the logical fallacies of linkedin

Via Shutterstock

Via Shutterstock

The idea for this post, as many of mine do, began with a tweet.

A couple of months ago, a marketing professional from Manchester, England tweeted about a terrible job interview she’d had with the CEO of a software company in which he “tore [her and her] writing to shreds (and called [her] an underachiever),” but ultimately offered her the position. She responded with a cold but respectful email, copied in full here:

Hi Vivienne,

I would like to thank you for the offer, but I have decided to decline.

The interview process yesterday was very uncomfortable for me. I understand the impact that Craig was trying to have, but nobody should come out of a job interview feeling so upset that they cry at the bus stop.

I'm very aware of what Craig was trying to do, and what he was trying to get out of me. I'm also aware that by sending this email, I am failing his tests and proving that I am not the right fit for his company. There is something very off to me about a man who tries his best to intimidate and assert power over young women, and who continues to push even when he can see that he's making somebody uncomfortable to the point of tears. I also think that he's very strategic in placing other people in the interview room, who have no part in the interview process, just to heighten the feeling of power he gets over someone else's humiliation.

All of the things that I mention in this email will be ignored, and things will carry on as usual at Web Applications UK. I'm also half-anticipating an email back from Craig himself explaining, line by line, why everything that I have stated in this email is wrong. If you have any consideration for a young girl's feelings, I would ask you not to bother

I have just moved back home to Manchester from Brighton after escaping a year and a half long abusive relationship. The two hours I spent in that room with Craig Dean yesterday felt like being sat in a room with my abusive ex—it was two hours of being told I'm not good enough, and detailing exactly why. And to top it off, there came the job offer, which I suppose is supposed to make up for all of the nasty things he said beforehand. I've been in this position before: they tear you down, abuse you, take you to breaking point, and then they take you out to dinner or buy you a present to apologise and make it seem like they're the nice guy. This job is supposed to be the present. I don't want it. I'm not going to go through that again, in any capacity. I suppose I'm supposed to feel privileged to be good enough for the job. I don't. I don't want to line up with somebody who gets a kick out of attacking young women, calling them underachievers, and making them visibly uncomfortable. That's not somebody that I ever want to work for, and none of the "perks" of the job could possibly tempt me.

I would also like to make it known that there are a number of reviews about your company and Craig online, all saying very similar things to me. I'm sure that this isn't the first email of this nature that you've received, so you're probably already aware. I'm also sure that this won't be the last.

It has been a pleasure to meet you, Naomi, and Rebecca, and you all seem like very lovely people. It's a shame that we won't be working together.

Best of luck for the future,

Olivia

Her response went viral. People on Twitter praised her for her composure, emotional intelligence, and initiative; a screenshot of her tweet was posted to LinkedIn and popped up in my feed. But on LinkedIn, much of the sentiment was different. The lack of empathy in the comments was startling—people were quick to blame her for being “sensitive” and “emotional,” and questioned whether or not the interviewer had really been as harsh as she’d said.

Aside from being incredibly condescending and sexist, the comments followed a noticeable pattern: they all used logical fallacies to marginalize her and dismiss her accusations. According to thou shalt not commit logical fallacies, a website run by critical thinking non-profit School of Thought, a logical fallacy is “a flaw in reasoning ... like tricks or illusions of thought.” They’re often used to discredit arguments when no valid counterargument is available.

I’m going to illustrate four different logical fallacies using four different LinkedIn comments (edited for clarity and the fact that no one uses title case unless they’re a complete idiot). The first is from someone who will be known as Person A, and it commits not just one logical fallacy but twoburden of proof and ad hominem:

The punctuation in the above message, and in the response letter, is worthy of criticism. We have only Olivia's version of this encounter. Is legitimate criticism of her grammar and punctuation what she considers "bullying?" Is she hypersensitive and given to "cry at the bus stop" in response to constructive criticism? Was "Craig" actually being a bully? None of us knows, and should not rush to judgement without more information.

There’s a lot to unpack here (like the fact that Person A criticizes her punctuation and then proceeds to use double spaces after their own, which is noticeably antiquated—two spaces is generally used for readability if one is typing on a typewriter, which, since they are on LinkedIn, I’m assuming they are not), but the first problem is that Person A immediately dismisses her claim based on the fact that they personally did not receive any evidence with which to judge. Thus, the burden of proof:

the burden of proof lies not with the person making the claim, but with someone else to disprove.

Burden of proof is the bread and butter of victim-blamers because it also works in reverse; it shifts the responsibility to the accuser to prove that the incident actually happened, assuming that the claim is false simply because it has not been definitively proven true. School of Thought notes that “...we can never be certain of anything, and so we must assign value to any claim based on the available evidence, and to dismiss something on the basis that it hasn’t been proven beyond all doubt is also fallacious reasoning.”

Now, Person A’s last sentence is a legitimate critique—we should not rush to judgment. But given their initial questioning and speculation about her being “hypersensitive,” and their suggestion that the CEO was merely giving “constructive criticism,” we can safely presume that they are more concerned with her credibility as a person, with which to judge the gravity of the situation, than whether or not the situation occurred to begin with. And that brings me to the second logical fallacy, ad hominem:

attacking your opponent's character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine their argument.

Ad hominem arguments are a very common tactic in online discourse, simply because it’s easy to criticize someone when you’re hiding behind a computer screen. In using these two logical fallacies, Person A (and self-proclaimed grammar expert) is using a technique to instill doubt in the accuser. It’s a great way of dismissing an argument without participating in any real discussion, which screams insecurity of intellect and/or debate skills. It was used in the Kavanaugh hearing and in countless #MeToo accusations—these women are lying, we only have their word, where’s the proof, whatever happened to due process?

I’d like to counter with two points: first, that asking for proof is a slippery slope (another logical fallacy), and the people who demand it tend to be unpersuaded by any amount of rationality. Take Christine Blasey Ford, whose story was all but corroborated by several witnesses that were familiar with Kavanaugh’s drunken and violent tendencies. People claimed that it wasn’t “real” proof, while simultaneously citing a letter of 40 character witnesses who could attest to Kavanaugh’s upstanding morality. Even when there is due process and a conviction, like in the case of R. Kelly, people still cavalierly dismiss it as “females ruining lives.”

And secondly, in situations of “he said, she said,” it’s often useful to think critically about who has the most to gain, and to grant the benefit of the doubt accordingly. Glassdoor reviews of the company describe the CEO as “rude and arrogant,” “condescending, arrogant, and abusive,” “abusive, arbitrarily, and controlling,” and “seems to delight in putting down staff and destroying their aspirations,” all of which indicate that Olivia was indeed telling the truth.

Person B wrote:

This is very interesting. People are coming in droves to help support and validate Olivia's feelings in regards to the interview. She states she went through a "brutal" two-hour interview process with the CEO. First off...what is her definition of brutal? I cannot remember one single time I've interviewed for a good position and it wasn't "brutal" in some form or fashion. Wow. Viva le social justice warriors, viva le social justice warriors! Keep the tissues close at hand!

This is an example of personal incredulity (with hints of burden of proof and anecdotal)—because Person B doesn’t believe that the interview was as “brutal” as Olivia claimed (based on the fact that they have always had “brutal” interviews “in some form or fashion"), they assume that Olivia was overreacting:

because you find something difficult to understand, or are unaware of how it works, you make out like it's probably not true.

To assume that anything beyond your scope of comprehension is by default untrue is a lethal combination of both ignorance and arrogance. It’s always amusing (although sadly not uncommon) to see this in the wild, but on LinkedIn? Yikes.

Person C tried a different tactic, writing:

LOL this is ridiculous. And she’s posting tweets and publicly “promoting” her emotional response about how her feelings were hurt? What is this?

This is an appeal to emotion; in this case, hatred:

attempting to manipulate an emotional response in place of a valid or compelling argument.

Ironically, Person C is both criticizing Olivia for an emotional response while simultaneously trying to appeal to the court of public opinion, manipulating peoples’ emotions against her and channeling them into a disgust for what they consider self-promotion. But it becomes problematic when they choose to ridicule her in favor of an actual refutation of her claim. As School of Thought points out, “...appeals to emotion are a very common and effective argument tactic, but they're ultimately flawed, dishonest, and tend to make one's opponents justifiably emotional.”

And lastly, Person D wrote:

I would hate to see her review of basic training in the military...😂😂😂 There are some jobs that require thick skin. There may be a reason he interviews in that fashion. My experience in the Army, Walmart, and Best Buy are riddled with tough situations that could leave you in tears. I imagine that company is better off with her declining. She needs a less stressful job it seems.

This is a classic example of tu quoque, which translates to “you too”:

avoiding having to engage with criticism by turning it back on the accuser—answering criticism with criticism.

This is one of the most frustrating logical fallacies, because it has no merit in or relation to the argument at all. Instead of addressing the claim, they simply point out a flaw of the person making the claim. It was commonly used as whataboutism by Hillary detractors in the 2016 election—it’s not providing an answer to the criticism, but instead deflects it (but what about her emails?), thus failing to effectively argue a point or contribute anything useful to the discussion.

One thing I noticeably left out in this post: genders and job titles. These comments were from an engineering technician, a business development manager, an operations manager, and someone whose LinkedIn byline is simply “Helping Others Get There” (interesting; I have questions). All of them were male.

It’s a striking reminder that these are people we work with and interact with every day. These are people ostensibly handling big decisions, and the fact that they have so little regard or empathy for others should be of concern. It’s no wonder that 54% of women report some kind of workplace harassment, but that’s also an incomplete picture of workplace conditions. There are plenty more women who don’t report, for many reasons—they don’t want to cause a scene, they’re intimidated by the person harassing them, or that people like this are denigrating and dismissing them every step of the way, in every profession.

These comments reveal an unsettling truth about workplace culture—the pervasive paradigm of abuse in business and the myth of genius in leadership. Steve Jobs is a great example of someone that was a notorious pain to work with, but was excused because he compensated with “genius.” But bullying does not constitute a rigorous interview, being harsh does not equate to good leadership or high standards, and there are plenty of ways to give constructive feedback without belittling—something truly good leadership knows. The lack of ability to understand this represents a fault in leadership (and has also proven to be detrimental), not a fault of the employee.

Professional decorum dictates that there are certain lines not to be crossed in a workplace setting, and if Craig has made someone feel anything close to what Olivia reported, he’s a terrible CEO. We cannot complain about capitalism without first discussing the fact that ruthless business culture stereotypes are both outdated and ineffective. A recent piece on Amy Klobuchar’s management practices ignited some controversy, but while people point out the double standard, the bigger issue is that this is a woman that has advanced in a man’s world by acting like a man, when we should instead be trying to eliminate the relationship between “leadership” and “masculinity.” The problem with the word “empowerment” is that too much of the burden is foisted upon women to assert themselves and lean in, and not enough on men who make the workplace a hostile place to begin with.

As much as we like to talk about diversity and creating an inclusive culture, it’s not truly part of the culture until it is in practice. And a way to practice that is to simply be kinder, and be more conscientious of how your actions affect others.

If you can donate to the School of Thought, it is encouraged that you do so here (not sponsored or anything; I’m just passionate about media literacy). But particularly in the state of today’s media, it is important to be able to think critically about consumption.

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