One of the most important aspects of teaching is the use of apt examples to illustrate key points. If an educator fails to show how a subject is applicable to real problems, students may find it abstract, pointless, and unworthy of their attention.

It is particularly crucial to remember this when discussing fallacies. We commit fallacies—errors in reasoning—on a daily basis, but studying them in the context of logic or critical thinking can lead to one’s pupils treating them as academic issues, rather than faults which can negatively affect many aspects of our lives. It is very fortunate, therefore, that Henry Schulte has taken to the pages of today’s Noozhawk to demonstrate vividly how we frequently commit fallacies in our ordinary thinking.

Schulte draws his examples from a fictional polemic against immigration reform. His fictional author, railing against the imagined evils brought about by undocumented immigration, makes an series of fallacies that are highly instructive.

First Schulte addresses the appeal to ridicule. His op-ed writer tells a story about moving to China on a visa and remaining there for 20 years, presumably against Chinese law. When his undocumented status is discovered, he is arrested. He sarcastically laments his plight:

What I don’t get is after all these years of living and working there, how come I couldn’t get a bunch of free stuff and become a Chinese citizen?

Sound ridiculous? It is.

By treating healthcare, security, voting rights, and other benefits of citizenship as “free stuff”, the (invented) opinion writer trivializes the often life-saving rights conferred to citizens and denied to others in a cynical attempt to convince readers to ignore their importance and instead think of the less-privileged as moochers looking for gifts.

It’s of course not ridiculous to think that a person who has lived somewhere for two decades and become part of that society has some claim to stay, but Schulte shows here how the impression that it is can be easily produced in an incautious mind.

The next example is not of a fallacy, strictly speaking, but it is noteworthy all the same:

We already have a process [for immigration] in place that has been working just fine for those who follow the law.

This is simply bullshit. The claim that the existing immigration system is perfectly functional is obviously false, but our devious (and thankfully nonexistent) author presents this claim with such confidence that some readers may take it as fact. Those who see through it will likely treat the rest of the article with skepticism, so this sort of flagrant bullshitting is a risky strategy.

Schulte next provides two passages that exemplify the straw man fallacy:

The left has hammered us for so long with the need for immigration reform that it’s made many believe it’s now a requirement. And they try to guilt those who are opposed as racist and cold-hearted who don’t care about the lives of other people. What about the lives and welfare of American citizens?

The debate isn’t over whether immigrants work hard or contribute something to the American society; it’s how come we’re being forced to change our policy to accommodate one group over another.

Here our delusional author (the product of a truly creative mind) combines another bit of bullshit—the outrageous claim that white Americans are being oppressed by undocumented immigrants—with a gross distortion of the position held by those who advocate immigration reform. Comprehensive reform—even the sort of idealistic reform that would allow free movement across borders—is not an attempt to “accommodate” one group over another. Nor do those who seek such reform care more about immigrants than citizens. Reform activists care about the welfare of all people, and loathe discriminatory policies (such as ours) that treat immigrants and non-citizens as second-class.

Next we get what I’ll call the fallacy of ambiguity. Our imaginary writer has turned to the invented problem known as “Who Will Pay For All These Lazy Immigrants?” He claims that they will not themselves contribute via taxes, because “already half the country doesn’t pay a dime as it is.”

What is true is that about half of US citizens do not pay income tax; but most of these individuals still pay sales taxes, property taxes, Social Security taxes, and other non-income taxes. Schulte’s fake demagogue intends for readers to understand him to be referring to all taxes, when his statement is only anything close to true if he is taken to be talking about only the income tax.

Next he bemoans the supposedly uncivilized nature of immigrants, exposing us in the process to the spotlight fallacy:

And keep in mind there is a vast segment of these immigrants responsible for domestic violence, gangs, drugs, drunken driving and human smuggling. You only need to read the paper to see the result of this everyday. This isn’t racist, it’s factual.

Regrettably, for the hardworking portion of immigrants this bad element taints the entire group, but in the end we all suffer for it and it’s only getting worse.

Mainstream media traffics in sensationalism and race-baiting, so it is thoroughly unsurprising that stories involving crime, especially crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, receive a great deal of coverage. But it is obviously fallacious to take that unbalanced coverage and use it to make a gross generalization about immigrants as a group.

This fallacy is followed by a series of bold rhetorical moves. Our imaginary polemicist recognizes that his characterization of immigrants will be seen as a cheap bit of racist fear-mongering, so:

  1. He insists that his racist claims are in fact just factual descriptions of how the world is. This move was performed most audaciously by Herrnstein and Murray, and has recently come to the public consciousness again thanks to Heroic Freethinker Jason Richwine. Of course, this is just more bullshit.

  2. He actually admits that he’s making an unfair (and racist) generalization about a class of individuals, but—regrettably!—insists that it’s justified to do so. It’s a truly breathtaking maneuver.

Our last fallacy is some twisted variation on the sunk cost fallacy:

And how is this [immigration reform] fair for all those who have struggled through the legal process, waited years and spent thousands of dollars to do it the right way? For one thing, it diminishes their pride in becoming an American citizen after all their hard efforts. They would have to ask themselves why they bothered.

Exactly! It wouldn’t be fair to the other immigrants, who had the time and resources to navigate the nightmarish immigration process, if all of a sudden it was made easier for everyone to cross borders. They spent thousands of dollars and waited decades to come to the United States, and now other people don’t have to? Why even bother coming after all?

Because in the world of Harry Schulte, you’re only doing well if someone else is doing much, much worse.