That Looks Terrible!

Time for a LogicChecker of a recent news story, this one focusing on issues related to visual evidence that I introduced here and here.

The image I’d like to analyze is the one at the top of this story which made the rounds in many major media outlets, as well as exploding on social media couple of weeks back.

This was actually one of several similar images that came from the US border with Mexico where customs agents have been trying deal with an influx of thousands of Haitians trying to get into the country. In each photo, a horseback-riding border patrolman is holding a long cord and appears to be using it to control crowds of would-be migrants.

First Twitter, then the mainstream media, and finally members of the US government initially claimed that those cords were whips used by agents on horses to beat the Haitians. While claims that border patrolmen used actual whips were modified once it was clear that these were reins used by anyone riding a horse to control their mount, accusations are still swirling that those reins were being used “like whips” against the crowd.

There has been considerable fact-checking about the original photos, including claims by the person who took them that they were being misrepresented as depicting agents violently whipping migrants. But these corrections do not seem to have stemmed public outrage, including official calls for investigations and possible punishment for the men depicted in the photos.

So why did these particular images pack such power?

The clear answer is that they trigger memories of historic images like this one in which black slaves are being whipped by white masters during the period when slavery was widespread in much of the US:

Such images from the past generate justified horror at what took place during an era when America not only allowed slavery but allowed the kind of brutality captured in images of that vile practice.

So what connects pictures coming from the US-Mexican border in 2021 to historic images from the 19th century? It’s our old friend the synecdoche.

If you recall, a synecdoche is when one thing stands in for another, such as “Boston” standing for the Boston Red Sox in a sentence such as: “Boston won the World Series.” (I love using that example.)

In the current context, a synecdoche implies, but does not necessarily state outright, the conclusion of an argument. In this case that conclusion would be that American border control practices represent the same kind of racism and brutality one saw during the American era of chattel slavery.

If you were to make that argument without image-based anecdotal evidence, you would have to connect the following premise and conclusion:

Premise 1: Border patrol agents use whips (or whip-like devices) to control Haitians at the US border.

Conclusion: US border patrol agents are acting exactly like pre-Civil War masters brutalizing their black slaves.

When rendered in this format, it is clear that a number of additional premises are required to connect the one premise represented by the images I've been talking about to the conclusion.

For example, you would need to establish how contemporary border patrol members connect to historic slave masters in terms of their race and motivation. You would also need one or more premises that establishes that Haitian migrants trying to enter the country illegally are morally equivalent to Africans kidnapped from their own countries and brought to the US in chains. Finally, you would need premises that establish that the goals of border agents trying to manage a crowd were the same (or at least very close) to the goals of those holding the whip hand in the slave-holding South of yore.

Given that each of these premises would need to withstand scrutiny, as would the connections between those premises and the conclusion, is it any wonder why few people are making such an argument explicitly? Instead, they are counting on the emotional impact of the images themselves to cement a connection between current border-control procedures and the historic practice of slavery without making an argument.

None of this is to say that everything happening at the US border is humane and civilized. As mentioned last time, the internment of attempted migrants (including children) in facilities where terrible things (including the spread of COVID) are likely could be reasonably described as inhumane.

But arguments to that effect would have to take into account the problem agents at the border have been asked to deal with, problems that were not of their making. Such arguments could lead to practices that try to balance the needs of would-be migrants to be treated humanely with the equally legitimate needs of a nation to protect its borders.

Unfortunately, argumentation from imagery short circuits our ability to engage in rational debate over issues that may not have unambiguous answers by asking us to accept a conclusion based solely on visceral reactions to questionable evidence.