The Sainath Fallacy

I’m sure this fallacy has existed for many years and has already been described and named here, but I first came across it in P Sainath’s opeds. I brought it up again because it seems to have been spreading beyond Sainath in the recent past (where India is concerned).

The Sainath fallacy is basically this: “How dare you outrage about Cause X when Cause Y is so much more outrageous!”

Specific examples are:

  • Sainath himself: how dare the finance minister worry about the stock markets when India is so low on the Human Development Index! (This actually combines the Sainath fallacy with misdirected outrage, another thing that seems to be spreading these days, but that’s a topic for another post)
  • Richard Dawkins: how dare atheist women worry about men behaving creepily when Muslim women are at risk of genital mutilation!
  • Hindutvawadis: how dare the media talk about human rights abuses in Kashmir/ riots/ whatever the media is talking about when they never address the issue of Kashmiri Pandit refugees!
  • I can’t find links right now, but I vaguely remember people outraging that women were Slutwalking for the right to dress as they pleased instead of focusing on far more pressing issues like dowry deaths or female foeticide.

Basically, it’s not enough to be outraged yourself. Everyone else has to share your outrage. And moreover, all outrage over anything else is illegitimate.

Dear Sainath, Dawkins, and other outragers: as long as people are expressing themselves with their own money, or on their own blogs, and not using your money or house or website to do it – how about you let them say whatever the fuck they want?

11 Replies to “The Sainath Fallacy”

  1. Isn’t influencing others the very reason behind publishing any opinion? So is it really wrong if they want you to share their outrage?

    While it is wrong to say that any other outrage is illegitimate, what Sainath is pointing out is that nobody seems to be concerned as much about the GHI as the stock markets. (“No Minister came forward to calm the nation when India hit the 94th rank in the Global Hunger Index.”)

  2. There is another way to look at it – Trivializing Cause X to garner support for Cause Y – It’s a very useful strategy in public policy

  3. It’s actually a simplified version of academic writing- clearing a space for your argument. “X says this and Y says that but no one is paying attention to Z so here I come on my white horse to fill the gap. You’re welcome.”

  4. Sainath has a valid point. He does not care whether you or me or any other private person outrages over anything. But the finance minister is not a private individual. He is beholden to the electorate. As any sane person can tell, it is more urgent to address the causes that lead India to have such a dismal HDI, than to worry about the stock market.
    Poor reasoning.

  5. I’m also one of the persons who might get irritated, if not outraged, by wrong ‘prioritization’ of what to outrage against, but let me point out why.

    The issue with me is never with what one is outraging against but with what (kind of people) one is claiming to *represent* while expressing their outrage.

    The PM being more worried about the interests of wealthy businessmen to the exclusion of worrying for interests of farmers is wrong, because his government and the Constitution that he swears to abide by are bound by ‘socialism’. And even if that were not the case, he represents the *entire nation*, wherein both the farmers and wealthy businessmen have and a right to seek assistance from the government. So, in what sequence the PM attends to these problems and with what degree of alarm will become obvious subjects of scrutiny. Plus, though provisionally it is ‘their’ money, the one which government uses, its origin is actually the common people (perhaps, wealthy businessmen being bigger contributors). But if on the other hand, a FICCI representative would be worried about Stock indices and would callously shrug shoulders towards farmers’ plight, I’d find nothing wrong with that.

    Likewise, if atheist feminists would clarify that they represent women living in developed nations, again I’d find nothing wrong with that. Yes, but they do have very much the right to outrage at what they perceive to be wrongs done to women more privileged than that facing prospect of genital mutilation if they are claiming to represent women as a whole. But then as in above case, their prioritization is bound to come under scanner.

    Same goes for the media and Kashmiri Hindus. If the media were to clarify that they have no intentions of covering the plight of Kashmiri Hindus (preferably with reasons for doing that), I’d have no issues with that. But then their claims are apparently different – with programs named as – ‘We the people’, ‘Face the Nation’, etc, instead of something like ‘We the people minus the Kashmiri Hindus’ or ‘Face the Nation minus the Kashmiri Hindus’, e.g.

    With SlutWalk, if the said women would clarify that their intention is to bring to attention crimes/transgressions against women that would seem more innocuous than female feticide, dowry death, etc., then there is no problem. And here I must add that I do not find the problem of molestation, eve teasing, etc., smaller than that of female feticide/dowry death, etc. This I say because, killing for dowry is a far more serious crime (I don’t consider female feticide any worse than male feticide), its incidence is much lower than molestations, eve teasing, minor sexual assaults, etc. So, I do not have any issues with ‘prioritization’ here. Because if there is a relatively minor problem faced by almost *all* the women day-in-and-day out, it is difficult for me to consider it as insignificant.

    Let me give you an analogy here:

    Patient ‘A’ suffers from severe injuries from road accident and reaches the emergency department *before* patient ‘B’ who suffers from cough, cold and fever. But for some reasons (best known to him), the doctor attends to patient ‘B’ as soon as he arrives without making B wait. There are various ways of looking at the said doctor’s behavior. It is his skill, his clinic, his resources, :he is free to choose his patients”, etc. Patient ‘A’ had a right and choice to go to some other hospital that would have catered to his requirements first. But what I would have issues with is: if the said Hospital would *claim* to be a ‘judicious’ and ‘fair’ one. If they openly announce that their patient selection would be subject to their whims, fancies (and perhaps ulterior motives), I’d have absolutely no issues with their patient selection. And having said that, the Hospital has a right to select its patients (I’m not getting into legal provisions here, but only talking on an ‘ethical’ plane), but the citizens in general have a right to outrage against the hospital and also air concerns about what they suspect to be be their motives behind (again) what they might perceive to be wrong prioritization by the Hospital here.

    Of course, we all have a right to outrage against what outrages people outrage against. I hope that kind of *sums* it up, though I of course don’t deny the possibility that you might have your own reasons to disagree with the views I expressed above. 🙂

  6. The article you mentioned, where he talks about how the finance minister is more worried about the stock market than the HDI, does deal with two related, albeit distantly related topics.

    Policies that benefit the stock market, driving it to even higher levels, do nothing to benefit the aspects of our society that are measured by the HDI. In a way, they encourage concentration of wealth in the top tier of society and, in doing so, they negatively affect the HDI. So he is within the bounds of sanity in comparing those two and rebuking the finance minister for focusing on the former at the cost of the latter.

  7. Nice article,
    Its not really a “fallacy” as much as it is a narrative construct… Sainath isnt making an argument, He is really writing a long formish narrative.

    The construct is to use a contrast to bring attention to your pet peeve. The more outlandish the contrast, the more forceful the impact of the narrative you espouse. Arundhati – Sainaths friend in arms, also uses Ambanis house as a narrative construct. While people live in slums, Ambani lives in a mansion .. etc etc …

    More examples for you :

    1) How dare you outrage about 2002 Gujarat while 1984 Delhi claimed more lives.

    I disagree with Sainath for obvious reasons, but I am not sure its a logical fallcy per se.

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