17

The phrase "Have you stopped beating your wife?" is an example of a loaded question. This particular phrase is a canonical example used in the book The Power of Logic (C. Stephen Layman) and is often quoted.

There is a particular post where this phrase was used to point out a logical fallacy.

I personally don't feel that domestic abuse is appropriate in any context on StackOverflow. Be it that the SO community is largely male, and are not often the recipients of domestic abuse, many may not agree. 3 moderators tacitly or overtly approved this kind of language in the above post.

My question is two-fold. Is a phrase containing domestic abuse appropriate on SO to point out logical fallacies? Second, would similar made up phrases like "When did you stop stripping for money?" be appropriate?

9
  • Interesting question my friend. Dec 19 '13 at 19:44
  • 6
    My first instinct is to say that it depends on context. For example, this question is not inappropriate, so clearly the use of either phrase couldn't be banned entirely.
    – Servy
    Dec 19 '13 at 19:45
  • 5
    Males are victims of domestic abuse also, more often than you'd imagine. I personally know such people. Dec 19 '13 at 19:52
  • 6
    This goes a bit far IMO.
    – Pekka
    Dec 19 '13 at 19:54
  • @Pëkka the non-PCness of the phrase, or banning it?
    – djechlin
    Dec 19 '13 at 21:13
  • 3
    @djechlin banning it.
    – Pekka
    Dec 19 '13 at 21:15
  • There are a fair number of downvotes - is this question not useful, not clear, not appropriate, or is this post simply not liked?
    – Andy Jones
    Dec 19 '13 at 21:41
  • The original post referenced has since been edited and many comments removed - see the below post for original context
    – Andy Jones
    Dec 19 '13 at 21:43
  • @RichardTingle not only domestic, it happens in The Workplace! :)
    – gnat
    Dec 20 '13 at 6:41
11

It's not correct to assume the reader is familiar with this example. I personally first heard of it in my second year of college, in a linguistics class. Going to take a wild guess and say not many of StackOverflow's users got college degrees in liberal arts.

Which means... the recipient likely isn't familiar with it, and will probably be confused and quite possibly wondering what the heck beating one's wife has to do with the question at hand.

So:

  • It's confusing to use not-that-well-known tropes in the first place.
  • Which is a little bit snarky and non-constructive.
  • And without "getting it," yeah, the reader could perfectly be left wondering "why the heck are you bringing this up? what kind of jerk are you?"

Not okay: "Have you stopped beating your wife?

More okay: "Have you stopped beating your wife?"

The next question is, is a well-known trope with a tongue-in-cheek offensive side to it germane? I lean yes. The reason this question was so effective in its original contexts is the asker precisely relies on the reaction, "That's abhorrent! I would never do that in the first place." Can one use tongue-in-cheek, possibly offensive rhetorical points to make a point? "Within reason." This strikes me as okay.

1
  • 2
    Excellent point about the link, although I can understand if the original answerer didn't think to add it. With the link, I too lean even further towards "yes, it's okay".
    – jscs
    Dec 19 '13 at 20:24
21

I like the way you're thinking (let's err on the side of sensitivity on serious issues), but I'm not sure this phrasing represents a real problem when used this way.

My (personal) take is that there's an important assumption built into the use of this phrase to illustrate the logical fallacy:

Its meaning is entirely dependent on the reader taking it as an absolute given that beating one's spouse is odious, shameful behavior.

As such, I personally find it a benign example. My attitude would change if someone indicated that they found it personally offensive or likely to be an emotional trigger for someone they know, etc.

4
  • 3
    Why do you begin your answer with "Meh."? Dec 19 '13 at 21:28
  • 3
    @SimonAndréForsberg, it reflects my ambivalence because I like the author's instinct to ensure that we're not flippantly referencing domestic abuse, but feel in this case that the use makes no light of it and actually presumes condemnation of it.
    – Jaydles
    Dec 19 '13 at 22:22
  • 1
    Thanks for the explanation. When I first read your answer, your "Meh." at the beginning was for me a sign that you didn't take the OP seriously. You lost a lot of respect from me by using that "Meh." Dec 19 '13 at 22:26
  • 1
    Simon, glad you mentioned that - to you, I was conveying the opposite of what I felt (that I didn't think such thinking was valuable, vs. that it was important, but might not be an issue here). I'm editing to ensure others don't come to the same conclusion.
    – Jaydles
    Dec 19 '13 at 22:37
15

Are we all so short on imagination that we have to take just a mention of harmful behavior as if were the literal, actual enactment of that behavior?

