The anti-trans bathroom bills legislatures have been passing or proposing lately are obvious discrimination—yet, for an apparently significant group of people, they seem to be about protection. For weeks now I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around how anyone could think these bills did anything useful; how anyone could see them as something other than an assault on the liberties of trans people specifically. The flimsy rationalization that we have to keep people “safe” from “predators” seemed farcical—could anyone actually believe that?
Of course, part of the answer lies with bad logic. It’s easy to play the game of spotting logical fallacies in other people’s arguments, but what I sometimes forget is that bad logic feels convincing, even when stopping to think about it clearly would destroy it. The argument that we need to protect people from supposed trans predators is nonsense, but it doesn’t feel like it. Until you stop to think about it and realize that there are zero incidents of trans people doing anything untoward in public bathrooms (unlike, say, republican legislators).
The heart of why this trans predator argument is nonsense is a formal logical fallacy: the existential fallacy. This is one of those deep and tricky bits of logic that’s hard to get at. If you want to dive into it, check out this episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast; but the shorthand version is that you can make true statements about untrue things, and then use those to argue about true things.
For example, trans people assaulting other people in bathrooms would be bad. That’s a true statement, but not a true thing—trans people in bathrooms are like most all other people in bathrooms: wanting to be left alone. But the statement itself is true, because the underlying premise is the problem. So pair it with another argument, that it’s part of the role of legislators to make sure people are safe from predation. This is a true statement about a true thing. But then you can pair up those two and argue that we need to legislate who can use which bathroom to prevent trans people from assaulting other people. That’s the existential fallacy: an argument based on true statements, but with an untrue thing at the bottom of it.
If that breaks your brain a little bit, remember, we’re really bad at assessing truth. I heard recently a pithy way of putting it, that our brains care about continuity first, narrative second, and accuracy third. Bad logic plays into that by satisfying our continuity and narrative, and just being a bit inaccurate at the end.
And yet. I totally buy that for the average citizen who hears this argument from leaders of their party, it is convincing. But I have a hard time believing that legislators don’t know it’s a smoke screen for bigotry. And I have a hard time believing that because they use arguments like this all the damn time.
How about gun violence? Spot the problem: Guns are a way we protect ourselves from tyranny, so the government coming and taking them would be bad. Searchable databases of gun owners and research about gun violence would enable the government to track gun owners. So we can’t let the government research guns or know who has them. But no one is coming to take our guns. It’s an untrue thing.
What about voter ID laws? Same bad logic: Rampant voter fraud is bad for democracy. Requiring ID at the polls prevents anyone from voting fraudulently. So we should require voter ID to prevent rampant fraud. But there is no rampant fraud. We all agree it would be bad, but it’s not happening. And voter ID laws have an obvious ulterior motive: they suppress voters along party lines, and legislators occasionally even admit that that’s the point.
Like I said, I understand how the average person, when they hear one of these bad arguments, would find them initially convincing. They are convincing, because the lie inside them is a few steps removed. All you need is a little emotional weight to carry you through.
But I seriously doubt that the people constructing these arguments honestly believe them. When you put one of these arguments together, you have to start from the beginning. You don’t just say “we have to stop trans predators from assaulting people in bathrooms,” because trans predators are not a thing. They’re a fantasy. You have to invent that fantasy before you can use it in your argument.
Which means, in my attempt to understand how people could believe these things, I come out with two answers.
Why do people believe these arguments? That’s bad logic. That’s understandable.
But why do people create arguments like this? That’s not an understandable mistake—it’s malice.
Image Credit: Torbakhopper