Nov 07, 2016

Academic Writing 1 is a class about the art of argumentation. I do my best every autumn to explain this to a room full of nervous Chinese freshmen. “Writing is thinking on the page. Critical thinking is pattern recognition. Beliefs should be based on empirical evidence.” They stare, wide-eyed, taking in the first class of the semester.

Donald Trump comes up frequently in a class about argumentation. Most students know who he is, but as many of them are rather apolitical, they don’t often express their opinions. According to a recent study by Pew Research Center, only 22 percent of Chinese people view Trump favorably, while 40 percent view him unfavorably. When statistical rounding is considered, that leaves 39 percent who have no stance on the subject.

I recently asked an American colleague if he had more in common with his Chinese students or an American Trump supporter. After a brief pause, he answered, “My Chinese students.” Uneducated people support Trump, while educated people have the ability to see through the racist, xenophobic scaremongering. At least, this is the narrative we educated liberals tell ourselves. 

The 2016 American presidential election is the focus of our most recent class on argumentative fallacies. We discuss ad hominem attacks (“crooked Hillary”), appeals to false authority (why a successful businessman will naturally make a successful president), bandwagon arguments (Trump only tweeting positive poll results), and in-crowd appeals (Clinton’s attack ad that asks women, “Is this the president we want for our daughters?”) I explain how the veiled threat fallacy is no longer veiled, as Clinton and Trump have both promised an American apocalypse if the other side wins. 

I teach my students the word “demagogue.” I ask for historical examples, and they respond with “Stalin” and “Hitler.” I ask if Chinese politicians use fear as a rhetorical weapon, and several students nod in agreement. I explain that it’s a common tactic; fear can be a politician’s most powerful ally. Someone has to exist to protect “us” from “them.”

The complex truth is that we are all human beings: the educated, the uneducated, American, Chinese. I hope to give students the tools to see through dehumanization, to understand that the other is not someone to be feared.

I read an excerpt from Trump’s convention speech as an example of the hasty generalization fallacy: “On Sunday, more police were gunned down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Three were killed, and four were badly injured. An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans.” I ask the students if an attack on those police officers is an attack on me. We conclude that no, it isn’t. “So what’s the underlying argument here?” I ask. “What’s really going on?”

A student in the back row brings up the example of Chinese fishermen being arrested by the Philippine Coast Guard. “Isn’t that an attack on China?” he asks. I say: “What do you think? Were you attacked? Did Filipino missiles rain down on Pudong?” The class laughs, and the student answers, “No.” But he doesn’t give up. “They were Chinese citizens,” he says. 

I try to take the discussion deeper. “What’s the underlying argument here? What were those arrests really about?” The students shout out answers: “The sea.” “Those islands.” “Territory.” 

“Exactly,” I say. “The real argument is about Chinese power. The only reason anyone cares about the fishermen is because the fishermen advance a narrative. ‘Them’ attacking ‘us.’”

I write the word “stereotypes” on the board and ask the class what Japanese people are like. A student shouts “dogs,” and the class laughs. I hope they’re laughing at the absurdity of the slur, but based on the way Japanese people are sometimes portrayed in Chinese media, I’m not entirely sure. “And why do we stereotype?” The class quiets. “Everyone stereotypes. We all do it.” I explain that whenever a Chinese person spits in front of me on the sidewalk, I think how disgusting Chinese people are. “But then a voice in my head says that that’s too simple. The Chinese people are a large, complex group. It’s a false generalization.”

I repeat the question and ask the students to imagine they are living 100,000 years ago. “We see a bear, but bears are new to us, and no one knows what they are. It walks into the room and begins to eat a student.” The student closest to the door protests, and the class laughs. “A week later, I see another bear. Do I need to go up and shake its hand to see if it’s dangerous?” The class laughs at the suggestion. “Of course not. We stereotype because the human brain is lazy. We generalize because inspecting every bear is too much work.”

“Oversimplification is our brain’s way of trying to make sense of a complex world.” I point at the board behind me. “The underlying pattern with nearly every fallacy is that we don’t want to think. We prefer simple answers because they’re easier to understand.” The students see the pattern, but I want them to internalize it. I want to reach them on a visceral level.

“I’m sick of talking about American politics,” I say. “Let’s talk about Chinese politics.” The students sit up. I walk to the first row, make eye contact with as many students as I can, and ask as bluntly as possible, “Is the Communist Party good?” Shock. Discomfort. A handful of students race to answer “Yes,” but one student shouts an emphatic “No.” I let their responses hang for a moment. “Now what’s wrong with that question?” The answer dawns on a young woman in the front row. “It’s too simple,” she says. 

“Right. The Communist Party is neither good nor bad,” I explain. “The Communist Party is complex. Has the Communist Party done terrible things to the Chinese people? Yes. Has the Communist Party also done wonderful things for the Chinese people? Absolutely. But look at how quickly our brains race toward the simplest possible answers.” I gesture at the board. “These fallacies are dangerous because they’re seductive. We want to believe anything that will make our lives easier to understand. We want simple answers.”

It was the impulse to be seduced by logical fallacies that made me ask my colleague if he had more in common with his Chinese students than a Trump supporter. I wanted a simple explanation for the rise of an American demagogue, and so I sought personal confirmation that people believe Trump’s rhetoric because they never went to university, because they never took a class on argumentation. To me, “they” thus became uneducated people who believe claims without evidence. “We,” the educated, believe in facts. “They” believe conspiracy theories peddled by racist websites. “We” believe in science and logic. 

Academic Writing 1 illustrates that dehumanizing the “other” is simply another fallacy. It allows us to dismiss those we disagree with because they might threaten our values or identities. The complex truth is that we are all human beings: the educated, the uneducated, American, Chinese. I hope to give students the tools to see through dehumanization, to understand that the other is not someone to be feared, but someone to understand, someone to learn from.

American voters are on the verge of deciding the outcome of one of the most polarizing presidential elections ever witnessed. The result will have a lasting impact not only on China, but also on the international community as a whole. A black-and-white portrayal of the issues is misguided and deceitful. The world is an increasingly complex place. I urge my students to distrust anyone who tells them otherwise.

(Header image: Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (L) and Republican nominee Donald Trump take part in the final presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, U.S., Oct. 19, 2016. Joe Raedle/AFP/VCG)