David A. Glenewinkel II
9 May 2017
Use of Strategic Fallacies Within the Black Lives Matter Movement: Strategies and Implications
Through my research into the Black Lives Matter movement I have seen an abundance of fallacies on twitter, used by both members of the Black Lives Matter movement and those who oppose the organization. While the number of fallacies used is not unusual compared to any other intense social, political, or religious debate it was how the members of the Black Lives Matter movement and the organization itself reacted to these fallacies and how they utilized them, sometimes to interesting results. While much of the opposition were confronted for their use of fallacies, I did not notice BLM members being confronted as much in return. It surprised me. All fallacies are equally invalid right? So then how does one use of a fallacy get ridiculed and another applauded like a decisive victory? Is there a such thing as a strategically used fallacy? In this essay I focus on and analyze this interesting phenomena (focusing specifically on which fallacies are used, what kind of members are using them, and what effect they achieve), highlighting the strategies that are used that make this tactic successful, and the broader implications this insight has for BLM as a social movement and on the discipline rhetoric as a whole, with an special emphasis on contrasting the aristotelian school of rhetoric with the egyptian rhetorical model in light of these findings.
In my initial analysis of the Black Lives Matter movement, one of the first and most interesting demonstrations of the strategic use of fallacies comes from John Oliver’s segment on police militarization and the shooting in Ferguson on his show Last Week Tonight, despite the fact that it is not directly from BLM it is related to the movement and still relevant. Oliver’s monologue begins and ends with fallacies, though the first is better concealed than the last. The first is an ad hominem fallacy against the local government and police department of Ferguson specifically considering their response to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson . While this is mostly ridicule centered around their less than adequate response to the violence in Ferguson with the fallacies themselves acting as the punchline. The lines are, appropriately, met with laughter from the audience and lighten the tension concerning the grim topic. Oliver gets a pass on the first series of fallacies because he is a comedian and later gives evidence in the form of showing their responses, which validates his claims. Oliver then goes on to list evidence for racism within the police force at Ferguson and evidence for widespread police militarization, interspersed with jokes, most of them ridiculing the police’s handling of the situation and highlighting the absurd magnitude to which the police are being militarized. The second fallacy comes at the end as a use of the justice fallacy. Oliver sets this up by framing the governor's mandate of a curfew in Ferguson as patronizing, comparing him to a school principal ordering a timeout for the whole class due to the actions of a few individuals. He then flips the script and goes on to bring in the justice fallacy by claiming,“If even the governor can’t distinguish between the good and the bad elements of the community and has decided to punish everyone equally then that should go both ways. I know the police love their ridiculously unnecessary military equipment, so here’s another patronizing test, let’s take it all away from them and if they can make it through a whole month without killing a single unarmed black man then, and only then, can they get their f***ing toys back” (Ferguson, MO and Police Militarization: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)).This final “gotcha!” moment is met with applause and cheers from the audience and, in the moment, feels victorious. It serves to note that Oliver mixes fallacy with logical and evidence based arguments through the segment, thus blurring the lines between comedy, logical criticism, and fallacies. His segment could stand on the facts alone, the fallacies are just an entertaining addition with the latter serving as an emotion filled outlet for both Oliver and the audience. Oliver’s segment appeals to both logic, emotion, and ethics in order to convince a broader audience and hold their interest.
