Allen, Virginia, “Guest Commentary: Incompetence vs. deception,” Ames Tribune, December 16, 1997, p. A6.

Incompetence vs Deception

Whether from arrogance or incompetence, supporters of Carrie Chapman Catt have put up such a sad defense that I was almost surprised to see a letter to the editor on December 9 (“Deception surrounds Catt Hall debate”) based on citations rather hasty generalization; however, I must take issue with the conclusion that the September 29 Movement is guilty of “deception.”

Poor scholarship does not in and of itself constitute academic dishonesty, and I would be surprised if the students of Patrick James in Political Science never misread their source material to conform with their preconceived ideas of how the world works.  I have been teaching composition for way too many years to make that mistake.  A charge of academic dishonesty should not be made lightly, and telling doubters to go dig through the archives and find out for themselves is an unpersuasive argument.

Although I was not identified by name, Jane Cox once condemned me in print for “celebrating ignorance” for commenting on the argument while disavowing certain knowledge (ISU Daily, September 30, 1996).  Did she  misrepresent my comment on purpose?  Probably not.  Does the fact that she  did an incompetent job of representing what I said at the time make her  dishonest?  I would never say so.  Because of the nature of the work I  have been doing with students learning to write and handle research material for the past thirty years, my first assumption is always that  such errors arise from incompetence rather than deceit.

One example only: I am baffled by what “deception” the multiple  authors of Tuesday’s letter see in Meron Wondwosen¹s comment that “women  of color could not vote in most southern states until 1965.”  I have not  seen the context for that remark, but the Voting Rights Act of 1965 DID have a purpose.  The “literacy requirement,” especially when selectively  applied, was a powerful deterrent.  If that is an example of September 29 “deception,” I really must protest.  The FACT given to counter the  STATEMENT and the anguish that underlies the essence of its truth seems to  hinge on the accessibility of records that prove that some people of color always defied proscriptive custom and many paid for their defiance with  their very lives.  I might tell a student who wrote such a sentence to be careful of overgeneralization, but it would be beyond the absurd to accuse such a student of academic dishonesty.

Historians, musicians, vice presidents, and people committed to  political education, we all have one thing in common: we are citizens,  educated common readers, makers of a fragile democracy, this insane  political experiment that--given human nature--never had a realistic  chance of succeeding over the long haul.  We urgently need to do a better  job of teaching our kids to read, write, argue fairly, and detect logical  fallacies used against them.  Aristotle said that in the same way that a  man ought to be ashamed not to be able to defend himself “by means of his body,” he ought also to be ashamed not to be able to defend himself with  speech and reason.  If university professors do not believe in or cannot  practice the clarifying sport of debate and model the process for our  students, the experiment begun in 1776 will surely fail and we will be at  fault.

Elsewhere Aristotle says that men cannot judge rightly when their  own interests are involved.  (I always add “and neither can women.”)  I  understand that, and I do not question the sincerity that motivates the defenders of Catt any more than I question Cox’s personal integrity for  misrepresenting what I had to say on the subject of expediency and  institutional integrity.

This controversy that ought to have been a university-wide lesson in academic research, citizen debate, and conflict resolution has turned into an embarrassing two-year rhetorical circus.

The burden of proof has been on the supporters of Catt Hall for a  long time.  It is high time they paid the opposition the RESPECT of taking  their argument seriously.  Catt supporters may be right.  I don’t know and  have no present intention of doing the necessary research myself to find  out; I have confined my public remarks to the process of the argument and  will continue to do so.

And from that perspective, I assert with unequivocal certainty  that these academic folks and their friends have absolutely no idea  whether deception motivated any errors the students may have made (or not)  in representing their sources.  Errors arise both from deception and  incompetence, and the evidence provided in no way supports a charge of  deception.  The fallacy is called ignoratio elenchi or irrelevant  conclusion.

Virginia Allen