Serena Williams and the logical fallacies

I’m not going to summarize what happened.

I only want to point out a couple of specific aspects. One is the logical fallacy that lies as the basis of many discussions.

The main objective fact (including the controversy) is that the umpire gave Serena a warning for coaching, coaching that was admitted but that Serena claimed not having seen (but that is irrelevant for the rules). The problem here is that this rule is not applied consistently (or claimed not to be applied consistently), and so it depends on the sensibility of the umpire whether to enforce it or not. I do agree that the match could have been handled more gracefully, because in the end these decisions led to worse outcome for everyone involved and no one directly benefited from that choice, but the umpire still applied the rules as they are written.

Now the topic is whether or not that decision was “sexist”. The logical fallacy is to consider that topic relevant for the match. It’s relevant for a discussion, afterwards, but it’s not relevant for the match itself. I’ll explain why.

In sport there are quite often different rules for men and women. I’m not an expert but I think the height of the basket in basketball is set differently? In any case we’re quite used to having slightly different rules, we also have some slight different rules in tennis. Whether we agree or not with this practice, what’s important for sport being sport, and fair, is that once the match starts the rules are applied uniformly to everyone who participates in that match.

In tennis, for example, we have different rules if the surface is hard or clay. As long the rules of that specific match are applied to both players, the match is fair. This to say that rules change all the time, what’s important is that in a match between two players the rules are applied uniformly, and not that those rules are applied uniformly across all matches and all players. Different tournaments, different rules. Different years, different rules. Even rules against doping change over time.

In the case of the match of Serena Williams she was playing another woman POC. If anything, the only trace of possible bias is that her opponent was Asian, and that the match was taking place in New York, so Serena had the favor of the public supporting her A LOT MORE. A lot more loudly. This is a definite, objective advantage. It is NOT applied uniformly to both players, but we still also widely accept it as it is. It’s just part of the game as it is part of most sports. Yet it still is an objective bias and it’s important for an objective analysis of what happened.

The fact is: Serena was not playing against a man. Whether or not rules are applied not uniformly to men and women isn’t an issue here (regarding the match being played, not the cultural discussion, which is legitimate). It isn’t an issue because Serena plays on the women side of the tournament, exclusively against other women. So even in the case “men play by different rules” IS IRRELEVANT as long those rules are applied uniformly to the TWO players engaged in that match (and the rest of the tournament they played). At no time in the tournament Serena crosses her path with a man, so the application of the rules just can’t technically be sexist simply because the match is between two women. She’s not playing against men, so she can’t technically be subject to bias and favoritism as in the case she was playing against a man, and so treated differently compared to her opponent.

To be fair the rules of that specific match have to be applied uniformly to both players, they don’t have to be applied uniformly TO THE REST OF THE WORLD. The match is its own entity, and what matters is that the rules are applied to those players who participate in that match, not everyone else who’s not part of that match.

This before any sort of personal opinion or cultural discussion can take place. It’s just analysis.

Of course the discussion doesn’t stop there, it starts. But on the internet things completely fall apart because every opinion is then weaponized, factions are built, and then it’s just a war.

I’m not on one side, I’m not on the other, and I’m not in the middle either. I’m precisely positioned regarding the considerable number of aspects that build this overall complex issue. I won’t pick a faction. But we’ve seen the debate degenerating, to the point I’m not really sure that bringing up these themes actually leads to an improvement of our society. What I observe is a push for extremism. A will to entrench personal beliefs and identity.

You cannot just cleave these complex problems in two halves, and what I observe is that as a society we absolutely have zero defenses. We have no way to handle this, and it only leads to that extremism that makes everything worse.

Taking a step back, you can see how emotions are what build opinion. For example:

https://www.teenvogue.com/story/serena-williams-us-open-mistreatment-op-ed

As I watched Serena repeatedly ask for an apology, I sat up a little straighter, glared at my television and felt a knot slowly forming in the pit of my stomach. I tweeted the words, “Oh no,” and started to cry. In that moment, Serena voiced something that I could relate to so deeply, something that often goes unsaid: the many times in my life as a black women, I have deserved an apology and haven’t gotten it.

Can you say this sentiment is not legitimate? Of course it is (legitimate).

But just because you can recognize yourself and empathize with an aspect of a story doesn’t mean the whole story is yours and that the appropriation is itself legitimate. Serena didn’t deserve an apology. She threatened, accused and offended the umpire, reiterating this behavior over and over. It wasn’t one time. Even in the possibility the umpire enforced a too bland rule, he cannot “apologize” for applying that rule too firmly, because that’s his job.

Your mind has sliced a part of the story that moves you. That part is legitimate (I do believe you had those experiences when you deserved apologies and didn’t get any), but this one is not your story. And if you then transform Serena’s story in your story then you’re wrong. Because these stories are not the same.

This simplification, where different stories become one story, is both extremely powerful, extremely important, but also dangerous. Because that simplification compresses and cuts away aspects of the story that are not irrelevant at all.

Yet, in order to bring change to our society you cannot use differentiation. You need a story, a symbol, a flag. One movement that pushes the sentiment as one and whole. Not fragmentation, not differentiation, not complexity. You need things simple.

Beware of things being simple.