Scanning through twitter, namely tweets containing #BlackLivesMatter, #BLM and #BlackTwitter (to name a few) as well as the twitter pages for MillenialAU, Copwatch, and the official Black Lives Matter twitter page, I noticed a few interesting details. First, I noticed that the official, organization oriented twitter pages (MillenialAU, Copwatch, and the official Black Lives Matter twitter page) contained little to no fallacy usage, with Copwatch containing the most of all three with just 3 fallacies for the 50 tweets I looked at (though one was retweeted multiple times and reposted on the same page, which if counted brings the total up to 5). Most of the fallacies used by these organizations were retweets from other users and thereby were not counted to the organizations themselves. Unsurprisingly, most of the heavy fallacy usage came from individual users who were affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement in a less official capacity (as members and not organizers, or key spokespersons for the organization). Upon looking through Black Lives Matter affiliated hashtags, and several common twitter users who posted frequently using those hashtags, and focusing only on their tweets directly mentioning BLM or BLM related issues like police shootings, about 1 in every 10 tweets I combed through contained some form of fallacy or logically dubious argument, most of them hasty generalizations or anecdotal fallacies. To the organization’s credit most of the tweets pertaining to the Black Lives Matter movement and its related hashtags (excluding those against the movement, and spam posts) were dedicated to organizing and supporting protests, contained a string of related hashtags in order to direct traffic to related tweets, or gave links to news stories or other information, with fallacies appearing most often in response to fallacious criticism or in brief emotional statements like “cops hate kids” or “cops are sadists” that were often outraged responses to a specific incident that someone else tweeted about (@Copwatch). It is noteworthy that there was a distinct split in these fallacious posts, with them either being retweeted very little (if at all) or being retweeted a lot (more than 10 times). More often than not the tweets that were shared were brief, emotionally charged generalizations, while other fallacies faced little to no retweets (see author’s note).
This demonstrates something very interesting. Due to the nature of the tweets being retweeted and twitter’s algorithm (which likely has the number of retweets as a criteria for what ends up in their top tweets section) Black Lives Matter as a loose movement has the ability to ensure that only the tweets that have a lot of popular support are readily visible. The structure of the movement, which has no set hierarchy or leadership but a series of shifting spokespersons with varying degrees of influence within the organization and a loose set of guiding principles, is prone to change and has no formal criteria for membership, allowing anyone who uses the hashtag, attends a march, or simply states they are a member to claim membership. Due to the loose structure of the Black Lives Matter movement the movement maintains plausible deniability, giving it freedom to deny the acts or words of individual members as not a true reflection of the organization as a whole, thus allowing bad examples to be distanced from the movement without outright denying them membership. For example, if a fallacious tweet (that does not have popular support in the form of likes and retweets) comes to light, the organization can easily claim that the user who made the post does not represent the views and opinions of the entire organization. This allows them to only use the successful tweets and deny the unsuccessful as the mistakes of misguided or misinformed individuals. The Black Lives Matter movement’s structure, coupled with the retweet and like oriented system of twitter, can even be used to allow tweets that do not gain popularity to simply fade into the background or go unnoticed by the average twitter browser.
On the other hand, those who oppose the Black Lives Matter movement have no such defense because there is no well organized organization that exists for the central purpose of opposing to the Black Lives Matter movement. While organizations like the alt-right, and white supremacist groups may claim to fill that role these consist of many fragmented groups as well as individuals that do not identify with one particular group. Therein lies the weakness, while the Black Lives Matter movement is loosely organized it is still more organized than the movements that oppose it, thus giving it some of the advantages common to a structured organization while denying the burden of accountability for the acts and words of individual members or restrictive membership criteria. All there is to oppose the Black Lives Matter movement are individuals, who cannot hide behind an organization when they use a fallacious or poor argument. This is apparent in both twitter and pro-BLM articles that explicitly address the movement’s critics, with one outstanding example being an article for The Root titled, Whatever Happened to Black Lives Matter? by Michael Harriot. Most of the criticisms Mr. Harriot addresses focus on the movement’s opposition using fallacies, namely the strawman argument that BLM is a terrorist organization (Harriot). Because these critics lack a de facto organization to rally behind (the alt-right and white supremacists do not encompass all the movement's critics, after all) they lack the defensive strategies that BLM utilizes. This allows the organization to use fallacies (not carte blanche, but within a particular framework) while also condemning the use of fallacies against them.
The Black Lives Matter movement, not only utilizes their loose structure to strategically use fallacies and dodge being criticized for it, but they also use their knowledge of their audience and the format of social media itself as a defense. Few expect logical and nuanced sociopolitical arguments on twitter, after all 140 characters is not enough for a strong argument and few have the time or interest to invest in reading or writing multi-tweet rant. It is simply a restriction of format, and the central reason why twitter is known for its abundance of illogical and random posts, only a few degrees away from simple stream of consciousness. This expectation makes fallacy usage on twitter more acceptable than in an academic essay or news article. These expectations act as another defense against criticism for using fallacies. The audience on twitter is also dominated by young people, many of whom have, at the very most, a surface understanding of rhetorical devices like fallacies. This ignorance allows those involved in these fallacious arguments to not even realize they are using fallacies or recognize poor logic. This multi-layered defence against criticism concerning fallacy usage on twitter makes twitter the perfect place to use fallacious arguments with only a minimal risk of being called out for them. Even if one is called out on the use of a fallacy, the backlash is nothing significant enough to discourage future posts.
