The Genetic Fallacy and the Culture War

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

The culture war is a veritable bonanza of logical fallacies. There are tons of ad hominems, straw people, slippery slopes, red herrings, and false dilemmas. These fallacies are not confined to one side or the other. This just seems to be how the culture war is fought. Of all the fallacies that get thrown around, the one that bothers me the most is the genetic fallacy.

The genetic fallacy has nothing to do with genetics, or genes, except for the fact that they derive from the same word, genesis, as in beginning. To quote Wikipedia, “The genetic fallacy (also known as the fallacy of origins or fallacy of virtue) is a fallacy of irrelevance in which arguments or information are dismissed or validated based solely on their source of origin rather than their content.” So, saying Volkswagen must be an evil company because it was founded by Nazis is committing the genetic fallacy. It says nothing about what the company is like now. It may be evil, or it may not. Its founding is completely beside the point.

In the culture war, it seems as if each side is trying to out-genesis the other. It can be seen most obviously in the way the two sides use history. Whenever either side mentions the Founding Fathers, it’s a good bet they are about to commit the genetic fallacy. We’ll set aside the question of whether the facts being talked about are true or false. Conservatives like to talk about the Founders’ intentions, especially as they were drafting the Constitution. That’s completely irrelevant when dealing with modern problems. They basically argue that the Founders wouldn’t approve of x, therefore x is wrong. First of all, the Constitution has been amended 27 times. Each of those amendments is a legitimate part of the Constitution, whatever the Founders would have thought of them. Secondly, our society has undergone radical changes in the last 200+ years. Appealing to the founding of our country is nothing more than tired, empty rhetoric.

On the left, they also like to talk about the Founders. Only for the left, the Founders are slaveholders and misogynists. On the left, they are also likely to point out that the Founders were snobs. They didn’t trust most of the population in their supposed democracy. The basic argument is that because the country was founded by scummy people, it follows that the country right now is scummy. Except that doesn’t follow for the same reasons the conservative argument doesn’t work.

Now, it is entirely possible that our country is currently scummy or on the wrong track. The key is that scumminess and wrong trackitude has nothing to do with the Founding Fathers. If these problems are problems, they are current problems with current causes.

I think the reason the genetic fallacy bothers me so much is it doesn’t feel like a fallacy. After all the people who use it marshal facts for their arguments. Facts lend legitimacy to what is being said even if those facts are completely irrelevant to the issue at hand. Modern problems need modern solutions. It’s time we stop looking to the country’s origins for help.

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