The Fault in Our Logic

Whereby I tell John Green I feel his pain of the never-ending trolling of adolescent bullies.

john green

This may be one of the most important posts I’ve written, and yet my timing is shaky: we’re all hopped up on sugar plums and family time. I’ll muddle on, however, and maybe dear readers, you’ll bookmark this for another time.

Please heed this message: never, ever stop teaching students about rhetoric, fallacies, and logic. And the hysteria of the Salem Witch trials.

And to think for themselves, and follow the ‘money’ (power, pay-off, etc.)

Allow me to illustrate the innocent tripping into this conversation with one of my young charges. For the holiday season, one of my esteemed colleagues organizes a ‘winter wishes’ gift give-away. Students sign up for modest gifts, and we the staff try to make these wishes come true. I took on the requests for “books for a girl” (?!) and another student requested Autumn Kiss and Autumn Falls by Bella Thorne. For the girl, (no, we’re not getting into a conversation about gender identity now, thank you very much) I purchased the box set of the Hush Hush series by Becca Fitzgerald. Literary judgments aside, a few years ago some students told me they loved Deep and Dark and Dangerous by Mary Downing Hahn, so I grabbed another copy of that just in case, and everyone loved The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I did, finding it poignant and real.

Well, not everyone, it turns out.

I have a young student, a girl, and some colleagues were giving her Hanukkah presents, so I offered “Fault” to her. She is very quiet, very intelligent, and respectfully declined. Surprised by her reaction, she said she hadn’t read it, but believed John Green to be a Holocaust denier.

Yes.

That John Green.

The John Green who writes open, gritty young adult novels, who is consistency politically correct, provides free Crash Course educational videos, is a well-known and beloved author, vlogger, etc., is apparently the opposite of a well-informed, articulate, and intelligent human has succumbed to Holocaust Denial: also, according to my young student, he “hates mental health issues and only loves cancer patients.’ (Paraphrasing.) Again, the John Green who has spoken openly about his own struggles with mental health management.

Nonplussed, I inquired where did she hear this information, and basically “she knew the Internet had misinformation, but this was all true,” and when I said no, it’s not, she challenged me with “how do you know?”

Well, how did I know?

Seeking answers, I am going to share a conversation (with permission) with a colleague, Kim McClung, I admire and trust, who’s been writing a series on fallacies on social media.

Your student has fallen prey to some of the fallacies I’ve been talking about on Facebook – particularly the Straw Man Fallacy, where a statement was taken out of context and misrepresented. John Green did an interview where he said:

Interviewer: Why did you decide to throw in the story of Anne Frank alongside these fictional young women whose lives are also cut short?
John Green: Anne Frank was a pretty good example of a young person who ended up having the kind of heroic arc that Augustus wants—she was remembered and she left this mark that he thinks is valuable—but when he has to confront her death, he has to confront the reality that really she was robbed of the opportunity to live or die for something. She just died of illness like most people. And so I wanted him to go with a sort of expectation of her heroism and be sort of dashed.
 
The line where he talked about Anne dying of illness like most people was taken completely out of context by some teen bloggers on Tumblr who argue that by ignoring the circumstances of Anne’s death, that he is denying the Holocaust ever happened. The fact is that she did die of illness (typhoid) like most of the Jews in the concentration camps. It wasn’t a heroic death as being shot fighting Nazis might have been. Keep in mind that The Fault in Our Stars is a book about teenagers dealing with terminal cancer and looking for some meaning in their death.
 
Like the Starbucks Christmas Cup Scandal, when we take some random person’s rant as fact, we are prone to errors in thinking.
This is my original response to my student:

Subject: Research 

 I did some research on the John Green issues: fascinating ways that folks manipulated a popular author, although I am once again disheartened about how haters use false arguments to troll people who are trying to do good things, (like John Green), as well as troll potential readers who may miss out on reading great stories, like a great student/thinker such as yourself.

 The argument about the Holocaust issue is what’s called an ‘ad hominem’ attack: attack the person and another, ‘straw man’ where one takes something out of context to attack the person, and not discuss the argument.