This, in turn, creates a scenario in which fallacies are no longer a rhetorical faux pas, but another argumentative strategy. Fallacies, especially hasty generalizations and anecdotal fallacies, allow people to draw sweeping, and often emotional, conclusions from isolated incidents or paint entire groups (like “murderous cops” or “racist whites”) in broad colorful strokes, foregoing nuanced arguments for the sake of using emotion to push others to action. One racist becomes the stereotype for an entire group of people, an archetype on which to pin anger and frustration at a complex and unjust system. Such generalizations exist as a way to vent, and people enjoy the degree of catharsis they feel when they let these feelings go. Though there are negative consequences to the spreading of such stereotypes, sometimes influencing claims of “racism against cops” or “racism against whites”. While these counter arguments are equally fallacious it is interesting how one fallacious argument can influence another, even in the case of opposing viewpoints. Additionally, fallacies often feel good to use, especially when one does not know they are using one. Fallacies are often short, emotional, and feel like a “gotcha!” or “mic-drop” moment in the argument (similar to John Oliver’s use of the justice fallacy). Fallacies feel definitive, like the final be-all-end-all argument to win all arguments. This evolution of the fallacy is especially interesting when viewed in light of Aristotelian (Greco-Roman) and Egypto-African schools of rhetorical thought. Within the system of Aristotelian rhetoric an appeal to logos (logic) is viewed as higher than an appeal to ethos (ethics) and especially higher than an appeal to pathos (emotion) (Aristotle). This is why, in western rhetorical thought, fallacies are viewed as faux paus to be avoided rather than methods to be exploited. According to the Egypto-African system of rhetoric, however, there is no distinction between appeals to logic, appeals to ethics, and appeals to emotion. The concept of Mdw nfr, which is defined as eloquent and effective speech, encompasses appeals to logic, emotion, and ethics with the intent of convincing a community to righteous action and balance, known as ma’at (Karenga). Mdw nfr has a particular focus on allowing anyone from any class of society to make positive changes in their community, despite their level of education. Such notions are more based on effect rather than the exact means and rules of discourse, and therefore has no explicit restrictions against fallacies. This evolution of the fallacy could be seen as a resurrection of this form of discourse in light of the current fallacy heavy, alternative fact era, in which successful persuasion rather than pure and perfect logic is the goal. The ends justify the means in this case.
This evolution carries interesting implications for Black Lives Matter as a social movement. On one hand, the organization is adapting to the format of twitter and the current alternative fact climate, and using unorthodox methods to appeal to audiences on both a logical, emotional, and ethical basis bringing in younger members who lack a knowledge of basic rhetorical methods. On one hand this is effective. On the other hand, in doing this, they are adding to the abundance of logically dubious arguments in the world and inadvertently normalizing the fallacy as just another rhetorical method. If other organizations, especially organizations that oppose the Black Lives Matter movement, catch on to the movement’s methods and are able to replicate them, Black Lives Matter will lose whatever advantages they currently have over their opposition, at least on the twitter front. This use of fallacies may also push those of us who are knowledgeable of rhetorical methods away from the movement, by the influx of logically dubious arguments. Already, according to the information I gathered combing through twitter, emotional appeals are beginning to outrank logical and even ethical appeals (see author’s note). In the end I believe that if the use of fallacies continues or increases, as my findings project it to be, the movement will begin to fragment, with the more educated and logic driven members forming a more solidified hierarchy within the organization and possibly making efforts to steer the organization’s tactics in a more logically based direction in order to legitimize itself and unify in the face of renewed opposition. This may be done through creating a formalized path to membership, confronting members who use dubious arguments, or simply refusing to retweet or like posts containing fallacious argument. The less educated and more emotionally driven members will likely be against this shift in tone and either leave the organization (though they may still support the same cause) or oppose the burgeoning hierarchy within the movement, likely on the grounds that such a hierarchy will stifle the movement’s progress, restrict free speech within the movement, or by critiquing the members that seek to reinvent the movement. It is also possible that those that oppose the Black Lives Matter movement may unify under a particular movement, or that an existing movement that opposes the Black Lives Matter movement will face an increase in membership, thus creating more difficulties for the Black Lives Matter movement in the long run. If such a schism does not occur then fallacies will likely continue to permeate the movement until the methods they use to defend these tactics from criticism (relying on sorting information by popularity, or the format restrictions of twitter and audience expectations of the format) begin to falter. If this occurs then Black Lives Matter will simply cease to benefit from the strategic use of fallacies and be more vulnerable to criticisms based on fallacy usage, leaving fallacies to become rhetorical faux paus again. Regardless of whether my predicted outcomes prove correct or not, the phenomena of strategic fallacy usage is worth further research, both as it relates to the Black Lives Matter movement and how it relates to rhetoric in general.
