Last week my job was to teach introductory logic to first year law students. It is pretty good stuff, and I enjoy it. A basic starting point is to recognise a valid argument based on the vintage test “if the premises are true, then the conclusion is necessarily true”. We run through this a few times and I start with an old classic: “All humans have hair. I am human, therefore I have hair.” Next step is to test the premises for truth, for which the opening gambit is “a statement is true if it corresponds to the facts in the world”. From there we wander about human history for a while, peering at various sites and traditions for locating facts in the world. We look at rhetorical facts, such as “a volcano erupts because there is a fire breathing dragon inside”; and scientific facts, for example, a volcano erupts because there is molten rock beneath the earth’s crust. Self-evident truths are defined by agreement: “all men are born equal”; while notorious facts are accepted as true, in the face of contravening evidence, eg “the most fundamental right of all is the right to human security”. That one is from our former Attorney General, Phillip Ruddock, who evidently has not read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not even the first article.
Having canvassed these techniques for identifying a logical argument, I warn the students that in a court room we will see some of these argument structures, but the content will be anything from mundane to downright confronting. Courts are tedious places, repetitive and dull and preoccupied with process. Yet they are also places of high drama, where we hear excruciating detail of the very worst of man’s inhumanity to man, and women, and children. Yes, it is mostly men. Men outnumber women prisoners by a ratio of 10:1 in New South Wales.
So I offer up some more controversial examples. “All homosexuals are paedophiles” I say. “I am homosexual, therefore I am a paedophile.” We work out that the conclusion would be true if the premises were true, so the problem with this argument is the absence of truth in the premises. The structure is valid, but the argument is still not logical, because it lacks an essential component: truth. OK, I say, now let’s try this one. “All Muslims are terrorists. I am a Muslim, therefore I am a terrorist.”
This example was inspired by the Australian Prime Minister, who was on the radio that morning. As I drove to work I listened to him trying to explain to a patient journalist, in his awkward repetitive way, that there is a pressing need for Australia to once again ramp up the threat of terrorism. His bumbling claim, from what I could make out, was that trashing the centuries-old legal principles around the onus of proof is a cool idea because terrorists.
But one of my students heard me say “bla bla bla all Muslims are terrorists bla bla bla” and raised his hand. “Yes, Mohammed?” And the student says “Please do not use my religion in such examples, because it offends me.” I start to explain to the student that we confront difficult ideas in this class, as in legal practice itself, and that learning logic is a key skill for refuting dangerous ideas. As I am doing this, three other students, whose first names are Ali, Hussein and Ahmed, turn around to Mohammed and start telling him that the teacher is not offending their religion, she is pointing out the lies that are told about Muslims. Mohammed is not happy with this intervention, and says that he is not talking to them but to the teacher, he has a request of the teacher and wants to hear her reply. He may have gestured as he said this – I didn’t see – but I heard what happened next, which was that Ahmed said to Mohammed “don’t you point at me”.
I walked up to Ahmed and asked him not to take over my role as teacher, returned to the front of the class, and reiterated not just the line about difficult and confronting issues in courtrooms but also the fact that this is a logic class, where we learn how to recognise truthful claims. For good measure, I spelt out the role of religion in truth and fact seeking. Our university has a lot of religious students. Most are Christian or Muslim, although other faiths are represented. For this bit of the logic course – and it is a part of the curriculum, on theoretical hypotheses (evolution) and rescue fallacies (intelligent design) – I use the form of the building to make the point. This building is a university, I say. There are other buildings for religion, but here we deal in knowledge. Not faith. Not belief. Facts based on evidence are what we do here, that’s the purpose of education here. We live in a pluralist society. If you want to go to church, or the mosque, or temple up the road, that’s fine. You can go to all three if you want. That’s the beauty of liberal democracy. But here, in this building, we do not base our learning on faith. We seek truth based in scientific fact, presented and understood by using logical arguments. Ironically, I brook no argument on this point. This is how it is. Take it on faith, from me, because I am the law lecturer. Hilarious, I know. Ali then put up his hand and said he is there to learn logic and law and is not offended at all by my example, as it is part of the education we are all here to get. I thanked him, and we moved on.
After the class I checked with Mohammed to see if he has my email address. He has missed two classes because he was overseas, he tells me. OK, so catch up, seek assistance, contact me if necessary. He looks a little bewildered. I also catch Ahmed on the way out of the building. “I agree that it was a problem with understanding” I say, “but next time don’t usurp my role as teacher.” Ahmed said he thought it was an English language problem – he had wanted to explain the point in Arabic but knew that was not an option – and added “sorry miss.” Sorry not sorry I said to myself, but not in a nasty way. I have taught Ahmed before, and he is a sorry miss sorry not sorry kind of guy. As in, he’d do the same thing again in a heartbeat and I don’t dislike him for that.
The following week I received welcome news. Mohammed approached me during the break (I run three-hour seminars, with a fifteen-minute break). He apologised for the previous upset and told me he bumped into Ali in criminal law class, that Ali had explained again the point I was making about Muslims and rhetorical truth, and now he understands clearly. As we walked down the stairs to get a coffee, Mohammed told me he had just returned from his home country of Egypt, that he has been in Australia five years, and he is now a proud Australian and loves his new country and wants to be good citizen. We had a passing conversation about the Muslim Brotherhood in Sisi’s Egypt, the Rafah checkpoint and Gaza, and compared the moral disasters that are ISIS fighters and drone warfare – before returning to class.
There are so many things I love about this story. The first is that it was Ali who was most determined to articulate – to everyone – that it is part of our education to face difficult and confronting ideas, and learn to refute such nonsense. Also, in a highly diverse student population, it is Ali who has the darkest skin in this particular class. I was impressed by his courage but I was deeply impressed to hear that he and Mohammed had talked through the issue. It occurred to me that Ali, with his longer-Australian-experience and heritage, was probably better equipped than I am to explain the point to more-recently-arrived Mohammed. Talk about a win-win. In my mind’s eye, I picture Ali and Mohammed walking across campus from criminal law class to logic, discussing the weird cultural ways of Australia, and how to cope with same. I hope that happens.