke political opinions. Just because it included a political official and some commenters decided to go that direction, does not mean that was the intent. They could have just as easily responded with what the actual fallacy is, if any exists - some answers do avoid the political discussion. — Your comment, on the other hand, may use juvenile reasoning, demonstrate bias, and inability to see the forest from the trees. Please don’t project or assert things you don’t know – vol7ron Nov 6 at 12:37

10 Answers 10

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If you are so smart why aren't you rich? If this country is so bad why don't you leave? If it is so easy why aren't you doing it? These types of rhetorical barbs rely on what is called an enthymeme, and argument with implicit parts. If X then why not Y? relies on Y not being in evidence, and suggests that X must not be the case. Enthymemes can be valid, when reconstructed, but if there is an error it is typically in presuming that X implies Y.

This case certainly is a non-sequitur, but that is a very broad category. Anything invalid is a non-sequitur. But why is it invalid? The reconstructed argument would be something like this: white privilege is the only way to benefit from race; Warren sought such benefits by claiming to be Indian, not white; hence, there is no white privilege.

But, of course, there is more than one way to benefit from race, by being white and by being non-white. Overlooking additional possibilities is generally known as a false dilemma. In this case, it is an even more specific kind of overlooking: overlooking (or ignoring) additional causes for the observed action. This is known as the fallacy of a single cause, or causal oversimplification. Indeed, this is the most common explanation for If X then why not Y?, when it is a genuine question, and the reason for it being a fallacy when not X is the implied conclusion.

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    @nick012000 Enthymeme is an argument which is not fully spelled out, it is often the form of rhetorical insinuations. In this case Y is assumed to be known to the audience, and the conclusion (not X) is only suggested, not stated. – Conifold Nov 5 at 17:54
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    downvoted your answer because the nature of the question is only meant to rile the forum into a political discussion. The question could have been asked in a philosophical manner without injecting political discourse. – Swami Vishwananda Nov 6 at 7:17
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    The question is by its nature meant to be inflammatory and is not appropriate for this forum. – Swami Vishwananda Nov 6 at 7:40
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    @SwamiVishwananda - No, all due respect, that's your misinterpretation as others have pointed out in the comments on the question. The question is quite clearly asking what the fallacy is, not intentionally inflammatory. But even if the question were intentionally inflammatory, downvoting all the answers to it is not appropriate. – T.J. Crowder Nov 7 at 7:48
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    Downvoting an answer because you don't like the question is inappropriate, @SwamiVishwananda – barbecue Nov 7 at 21:41
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I see a couple of contenders:

The anecdotal fallacy:

[Using] personal experience or an isolated example instead of a sound argument or compelling evidence.

Even if it's true that Elizabeth Warren claimed to be Native American on occasion (snopes link), that doesn't mean white privilege doesn't exist. People are complex and do things for all kinds of different reasons, or even no reason at all.

The false dilemma or "black and white" fallacy:

[Presenting] two alternative states as the only possibilities, when in fact more possibilities exist.

The existence of white privilege and Elizabeth Warren identifying as Native American are not mutually-exclusive possibilities.

  • fair and to the point: it's cherry picking – another_name Nov 5 at 18:03
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    It's also the case that someone can claim to be native american on a form and continue to benefit from white privilege. It's unlikely to have changed the way people perceived her or interacted with her, even if they were aware she had done this which I think few people did. – JimmyJames Nov 5 at 21:34
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    Ancestry alone does not determine sympathies. An impoverished white person raised partially by native americans might have a point of view not compatible with most of the black and white views expressed in this thread, regarding both sides. – some_guy632 Nov 6 at 0:03
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    @some_guy632 - Absolutely. My view of Warren's identification on her Texas Bar card would be completely different if she'd had a tangible connection to a tribe. (Not that my view of her identification is important.) – T.J. Crowder Nov 6 at 7:44
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    It's a clear cut case of a false dilemma to me. – Matthew Dave Nov 6 at 9:19
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This is a good example of Tu quoque (the appeal to hypocrisy): a fallacy that intends to discredit the opponent's argument by asserting the opponent's failure to act consistently in accordance with its conclusion(s).

The pattern is:

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B asserts that A's actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  3. Therefore, X is false.
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    Welcome to Philosophy SE! This is an excellent example of how to answer a "what fallacy" question! – christo183 Nov 8 at 6:21
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It isn't a fallacy because it isn't a logical statement; it is a rhetorical question.

It could be an malicious question along the lines of "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" where the question includes assumptions that you would validate by answering anything; but that isn't the case here as you yourself point out by answering "the existence of one use of a socioeconomic tool other than white privilege does not preclude the existence of white privilege".

The question implies a logical proof, but since it doesn't flesh it out we are left with guessing what it would be and can't say that it would be a fallacy. We could construct any fallacy we want from it, but that would be disingenuous, akin to making a straw-man fallacy of our own.

