What-About-Ism and Other Weak Arguments

What-About-Ism and Other Weak Arguments January 13, 2022

There may be fewer richer moments, in our current time, than hearing an evangelical lecture us on the danger of conspiracy theories. It’s hard to believe one could be that self-unaware. It would sort of be like a morbidly obese person lecturing us about portion control. It’s what we see here, however.

The writer, Andrew T. Walker, is a professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I’m sure he’s nice man; he’s no doubt a gentlemanly Southern Baptist scholar who doesn’t kick his dog, dance, drink, or smoke. I wish him well. However, I believe he argues very poorly in his essay.

Among other problems, he pulls sort of a reverse red herring logical fallacy. Basically, this type of fallacy is a misdirection. If one has children, they have probably encountered this argument. For instance, if asked why their chores aren’t done, given their allowance was just handed out the day before, they might reply, “Dad/Mom, how much was your allowance when you were young?” The idea is to divert attention away from the real issue or topic at hand.

Dr. Walker’s true focus and the actual topic he wants to address is the transgender issue. The talk of conspiracy theories is a red herring, a diversion. But it’s a strange one to use, foremost, because if there’s any group that needs a lecture about such, it’s white evangelicals. Second, his argument devolves into sort of a weak what-about-ism. He seems to be saying, yes, there are too many conspiracy theories on the political right, but what about….

Finally, there is the matter of a false equivalency. He seems to think referring to a person in the way they would prefer (or disagreeing with him on the issue of male/female identity) is like believing a conspiracy theory but that hardly follows. The two are not the same. The entire thing is a mess but let’s work our way through it:

First, he points out some things we can strongly agree with:

…Now, conspiracy theories are also thought to traffic in claims that are generally both bizarre and false (for example, Qanon)…

…We ought to reject conspiracy theories, like any other truth claim, when they are false or unsustainable. If a claim cannot hold up to investigation, we are obligated to abandon it…” (You mean like claims the 2020 election was fraudulent and Trump actually won?)

…Today, there are a number of conspiracy theories associated with the political right that deserve scorn and rebuke by those peddling them. Conservatism champions the conservation of truth. If it’s not true, it should be exposed as false.”

We are certainly in agreement as to those statements, but here comes the what-about-ism and other logical fallacies:

…But what about the liberal temptation to conspiracy theories? Take, for example, last week’s headline in The New York Times that read, “Amy Schneider Becomes First Woman to Surpass $1 Million on ‘Jeopardy!’” Amy Schneider is, of course, not a woman.”

First, how is this a conspiracy theory if we consider any common definition of such? Second, why not just address the transgender issue head on? Why use conspiracy theories as a red herring type segue? Third, instead of addressing what he notes himself is an issue of concern, the political right and the evangelical propensity to believe in conspiracy theories, he pulls the “but what about…” card, which is the card a person plays when they have a very weak hand.

Here is his proposed definition of a conspiracy theory:

A conspiracy theory is a theory for how an alleged set of bizarre circumstances came to be or how obvious falsehoods gained mass acceptance due to the work of powerful actors.”

He changes the commonly accepted understanding of a conspiracy theory for an obvious reason, which I will address shortly. First however, the New York Times writer referring to Amy Schneider as a woman is hardly the result of a conspiracy theory. Even if we accept that to refer to Schneider as a woman is false or wrong, it wouldn’t make it the result of a conspiracy theory. People believe all sorts of false things for many reasons, but it isn’t necessarily due to a belief in a conspiracy theory.

Here is the reason, I believe, he changes the definition or understanding of a conspiracy theory: Dr. Walker’s aim is to try and get the reader to believe that having a different opinion about something is like believing a conspiracy theory. Why? Probably because he’s embarrassed that so many on the political right and too many white evangelicals (the readers of World Magazine) actually do believe in conspiracy theories and he needs to paint “liberals” with the same brush.

Nice try, but the attempt is very weak in logic/reasoning and almost laughable in the use, as an example, the subject of conspiracy theories, which only reminds most people of who has the true problem in that area. And all to make a point about an entirely different subject. Physician, heal thyself and thy own tribe first. Before you lecture us about what people can or cannot do or say about their own bodies (barring physically harming others), why not focus on your own tribe’s propensity to believe in what are commonly understood to be text-book type conspiracy theories–and ones that have led (January 6th) to actual physical violence and a terrible Christian witness?

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