Fact-free arguments: how the case against refugees reveals widespread implicit racism

At this point, it’s a well-established and impartial fact that the attacks on Paris were committed by Europeans, and that not one of the attackers was a refugee.

In fact, the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled to Europe (and the millions more in Turkey, Lebanon, and other Middle Eastern nations) left their homes largely because of type of indiscriminate and contemptible violence which was visited upon Parisians last Friday night had become intolerably (and dangerously) commonplace in their cities and towns [CW: graphic images].

These are plain and simple facts. And you won’t hear them referred to – or even acknowledged – by opponents of an increase in the number of refugees taken in by this country.

In fact, on the contrary, what you’ll hear is a lot of subtle (and some not-so-subtle) suggestions that the refugees and the terrorists are in some ways indistinguishable, and that to accept the former is to also accept the latter.

Some of this discussion is openly reprehensible. New Jersey Governor and struggling Presidential candidate Chris Christie’s desperate-for-a-headline statement that not even orphan refugees should be allowed into the United States is a stand-out of the genre, as is the increasingly-terrifying Donald Trump’s musing that Syrian refugees may be a terrorist Trojan horse, and that as President he would create a national database to register all American Muslims (a stand he has since backed away from).

Statements like these, and the hate-filled crimes that go along with them, are, as I said the other day, the easy shit to spot and condemn and call out.

But a lot of the time, the anti-refugee animus is a lot more subtle.

Consider, for instance, this lead paragraph in an Ottawa Citizen article from a few days back:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to follow through with his commitment to withdraw Canadian warplanes from Iraq and Syria and to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees despite Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris. [my bold]

The tone is set for all that follows, and the implication is clear: the fact that people (who weren’t refugees) who were affiliated with the Islamic State killed dozens of Parisians is somehow supposed to indicate that bringing in refugees (who aren’t associated with the Islamic State) is now somehow a worse idea than it was before.

The problem with this logic should be obvious, but let’s spell it out painfully: the Citizen at no point demonstrates any link between the case for refugees and the attacks on Paris. They insinuate that it’s possible that one of the Paris attackers was a refugee (which was later proved false), and that therefore there might be a grand ISIS plot to plant “sleeper agents” in refugee camps in the long-shot hope that they’ll be among the extremely lucky few who get plucked out of Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan and get brought into Western nations, but they provide literally no evidence that such a plot exists, because there is no such evidence.

So when they say that Trudeau will push ahead with his refugee plan despite the Paris attacks, they’re engaging in a total non-sequitur.

They may as well have said something like,

“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to follow through with his commitment to electoral reform despite an ongoing expenses scandal in the Senate,”

or,

“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to follow through with his commitment to amend Bill C-51 despite allegations of sexual abuse by RCMP officers in a northern Quebec town,”

or,

“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to follow through with his commitment to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% of Canadians despite Justin Bieber’s new single reaching #1 in the charts.”

The category errors in these statements are transparently obvious; though each is discussing the same broad category (governmental bodies, oversight of  law enforcement agencies, and rich Canadian douchebags, respectively), the particular issues in the first and second halves of each statement aren’t closely or causally connected. The existence of the latter issue, logically, does nothing to discourage the resolution of the former issue.

And when looked at in this light, the Citizen’s lede looks equally ridiculous.

But it made it through editing and remains atop this article six days later, even though I’m certainly not the first person to point out that it’s nonsense.

I’d suggest that this is because, from a certain point of view, the illogic inherent in this sentence is masked by implicit assumptions about the categories being discussed.

That is to say, if you are (consciously or not) strongly associating Muslims with terrorists, Islam with  medieval fanaticism, poor people with crime, people in need with irresponsibility, people of colour with inferiority, and/or foreign languages and cultures with a threat to your way of life and freedom – if this is the set of implicit assumptions that you’re bringing to this conversation – then the Citizen’s lede is going to scan just fine for you. You’re not gonna trip over the big obvious fallacy right there at the end of the sentence, because the first half (Trudeau’s response to ISIS/the festering conflict over in the Middle East) and the second half (ISIS-affiliated fanatics) are going to seem to you to be part of the same small causally-inclusive category. There is, from your perspective, no category error.

And so, when you see somebody engaging in fact-free attacks on the planned influx of refugees, know this: their implicit racism is showing.


Fallacy Friday is a weekly discussion of logical inconsistencies, definitional ambiguities, and other unreasonableness in news coverage. You can reach me at matt@thealfalfafield.com or leave a comment below.

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