We can tell that the overall structure of the proof would be a proof by contradiction, starting with "white privilege". That is probably why people think "fallacy"; but A ∧ ¬A isn't a fallacy.

Some people may say that the implied premises are false, for instance that Elisabeth Warren pretended to be indian or that pretending to be indian causes you to lose white privilege. That doesn't make it a fallacy, just counter factual/false.

It is true that the sentiment implies a something that appears wrong somehow; but that is how it is a joke or a meme.

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    It's clearly a rhetorical question which contains an inference. The intent of a comedian (or a meme crafted to look as if...) is not to elicit information, but declare a statement. Syntax is often ambiguous, and meaning must be derived from context, intonation, etc. – J D Nov 5 at 16:33
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    The question is built on a fallacy. "If you didn't drink coffee this morning, then why aren't you in jail?" is a question built on the premise of going to jail if you didn't drink coffee in the morning. The question exists specifically to state its underlying premise, which is a fallacy. – Flater Nov 7 at 12:18
  • It's not simply a question. It implies a statement. The implication is "White privilege does not exist, because Elizabeth Warren pretended to be an Indian." – user253751 Nov 7 at 13:14
  • @JD Indeed language is ambiguous and interpretation is required. You need to make a charitable interpretation though, in this case I interpret the implied fallacy as "the joke" and the message as… well the actual text; why doesn't she want to cash in on "white privilege"?. It you don't make an effort for a charitable interpretation then that in itself is a strawman fallacy. – Odalrick Nov 12 at 8:26
  • @Odalrick I did make a charitable interpretation which is: Warren pretended to be an Indian. This attribution of intent, as 'pretend' is an intentional departure of characterizing something accurately, is specious. For whatever idiocy of identity politics is present in her characterizing her self as Native American, for the claim to be that she did so with the intent to deceive is fallacious, and would be an obvious bias since no evidence supports it. – J D Nov 12 at 15:55
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There are a variety of possible logical fallacies here, depending on exactly what is meant and what assumptions you make about the implied audience.

If you read the meme as:

... why did Elizabeth Warren ever pretend to be...

Then the joke is attempting to poke holes in the argument that white privilege is always superior to any form of minority privilege.

The joke seems to be broadly and obliquely referring to "the Left", who probably do not hold quite such a broad interpretation of white privilege, in which case, it is a strawman. You could also claim a no true scotsman (all Democrats believe that white privilege...) if you want to try and restrict the audience to only people who believe in such a broad definition but still say "Democrats" or "the Left". At the very least, it's a non sequitur since the joke does not identify the audience whose belief on white privilege is necessary to know in order to know the resulting accuracy of the joke.

Finally, if you really do believe that all Democrats actually hold such a broad view of white privilege, and are willing to assume the audience as Democrats or "the Left", then it's still a claim to improper or biased authority because Elizabeth Warren could have a variety of reasons other than pure net gain for claiming American Indian ethnicity or could have misjudged the net gain even if that was her goal.

As a side note, if you are willing to narrow the joke to trying to say that Elizabeth Warren does not believe that white privilege is so broad, and that her actions prove this opinion, then you still run into an unsubstantiated assumption of motive. Warren could have a variety of reasons for claiming American Indian heritage, not necessarily one seeking an advantage. Most charitably, she might have actually thought she was American Indian, and stated so as a plain matter of (honestly incorrect) fact.

... why did Elizabeth Warren continuously pretend to be...

This is simply unfactual. I suppose it's a faulty premise, if you want to be technical. Although Elizabeth Warren formally claimed multiple times to be an American Indian, it seems that she went through most of her life being considered "white".

just a joke

Jokes really more on inference and emotion than formal logic, so you can't call it a fallacy.

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That fallacy is called by many names, including: Fallacy of many questions, complex question, fallacy of presuppositions, trick question, multiple question, loaded question, false question, plurium interrogationum.. That is, it makes a presupposition that many people would not accept. (“Elizabeth Warren would have described herself as white if white privilege existed.”) There’s also the problem that “white privilege” means different things to different people and in different contexts.

Specifically, most Republicans (69% of them in a poll on October 23, 2019) say that discrimination against white people is a more serious problem than discrimination against black people. This percentage is “significantly higher” for people “who are white, over age 65 and who cite Fox News as their primary source of news.” Someone who makes the same assumption would believe that Elizabeth Warren secretly agrees that white people have it worse than Native Americans and called herself that to advance her career.

However, more than than three in five Democrats in 2019 do not believe that white people are discriminated against. To them, exoticizing herself gave her no advantage at all. A Progressive would say that a white person who claims hypodescent from the Cherokee does not give up any advantages she has from her skin color, where she grew up, where she went to school, how much money her parents had, how suspicious the authorities were of her, or any opportunities a Native American born to a poor family on a reservation would not have received equally. That is, they don’t think the question makes any sense, because they would not agree that Elizabeth Warren ever gave up any of her white privilege.