This wasn't a joke about physical abuse, it wasn't a statement supportive of abuse, and it wasn't even off-topic. It was a quote of a demonstration of a logical problem.

That said, physical abuse is a terrible thing, and maybe reading a mention of it would badly affect someone who had been subject to it. A little sensitivity goes a long way in this world.

So, here's the punchline: instead of starting a war in the comments, and then coming to Meta to frame a restrictive policy based on one incident, you could easily have replaced the sentence that bothered you with another phrase:

Have you stopped all that tax evasion yet?

Did you give back that car you stole?

The last time you jumped a subway turnstile, did you feel bad about it?

When did you stop stacking the deck at your Friday poker game?

Did your kid like the giant panda bear you won by cheating at the ring toss?

Are you still wearing that pirated Winterbash hat?

12
  • 6
    I was traumatized by an incident involving car theft a few years back. Thanks for bringing back all of those memories.
    – Servy
    Dec 19 '13 at 20:08
  • Indeed, that's exactly what happened. A user with editing privileges stepped in and removed the offending phrase.
    – user102937
    Dec 19 '13 at 20:08
  • 2
    But not this user, @TheGrinch, and removed, not replaced with equivalent.
    – jscs
    Dec 19 '13 at 20:09
  • Is that an important distinction?
    – user102937
    Dec 19 '13 at 20:09
  • 1
    No, it's not the end of the world, @TheGrinch, but I think that leaving the meaning intact but taking away the potentially-offensive bits would have been superior.
    – jscs
    Dec 19 '13 at 20:10
  • 1
    @TheGrinch I also think that it's important to discern if it was actually an offending phrase (given how it was used)
    – Lamak
    Dec 19 '13 at 20:12
  • @Servy: Feel free to sanitize my post.
    – jscs
    Dec 19 '13 at 20:12
  • 1
    @Lamak: I personally didn't find it offensive. If anything, it clearly and effectively illustrates the problem with such logic.
    – user102937
    Dec 19 '13 at 20:16
  • @TheGrinch I agree, my comment was only since you called it "the offending phrase" ;-)
    – Lamak
    Dec 19 '13 at 20:21
  • Replacing the original with a new loaded question isn't a good choice (IMO), might even be rejected for changing the author's intent. The original question is a canonical example, known by many. Instead of making up a new loaded question, it would be better to explain: That can't be answered because it's a loaded question." Of course, the OP's question was *not a loaded question, so it would still be wrong, but it would at least be more clear than trying to make up a new example.
    – Caleb
    Dec 19 '13 at 20:34
  • Are you still wearing that pirated Winterbash hat? - YES. evil laugh Dec 19 '13 at 23:00
  • I definitely understand what you're saying, @Caleb. I suggest editing like this because it seems like a good compromise, but you certainly can't please everyone, and of course anyone can be offended by anything. Personally, I'm often offended by the presumptions of those who want to limit other people's expression.
    – jscs
    Dec 20 '13 at 1:53
7

Here's the context in which the phrase was used:

Your entire question being founded on fantasy, this question is unanswerable. It's comparable to 'when did you stop beating your wife?'

I think the author may have been attempting to use the phrase as shorthand for a whole discussion, but his/her assertion that the OP's question is somehow comparable to the loaded question "when did you stop beating your wife?" is simply incorrect.

The OP asks a question based on a stated false premise. "Have you stopped beating your wife?" is a loaded question because it contains an implied (and possibly false) premise that the respondent is forced to accept if they answer either yes or no. These are two very different situations -- the OP simply misunderstood how TCP works and wasn't trying to force anyone into a particular position.

We certainly shouldn't ban use of this or any phrase entirely (although I noticed that SO won't accept "What have you tried?" as a comment). However, it's hard to think of a context in which use of "When did you stop beating your wife?" would be on topic for SO. It may well be on topic on other sites, particularly the language sites, and I think it should be fair game there.

3
  • 1
    Because "what have you tried" became a distraction. Offensiveness is only one type of possible distraction.
    – user102937
    Dec 19 '13 at 20:37
  • @TheGrinch I understand and don't necessarily disagree -- just acknowledging a possible counterexample.
    – Caleb
    Dec 19 '13 at 20:41
  • 3
    +1. I am offended by deliberately omitting context to point fingers.
    – djechlin
    Dec 19 '13 at 21:10

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .