Sherlock Holmes, Vulcans, and how logic isn't everything.
Last month, Richard Dawkins said something shitty, as he is wont to do. I don’t want to get into his argument here, because it is personally painful for me to do so and I don’t think it’s necessary for the crux of this post. But it is related, and so I mention it.
I mention it because one of the defenses of his insensitivity (to put it mildly) was that his argument was logically sound. And that’s a point that gets brought up an awful lot in discussions of social justice and in general when someone is called out for doing something harmful. It’s especially a point brought up from men against women, usually as a way of gas-lighting us and saying, “You’re too emotional to get this, let me logic at you in a manly fashion.” It’s sexist, it’s dismissive, and it focuses on one aspect of a situation to the exclusion of all else.
As I said on Twitter in my original thoughts about Dawkins’ asshattery:
This is the kind of argument I see quite a lot from those who tend to hold a lot of privilege & experiential ignorance of the topic at hand. Honestly…it makes me think of that scene in the RDJ/Jude Law Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is holding something in his hand, the end of which is mere inches from Watson’s face. Watson: “Get that thing out of my face.” Holmes replies, “It’s not in your face, it’s in my hand.” That’s what these logical men are like. That’s their argument. TECHNICALLY, they’re right. But the practical application & observation of the situation shows that one can be correct but still wrong. In this situation, the argument can (& has been, repeatedly) made that Dawkins wasn’t minimizing when he was making the comparison. TECHNICALLY, he wasn’t. But functionally, he was. Just like the thing TECHNICALLY was in Holmes’ hand but FUNCTIONALLY was in Watson’s face.
I’m rather proud of that analogy, and I think it quite holds up in general in discussions of social awareness.
Fast forward to tonight. It’s been a long day fighting anxiety and just being wearied in general with people I respect making the classic blunder of saying “but I’m an ally!!” when faced with critique of their allyship. We put on an episode of Voyager to have some background noise while we ate dinner.
The crew of Voyager, Captain Janeway in particular is in a moral dilemma. They are stranded multiple hundreds of thousands of light-years from their home, and stumble upon a civilization that has technology that could theoretically get them halfway home. The problem is that it’s against the laws of this civilization to share that technology with anyone. Janeway agonizes over how to handle this news, recognizing that it would be unethical to take the technology by force, but fearing that she is making her entire crew suffer for her ideals. Tuvok, chief security officer and a Vulcan, serves as Janeway’s moral compass and logical consult throughout the episode, and assures her that she is making the right decision. Then, in a surprising turn of events, Tuvok seals a deal to exchange the ship’s library for the technology, against the rules of the culture and against Janeway’s express orders. This backfires spectacularly (turns out the technology never would have worked with Star Fleet tech), and Janeway learns of her crew’s betrayal.
Tuvok, in his detached and logical fashion, explains that he made his decision out of a desire to spare Janeway pain. His reasoning is that that if he made the trade, it would solve their problem of needing to get home without implicating the captain or causing her to violate her principles.
I’ll be honest, for most of the episode, I hardly paid attention. But suddenly I couldn’t stop watching. This was a story I recognized, and I wondered what direction it would take.
Janeway is stunned and angry. She tells Tuvok how important his relationship is to her, and how that closeness they share has made his actions all the more unacceptable. “You can use logic to justify almost anything. That’s its power — and its flaw.”
I sat with baited breath to see what would happen. This was the part of the conversation when normally someone like Tuvok would retort, “You’re too emotional about this. I only did the logical thing. You just can’t see it clearly.”
Instead, he replies, “My logic was not in error…but I was.”
My logic was not in error, but I was.
My logic was not in error, but I was.
It’s so succinct. It’s so on point.
And it is exactly the sort of thing a decent human being ought to say when called on the carpet for harmful behavior.