Those possibilities are not logically exclusive. There might be a situation where it’s advantageous both to grow up as a white person and to identify as something else. Compare: “If it’s such a privilege to be a trust-fund baby, why do they all call themselves self-made men?” You can even insert the name of another politician in there, if you feel like it.

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It's a rehtorical question, not an assertion of empeical fact. There is no fallacy, because there is no assertion of fact other than that which is generally accepted. Such as Warren clsiming to be an American Indian. Any falacy would have to lie with the accuracy of the claim that Warren presented herself as American Indian.

I should add that, having 32 decades of American (originated in Europe) lineage, that I fully affirm the rights of those who lived on these lands before my ancestors did, to survival and advancement of their people.

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The assertion of the image macro is that a rational actor such as Warren would not claim to be Indigenous if white privilege would be beneficial to Warren - therefore, one would think white privilege did not exist in some capacity. This line of thinking needs to be considered in ways other than just "logical fallacy".

Beyond logical fallacy, this argument falls apart if subject to an analysis of the way white privilege operates in a settler-colonial context.

In Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang's work "Decolonization is not a metaphor", they argue claims to indigeneity can act as a settler move to innocence that resolves the guilt of the colonizer whilst still allowing the colonizer to benefit from their occupation. Tuck & Yang even mention Warren directly as an example of this phenomenon.

In this move to innocence, settlers locate or invent a long-lost ancestor who is rumored to have had "Indian Blood," and they use this claim to mark themselves as blameless in the attempted eradications of Indigenous peoples.

Settler nativism, or what Vine Deloria Jr. calls the Indian-grandmother complex, is a settler move to innocence because it is an attempt to deflect a settler identity, while continuing to enjoy settler privilege and occupying stolen land.

The key distinction here is that Warren is only playing Indian - she does not sever from her whiteness and thus white privilege, but is instead attempting to claim indigeneity at the same time.

Although the reasons for Warren's claim to indigenous blood cannot be fully known from outside observation, this underlying dynamic makes it probable that her claims were for external/internal relief and political benefit.

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SHORT ANSWER

It is certainly fallacious since it meets the definition of being persuasive and some combination of unsound and invalid, but it is difficult to discern through the presentation. I'd argue that this meme rises to the level of propaganda given the thoroughness with which it exploits cognitive biases. (See this article on how foreign intelligence services manipulate social media.


LONG ANSWER

There are multiple fallacies at play here, and despite Conifold's thorough answer above, I thought I might introduce a slightly different way of thinking about this image.

First, cognitive biases are at play. The image suggests the question is asked by the man in the image, but unless it can be substantiated, that is an unproven assumption. If this question featured Vladimir Putin in the background, it would create a much different effect. Secondly, it is in the form of a rhetorical question, and Betterridge noted, this is a good indicator in headlines of newspapers that the question is specious and created to avoid accusations of defamation.

But setting aside the wrapper the argument is packaged in, let's unpack.

A charitable interpretation (see deep structure) is that this rhetorical question is a deductive argument with one explicit and one implicit premise:

  • 1) Warren intentionally claimed an identity she does not possess
  • 2) (Claiming a puportedly inferior indentity when one possess a superior one is proof the superior one enjoys no advantage)
  • 3) Therefore, the superior identity is not superior.

To accuse Warren of intentionally misrepresenting herself (see Hanlon's razor) is ad hominen. To presume the second premise is non-sequitur (see social privilege). 3) To combine premises one and two is a sort of fallacy fallacy since it implies Warren is committing a fallacy and therefore the conclusion must be false.

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First I'm going to answer the question asked by this meme as I think it's important to understand this in order to understand the propaganda intent in the meme, after all this is what a meme is: If White Privilege exists then why did Elizabeth Warren pretend to be an Indian?

Well, why does the Queen 'pretend' to be English when the royal house:

of Windsor is of German paternal descent and was originally a branch of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. This derived from the House of Wetin, which succeeded the House of Hanover to the British monarchy following the death of Queen Victoria, the wife of Albert, Prince Consort.

Obviously she is British and a symbol of Britishness and she's not pretending to be British. The Royal family adopted Britishness to identify themselves with the British people.

I don't know why Elizabeth Warren considered herself as a Native American, she herself hasn't said so. Identity is a fraught area. However, given what I have written above, a possible explanation may be she simply sees Native Americans as - well - native to the American continent. And she wants to identify herself with that. But until she actually says so, we won't know.

As to what kind of fallacy this is - I'm not sure that it even matters. and perhaps you might want to ask yourself why take the trouble to identify what kind of fallacy it is? Identifying fallacies is generally a kindergarten exercise which we teach novices in the ways of reasoning (and lack of reasoning) to help them on the way to actual reasoning.

The meme appears to suggest that Indian privilege exists otherwise why would an influential person, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren identify herself with them. This mischaracterises why people identify themselves with particular groups of people. Often it is not because they are privileged, but because they empathise with them. For example, Franz Fanon identified himself with the Algerian resistence against the settler colonialism of French Algeria.

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