Fallacies come so easily to our lips and fingertips as we try to push our opponent’s position into the dim light of the Illogical, or the outer darkness of the Wrong. Even if the position doesn’t directly impact us, we still like to summon a handy fallacy and maybe repeat it a few times. I’ve already written several posts on a list of fallacies (including the Scriptural kind) that I’ve seen pop up, but I wanted to devote a post to this one which I often see pop up: The Genetic Fallacy.
The Genetic Fallacy goes about disproving/proving (or suggesting the implausibility/plausibility of) a position by explaining where the position comes from.
One way I’ve seen the genetic fallacy employed is with statements like: “My great grandfather was a Democrat, my grandfather was a Democrat and my father was a Democrat. They stood for the American People; and that meant Democrat.” Now it may be true that your family stood for the American People and it may be true that they’re Democrats—but it’s not true to say that being Democrat automatically meant that they stood for the American People. And even if being Democrat does mean that one stands for the American People, it is wrong to arrive at that conclusion because your family was Democrats. There has to be a premise there that first establishes that every single Democrat stands for the American People. If that premise remains uncontested, then the second premise would have to establish that your family members were Democrats.
Here’s another example. Joey was raised in a household where his mother abused him while forcing him to wear a dress while she wore pants. Let’s say Joey writes a book disproving feminism and its ideals. What might we say about the book? I imagine people automatically writing the book off as being horrendously skewed on account of his childhood; Joey was abused by a woman and that’s why he wrote his book against feminism.
But the origin of his anti-feminist ideals has absolutely nothing to do with the conclusions he arrives at in his book. It could be true that his anti-feminist agenda is spot-on—his environment may have influenced him but his conclusions as truth statements are predicated upon being true or false, not about where they came from.
What if you and I were in a room and I flipped a coin twenty times. I look (it landed on Heads) and put a mark in one of two columns. After twenty times flipping, tallying up the marks, I tell you “there is someone talking about us right now”.
You saw how I arrived at my conclusion and you know that I am saying it because it landed on heads X amount of times, but it doesn’t impact the truth of someone speaking about us or not. The two have absolutely nothing to do with one another. If we were in a room surrounded by two thousand people very involved with what we were doing, you would ignore my coin-flipping and paper and decided “ah, well, the way he got there was wrong—but it coincided with truth.” Inversely, if my tally wound up resulting in “No one is speaking about us right now” you would understand where I drew my conclusion, but you would verify the truthfulness of the situation by the reality of the members in the room.
Remove the two thousand people, close all the doors and set up one two way mirrors, and you quickly realize the real condition of these types of scenarios. My coin flipping stands independently of the truth—no matter how I got there.
The Genetic Fallacy finds a very cozy home in Christian discussions, as well. In an effort to disprove another Christian’s position, the explanation of the origin (or the mindset) of the position is offered. Be it a fundamentalist background, a liberal Jesus Seminar background, being grounded in the Western (instead of the Eastern) church, being a product of modernity or, the all time evil (ad hominem), being generated by twentieth century American Evangelicalism.
But the same thing applies here as in the situation of the Democrat Family or the Coin Flipper: truth statements stand apart from their origins. An American Evangelical may believe the sky is blue because he was brainwashed by his Western Modernist Pastors to believe that the sky is blue—but that doesn’t mean the sky is neon green, mauve or any shade of not-blue. A person may have been taught to believe in a global flood, a physical return of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, the individualistic interpretation of Scripture and the specific predestination of individuals; but in all that, their being reared in these positions doesn’t impact if these positions are true or false.
Claiming that they are true (or false) because of their origin, is fallacious and exceedingly disingenuous: you’re not really dealing with anything the other person said. It’s best to actual deal with the validity of truth statements than to try to play historian or psychiatrist.