The fact is this: John Green did not explicitly deny the Holocaust, and would most likely be horrified to see this form of trolling. He did not imply it either. This quote is taken out of context, and the argument does not lead to logic. Many people discuss history and it’s assumed that general knowledge informs the public that everyone knows Anne Frank went to a concentration camp. I learned that she died of Typhoid Fever in that camp because of his knowledge/research. I went to Amsterdam when I was twelve and visit her apartment where she hid and wrote her diary. “Leaving the Nazis out” is not a logical premise, and this misinterpretation of Green’s work is quite honestly, a little weird to me. The writer of this quote is reading something into it that simply isn’t there, and I’m not sure what their own religious/political agenda may be. But some folks get some egregious notions about things. The best thing you can do is read, discuss, and think for yourself. You’re too smart to draw conclusion based on Internet trolling. To underscore: it is  fine not to like someone’s style of writing or choice of topics; however, taking aim at a writer/thinker etc. based on out of context quotes is Trolling 101. The Tumblr community feasted on spreading rumors, and the teenage girls who trolled Green remind me of the Salem Witch Trials: they get a thrill with a little bit of power by spreading lies and fear. It’s horrible.

As to the other issue,  not only does he not say “bad things about mental health,’ he is on record for saying very supportive and honest things:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/john-green-has-a-refreshingly-honest-take-on-mental-illness_55ce0297e4b055a6dab010ca

My colleague also posted this after further consideration of this issue:

The Argumentum ad Ignorantiam Fallacy is also called the Argument from Ignorance or Appeal to Ignorance Fallacy. Personally, I prefer “Argument from Ignorance” because it feels to me to be the more appropriate description. This is the final fallacy that I’m going to discuss, and I chose this one as a favor to a friend and fellow teacher. In fact, I’m going to use the example from her classroom. As is implied by the name of the fallacy, this one is born of ignorance and, I would add, a stubbornness born of belief perseverance and confirmation bias. The idea behind this one is that a premise must be true if it cannot be proven false.

In my friend’s classroom, a student is refusing to read a book because she believes the author is a Holocaust denier. Because there is no on-line evidence that this is true, the student is persevering in her belief, even though there is no direct evidence and only blog-o-sphere suppositions to support her beliefs. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to explain logic to an eighth grader.

This fallacy can be a little complicated because the burden of proof falls on the person making the claim, so it can work on both sides of the same argument. If a person claims, “Aliens exist, and you cannot prove to me that I am wrong, so I am correct,” s/he is falling prey to this fallacy. Likewise, if someone claims, “Aliens don’t exist, and you cannot prove me wrong, so I am right,” the same fallacy is being used.

Is your head swimming right now? Mine is. Just how do we help students think logically about their choices in media, literature, politics, etc.? The Tumblr -Trolls are feed off of their opinions going viral, that is their currency. And if it keeps one girl from reading a book that’s one book too many. This willingness to censor and banish when if presented a chance to ‘fit in’ strikes me as hypocritical of this accepting and tolerant generation. Cognitive dissonance is a heckuva challenge.

Thank you, Kim, for helping me find my way through this. Moving forward, when we begin to discuss argumentative writing/reading, these concepts will take center stage. What we believe and trust push big ideas through our collective consciousness sieve. It’s important.

Have your students ever believed something that may actually harm them? Censored a book or knowledge because of what others have said first? 

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4 thoughts on “The Fault in Our Logic”

  1. Maybe I’ll have better luck: I’m teaching 7th grade Humanities this year, which is a grand opportunity to introduce big ideas and big thinking. I wonder why adults seem to have so much trouble with this–if we as adults come to a belief system, I would hope it’s with deep consideration and mindfulness. Our choices of politics, religion, and thinking are fundamental, but one would hope they are done with a balance of logic and faith. The rocky boat of media push and catalysts, and resulting hysteria has ceased to amuse me: I don’t want students to think like I do, I just want them to think. Thank you again for your series: it put these arguments and fallacies in plain language.

  2. Thank you, Kelly! I totally agree that this is a huge issue – especially since so many people are now getting their news from biased rants on social media. It’s rather sad that such a large portion of the population are willing to accept these rants without taking the time to verify or fact check the stories. While it’s hard to teach logic to 8th graders, as I mentioned, it’s even harder to teach it to adults who would rather go with an emotional reaction rather than thinking things out for themselves.

  3. Because I teach Social Studies, my students most frequently bring up conspiracy theories about 9/11, the Illuminati, aliens building pyramids, and concepts involving various religions and religious ideas. I use it as an opportunity to teach them about research, and often let them research their own questions rather than give them short answers that fail to convince.

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