All in all I agree with the Black Lives Matter movement, though the tactics of some members, I believe, will be harmful to the movement in the long run. I believe the Black Lives Matter Movement will soon be faced with the dilemma of formalizing their structure or facing severe criticism, the latter of which may greatly weaken or even destroy the movement. In conclusion, the tactics of some members of BLM have begun to normalize the use of fallacies by exploiting twitter’s format limitations and exploiting BLM’s loose organizational structure. This has allowed sound logical arguments to be mixed in and diluted by fallacious appeals to emotion, thus sending a mixed message. These actions will, I believe, either increase the normalization of the fallacy (making it just another part of argument), or cause the movement to take action to prevent their movement from being criticized for making logically dubious claims. I believe that such a phenomena is also blurring the lines between logic, ethics, and emotional appeals, reviving a bastardized form of the Egypto-African rhetorical concept of mdw nfr as a method, or the result of, allowing emotionally driven individuals to participate in discourse without any knowledge of rhetorical forms and how to use such form responsibly and with the consequences for misuse being greatly reduced. This shift can be viewed as the evolution of rhetoric through a shift in how most view fallacies, or, as I interpret it, a justification for spreading logically fallacious arguments that will prove damaging to an otherwise noble movement.
Aristotle. Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. N.p.: ReadaClassic.com, 2010. Print.
@Copwatch. Web log post. Twitter.com. 11 Nov. 2016. Web. 9 May 2017.
Harriot, Michael. "Whatever Happened to Black Lives Matter?" The Root. www.theroot.com, 16
Feb. 2017. Web. 09 May 2017.
Karenga, Maulana. "Nommo, Kawiada, and Communicative Practice." The Global Intercultural
Communication Reader. By Molefi K. Asante and Yoshitaka Miike. Comp. Jing Yin. New York: Routledge, 2014. 211-25. Print.
Ferguson, MO and Police Militarization: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO).
Perf. John Oliver. Youtube. Last Week Tonight, 17 Aug. 2014. Web. 9 May 2017.
Author’s Note: Data from twitter was gathered from May 5, 2017 to May 9, 2017 through looking at random posts from the twitter profiles @Copwatch, @MillenialAU, and @Blklivesmatter. I also looked at a random assortment of tweets containing the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter, #BLM, #BlackBlogger, #TamirRice, #EdwardCrawford, and #DarrenSeals. In total I looked at well over 200 posts (sorting out all anti-BLM tweets). I am unsure how to cite such sources (as it was a largely random sampling compiled over multiple hashtags and multiple posts by multiple users at different times). In order to avoid any appearance of plagiarism and to show no attempt or intent to plagiarise I have included this note as a substitute for a formal citation or series of citations. Those tweets that are directly quoted are included in the citations above, all others are part of this random sampling. None of the tweets mentioned in this essay are my intellectual property and I do not claim ownership of them, I only read them for an overview of what fallacies were used and to what effect. If we decide to post this essay on the class blog I would like to discuss how to handle this, or even if a citation is necessary.