Saturday, November 6, 2010

Reductio ad Absurdum: So Is it OK for A Child To Dress Up as Dan White?

Preliminary Note

In this time of Political Correctness, I entirely expect someone to miss the point of the article below and accuse me of holding the views which I merely provide as demonstrating what is wrong with the logical conclusion the attitude the article cited suggests.

So let me be clear, no I don't think the attitude of "it's none of your damn business" is a valid one, and this article is intending to show why it is not valid.

So let me be clear: My answer to the question asked in the title of my article is, "NO, it is NOT all right."

I suspect the accusations may fly anyway, but at least I have the preliminary note to point to when I suggest such a person has not read my article before replying.


When it comes to dealing with logical claims in the blogosphere, it's hard to do a reductio ad absurdum anymore.  Somebody is actually advocating a thing you were about to propose as why an idea is ridiculous to begin with.

(The reductio ad absurdum is to point out the flaws in an argument by taking it to the logical extreme if we grant that the argument is true).

However, I will attempt to employ the reductio ad absurdum all the same and hope that someone has not already seriously proposed what I offer in refutation.

The Article In Question

The jumping off point is this example of an article, which someone linked on Facebook and showed up on my page.  I'm sure the intent was to promote tolerance, but the article seems to be nothing more than a showcase for illogic by the author of the piece.

The premise is a blogger's 5 year old son decides he wants to go to a Halloween as Daphne from Scooby Doo.   As far as it goes, this is not too unusual.  Children of that age are really too young to understand the connotations of dressing up as a different gender.  So the mother obliges him and gets him a costume.

The Initial Questionable Decision  

The blog's author describes it as follows:

So a few weeks before Halloween, Boo decides he wants to be Daphne from Scooby Doo, along with his best friend E. He had dressed as Scooby a couple of years ago.  I was hesitant to make the purchase, not because it was a cross gendered situation, but because 5 year olds have a tendency to change their minds. After requesting a couple of more times, I said sure and placed the order. He flipped out when it arrived. It was perfect.

Then as we got closer to the actual day, he stared to hem and haw about it. After some discussion it comes out that he is afraid people will laugh at him. I pointed out that some people will because it is a cute and clever costume. He insists their laughter would be of the ‘making fun’ kind. I blow it off. Seriously, who would make fun of a child in costume?

So in other words, the child impulsively chooses a costume and then begins to have second thoughts.  His mother overrides him, asking "who would make fun of a child in a costume?"

Anyone who remembers that age in school knows that anyone who goes out of the norm tends to get mocked by their peers.  It is a natural thing, and has no such motivations such as "homophobia."  But essentially, she overrides him and goes to the Party as Daphne.

The problems she has is not with the children (again, not entirely unexpected.  5 year olds are still young enough to not think about this too much), but with some parents.

Taking Offense With Offense

Mother gets offended with the fact some other mothers are put out, and calls them bullies.  She describes their actions in what is essentially a Straw Man argument:

But here’s the point, it is none of your damn business.

If you think that me allowing my son to be a female character for Halloween is somehow going to ‘make’ him gay then you are an idiot. Firstly, what a ridiculous concept. Secondly, if my son is gay, OK. I will love him no less. Thirdly, I am not worried that your son will grow up to be an actual ninja so back off.

If my daughter had dressed as Batman, no one would have thought twice about it. No one.

But it also was heartbreaking to me that my sweet, kind-hearted five year old was right to be worried. He knew that there were people like A, B, and C. And he, at 5, was concerned about how they would perceive him and what would happen to him.

Given that the author-mom did not describe anyone as saying that dressing as Daphne would make her son gay, we have to either assume she is omitting important information relevant to the story or else that the author-mom is merely attributing this view to them without actually knowing this to be a fact… in other words projecting her own concerns to others.

