The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

False Dilemmas and Real Binaries: Patterns of Error in Logic and Rhetoric

Posted on | January 25, 2020 | Comments Off on False Dilemmas and Real Binaries: Patterns of Error in Logic and Rhetoric


In his book SJWs Always Lie, Vox Day makes the important distinction between logic (the mental process by which we seek truth) and rhetoric (the language of persuasion). Both logic and rhetoric are skills necessary to statesmanship, because the political leader must first analyze the problems of public policy (logic), then explain the problem and convince others to support his proposed solution (rhetoric). As any student of history knows, it is often the case that there are good arguments on both sides of any public-policy controversy. The classic example of this is the Athenian expedition to Sicily during the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides in his famous History presents the argument made for the expedition by Alcibiades, and the opposing argument by Nicias. Alcibiades “won” the debate — in the sense that he persuaded the Athenian assembly to approve the expedition — but as the subsequent disaster proved, Nicias was entirely correct in arguing against the expedition.

This shows how persuasive rhetoric can triumph over sound logic, and one might think that statesmen would have learned something from this lesson, yet over and over, we see politicians leading their nations to disaster through similar errors. One of the most common tools of demagoguery, by which people are persuaded to support bad policy, is what students of logic recognize as the false dilemma fallacy:

A false dilemma (or sometimes called false dichotomy) is a type of informal fallacy in which something is falsely claimed to be an “either/or” situation, when in fact there is at least one additional option.

In the case of the Sicilian expedition, the debate in Athens was focused on the either/or notion that they must send military aide to their Ionian allies immediately, or else suffer the lost opportunity for what Alcibiades assured them would be an easy victory against their Spartan rivals. Yet the fact was that their allies had brought them a false report, exaggerating the situation in Sicily, and the wise thing to do would have been to send a small party to scout out the situation and report back, so that the assembly might be fully informed before undertaking such an expensive and risk endeavor. Because Alcibiades was ambitious for military glory, however, he derogated the arguments made for a cautious wait-and-see approach, and thus his demagoguery carried the debate.

Creating a sense of now-or-never urgency — “We must do something!” — when there is in fact plenty of time to examine the situation and consider alternatives to drastic action, is where deceptive rhetoric so often becomes outright propaganda. Thomas Sowell examines these propaganda methods in some detail in his excellent book The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy. Because we associate the word “propaganda” with totalitarian regimes, there is a tendency in democratic polities to ignore the ways in which dishonest methods of persuasion are employed in our own societies. However it can be shown, for example, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential campaign in 1932 was one of the first modern propaganda campaigns, engaging in character assassination against Herbert Hoover, demonizing him as the scapegoat to blame for the Depression (a) which was not his fault, and (b) which Hoover was doing everything he knew to relieve. Hoover was portrayed as a wicked servant of wealthy exploiters, and cruelly indifferent to the suffering of the poor. Subsequently, FDR was credited with having rescued the country from disaster, although it can be argued (as Amity Schlaes has done in The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression) that Roosevelt’s New Deal programs actually impeded recovery and made the Depression worse.

The causes of the Great Depression were complex, and there were many possible ways to deal with the economic problems of the 1930s, but FDR’s 1932 campaign (which for the first time employed a full-time director for the Democratic National Committee, with an emphasis on what would now be called “messaging,” i.e., propaganda) painted the choice as a false dilemma between the alleged cruel indifference of the GOP and the determination of Democrats to do something for “the forgotten man.” And this theme, endlessly reiterated, was carried over in successive campaigns over the next two decades into the Truman era, until finally Republicans were able to win back the White House by nominating the war hero Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. To this day, however, the Democrats continue to attract voters with the same dishonest rhetoric that elected FDR in 1932: Republicans are “the party of the rich,” and the only way to help the poor is to vote Democrat.

In a two-party system, our political choices tend to be binary, but Republicans ought not allow Democrats to distort this real binary into a logically invalid false dilemma. Conservatives have duty to point out, for example, that the general pro-business policies of the GOP do not mean that poor people — especially including minorities — will suffer economic harm. This is where the use of the false dilemma fallacy feeds into the zero-sum-game mentality: Poor people are repeatedly told by Democrats that “big business” and Republicans are to blame for their suffering, and that black people especially victimized because Republicans are “racist.” This rhetoric suggests a series of either/or choices: One is either for business (Republican) or against business (Democrat); either for black people (Democrat) or against them (Republican); and so forth through a series of choices between different sides in antagonistic conflicts. Twenty or 30 years ago, for example, Democrats railed relentlessly against “the Religious Right” as the dangerous force behind the GOP. Fifteen years ago, “neoconservatives” were the great Republican enemy, and 10 years ago, it was the Koch brothers. Nowadays, we hear about “white nationalists” and the “alt-right.” Despite all these shifts in Democrat propaganda, the general base of support for the Republican Party and the GOP’s general policy direction haven’t really changed much since 1990; the shifting nature of attack rhetoric from Democrats merely shows an opportunistic search for right-wing bogeymen with which frighten the emotional masses into voting Democrat.

Which brings us, of course, to Orange Man Bad and the impeachment saga. Nancy Pelosi insisted last fall that this was an urgent matter, but after ramming through the House impeachment vote, a long holiday ensued before she was willing to bring the case to trial in the Senate. Now we have Adam Schiff and his colleagues using now-or-never rhetoric to insist that President Trump must be removed from office or else . . .

Or else what, really? We are barely nine months away from the next election and, if Democrats can win in November, a new president will be in office by this time next year. Perhaps someone who paid close attention to last week’s Senate trial — a tedious rehash of arguments Democrats have been making for the past several month — can explain to me the great menace from which Schiff & Co. propose to save us. Those of us who were not persuaded in December, when House Republicans voted as a bloc against impeachment, as not likely to be persuaded by having the same argument reiterated now. What then is the urgent crisis which prompts Democrats to insist that the Senate must either (a) vote to convict and remove the president from office or (b) allow Russia to subvert our democracy by secretly controlling our policy toward Ukraine. This either/or choice requires us to accept as a basic premise that Trump is a puppet of the Kremlin, and it also requires us to ignore the fact that four of the House impeachment managers voted against U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. If they really do care so damned much about Ukraine, why didn’t they vote that way when they had the chance?

You didn’t hear any of this pointed out last week if you were watching CNN or MSNBC or news coverage on any of the Big Three broadcast networks. Our liberal media have embraced the Democrats’ claim that anyone who argues against impeachment is an agent of Russian influence, in the same way that all 62.9 million Americans who voted for Trump in 2016 are believed by the media to be white supremacists.

It’s always either/or with them: Unless you support Democrats, you will be demonized in some way — you’re a Religious Right homophobe, a Kremlin stooge, or whatever. And you either believe this Democrat propaganda, or you don’t. Well, then: I don’t believe it, and I don’t think anyone else should believe it, either. This is the real binary choice.

You might be surprised at how easy it is to just ignore the Democrats, ignore the media, and live your life as if you don’t care what they say.

I, for one, have long since ceased to give a damn.



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