Essentially, the mother is declaring that her standards are all that matter, and anyone who voices disapproval over her standards is being intolerant

And Now… The Reductio Ad Absurdum

So lets look at the Reductio ad absurdum.  A South Park episode from the 1990s entitled "Pinkeye" features character Eric Cartman dressed up like Hitler for Halloween because he asked his mother for the costume.  You can see a brief clip HERE.  (Some readers might find the language offensive).

Back then, people could laugh at the poor taste of Eric Cartman's mother.  Today… someone might actually try to defend such a costume on the grounds that the mother is the one who calls the shots, and the problem is, using this author-mom's comments, they could. 

So let's apply the reductio ad absurdum to her argument.

Logically Speaking, if "None of Your Damn Business" is True, it means NOBODY can Complain

If it is "none of your damn business," then it is none of your damn business if a child wants to dress up as Hitler, or, perhaps closer to the title of the blog I am commenting on ("My Son is Gay"), dressing up as Dan White (who killed Harvey Milk in 1978).  If a woman wants her son to dress up in a costume as someone from Westboro Baptist Church, complete with sign and if we accept the "it is none of your damn business" argument as acceptable, there is nothing we can say.

I suspect most of you (and hopefully the author-mom) would object to a parent who had such a lack of judgment.  However I suspect some of you might say "That's different!"  However, when pressed, I suspect the argument would be "It's different to dress up as Daphne than it is to dress up as Hitler!"  Quite true… but entirely missing the point.

The mother's argument is essentially that she is not bothered by her son dressing up as Daphne, therefore it is nobody's business that he does, and anyone who is offended is intolerant.  If we accept this as an absolute norm, then perhaps people should have cut Prince Harry some slack for dressing as a Nazi.  After all, to apply the logic of this author, if he didn't mind, what gives anyone else the right to object?

Nobody believes "None of Your Damn Business" as an Absolute, so who decides where the line is drawn?

However, we don't accept this as an absolute norm, and rightfully so.  We do recognize that there are certainly standards, and that parents who fail to use good judgment when it comes to what their children do, especially in public, will trouble others.

So who decides where the line is drawn?  Remember, if there are no objective standards and all is subjective, then dressing like Hitler, dressing like Daphne… it's all the same, it depends on the individual choice.

However, if there is an objective sense of right and wrong, then one does have the right to get offended if a mother sends her son to school in such a way that strikes others as problematic — provided this offense is grounded in objective values and not personal taste

It is personal taste if I object to someone coming to school dressed all in white.  It is not merely personal taste if the student coming to school all dressed in white is dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

By What Standards?

So what the author of this "My Son is Gay" piece does wrong here is to give the impression that so long as she is all right with a thing, nobody has a right to complain.  However, it is not merely enough to say "Whatever society sanctions" either.  Apartheid in South Africa was sanctioned by those who were in power.  Exploitation of illegal aliens is largely sanctioned here in the United States.  I could go on, but I think these are enough to demonstrate the problem with assuming that what society approves of or tolerates is not necessarily acceptable.

Arguing from Truth, Not Emotion

You'll notice I haven't really said anything of approval or disapproval about the child's choice of costume.  This is intentional.  The point is, if we want to discuss whether a thing is appropriate or inappropriate, let's begin with seeking to establish what is true.  What were the exact position's of these mothers the author-mom objects to?  On what basis do they hold it?  For that matter, what is the motive of the author-mom in letting the child dress up in this costume to begin with?  Indulgence?  A belief in allowing the child maximum self expression?  Using her child to promote her own ideas of tolerance?

Who knows?  The author has really given us no information which would allow us to make an informed decision over who is in the right.  To attempt to make such a determination is the fallacy known as hypothesis contrary to fact: Treating a theory as fact, when in fact we would be merely assuming a motive).

Unfortunately, either the author-mom has left out crucial information or else she does not know either and is merely assuming.  So much outrage without actually asking "What exactly do you mean by this?"  Everyone assumes they know what this is about, and mothers only identified as "A", "B" and "C" are mocked and ridiculed without us ever knowing whether it is right to ridicule them or not.

You can call this what you like.

Just don't expect me to call it logical or rational.

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