Growing up in the American South-by-Southwest, country music was ever present. For the most part I didn’t choose to listen to it, but it was the preferred genre for most kids riding the bus to school every morning. Later on in college, when I worked part time at a country steakhouse, it was the only genre that existed for fifteen hours a week. So let’s just say my brain has devoted a bit more room to country songs than I ever really wanted it to.
So Shania Twain had a song way back in the day called “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” In the music video, she’s clearly a prostitute in danger of dying of thirst (and also, weirdly enough, manipulating the nation’s natural gas supply.) There is so much wrong with this music video, but the point of the song is that Little Leopard-Print Riding Hood is consistently underwhelmed by the men in her life because they resort to the same old guy stuff to impress her and she just wants a man who can love her right (and caress her body as well as she can).
So, as little as I resemble a prostitute in the Mojave desert fleeing from handsome rocket scientists on motorcycles (you know that actor flunked geometry), I feel like Shania Twain in America’s political landscape. (It seriously bothers me now. There are so many actual rocket scientists they could have gotten to participate in the music video, and you know a lot of them would die for the chance to be turned down by a dehydrated Shania Twain.)
A Nation In Love With Its Own False Dichotomies
In case you’re unfamiliar, a false dichotomy is an either/or statement that’s not really an either/or. I create them for my children all the time, because they’re still learning how to make choices. “Either you can eat cereal or eggs for breakfast,” for example. There are other things he could eat for breakfast, including macaroni and cheese. But I’m not making mac and cheese for breakfast, so I offer a false dichotomy to push my kids to accept one of two possible outcomes.
At some point, though, we become adults and have to be able to think critically and make decisions based on complex information. Thinking critically, in part, means learning to recognize fallacies, the tricks and shortcuts our brains use to reach conclusions that don’t really work, like false dichotomies. When we see these fallacies come up, it should send up a red flag in our brains that someone is logicking wrong and we need to dig deeper.
Here is the link to Wikipedia’s list of logical fallacies. Your homework is to start with the informal fallacies and read on. This is a list of everything that’s wrong with our political discourse. I’m serious. Every item on this list is something that people do wrong when they talk about politics, and politicians are just the worst about it. Here’s an unedited sample.
- Appeal to the stone (argumentum ad lapidem) – dismissing a claim as absurd without demonstrating proof for its absurdity.
- Argument from ignorance (appeal to ignorance, argumentum ad ignorantiam) – assuming that a claim is true because it has not been or cannot be proven false, or vice versa.
- Argument from (personal) incredulity (divine fallacy, appeal to common sense) – I cannot imagine how this could be true, therefore it must be false.
- Argument from repetition (argumentum ad infinitum) – signifies that it has been discussed extensively until nobody cares to discuss it anymore; sometimes confused with proof by assertion
- Argument from silence (argumentum ex silentio) – where the conclusion is based on the absence of evidence, rather than the existence of evidence.
- Argument to moderation (false compromise, middle ground, fallacy of the mean, argumentum ad temperantiam) – assuming that the compromise between two positions is always correct.
- Argumentum ad hominem – the evasion of the actual topic by directing an attack at your opponent.
Familiarize yourself with these failures of thinking. Internalize them; breathe them in. Set up an alert system in your mind that is instantly triggered when one of these happens. And one of the worst ones in American politics is the false dichotomy.
Democrat or Republican. Liberal or conservative. Either you think everyone should have assault rifles or you want to take away my guns. Either you want to bomb Iran or you want them to bomb us. Either you’re with us or against us.
Intelligent people everywhere should call it like it is: bullshit. (And I’m using the technical, philosophical meaning of bullshit.)
Which Brings Me Back to Shania Twain
I make it a point to stay well informed about the state of American politics, including the presidential race. This is all the more important this year, since I’m in grad school and I’ve sworn off fantasy football; I need an outlet for my desire to follow teams, players, and statistics, and to make predictions about how well they will perform. I’ve surveyed the political field as well as anyone else I know, and my conclusion is that that don’t impress me much.
Because every single one of those candidates uses fallacious thinking to support their arguments, including false dichotomies. It’s all what Harry Frankfurt calls bullshit, or hokum. With one or two exceptions, they don’t want to change how you think about the American political process. They want to change how you think about them personally and whether they have the personality and the convictions to be a good president.
The Problem with Convictions
But personality and convictions are the two worst things to elect someone for! I’m just going to come out and say it. I don’t trust convictions. Not in the least. Because convictions are just strong emotions, and emotions can’t perceive nuance and detail. Convictions make no rational arguments, no strategies. Convictions think in fallacies. Convictions are always wrong.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have a purpose. Emotions exist to give us a starting point for thought and action. This is what M and I are teaching our kids about emotions: When you feel something strongly, you need to think about why. Gather information to flesh out your understanding of the problem. It’s only after you’ve identified your emotion and thought about the problem that you should do something about it. And in the process, you will almost certainly have found places where your emotional understanding of the situation was wrong.
The best example of the wrong use of conviction in politics is the simple statement
X is wrong. Therefore, X should be illegal.
Building factories in developing nations to reduce personnel costs. Using speech in a way that demeans or insults a group of people. Hiring a white person instead of an equally qualified black person. Gay marriage. Abortion.
We feel strong emotions about these issues, as we should. And when we oppose them, our strong emotions push us to get rid of the things that make us feel that way. In politics, this translates to a call to outlaw something. We issue this call based on our convictions, but we almost always call to outlaw something without evidence for the costs or benefits of that action.
And these calls to outlaw something naturally become false dichotomies.
“Outsourcing American jobs is wrong. If you don’t want to outlaw it, then you hate the American worker.”
“Hate speech is wrong. If you don’t want to outlaw it, you’re sexist and racist.”
“Gay marriage is wrong. If you don’t want to outlaw it, you want to destroy American families.”
“Abortion is wrong. If you don’t want to outlaw it, you’re complicit in the murder of children.”
All I have to do is point to the War on Drugs. Drugs are wrong. Therefore, drugs should be illegal.
Millions of Americans incarcerated for decades at a time, removed from their families, removed from the workforce. More than a trillion dollars spent on law enforcement and incarceration. And the drug trade is strong. Whole nations have been destabilized as drug lords have gained power.
Or how about the War on Terror? Terror is wrong. Therefore, we should send our military overseas to fight terrorists.
Thousands of American servicemen and women killed on foreign soil. Another trillion dollars spent. And all we’ve done is make more terrorists. Whole nations have been destabilized as religious fanatics have gained power.
This is what happens when we make political decisions based on our convictions, and all of the fallacious thinking that comes with them, rather than evidence and reason. Do we really think that outlawing whatever it is that we hate will make this country unequivocally better? Then we’re fooling ourselves. There are always costs. Sometimes, those costs outweigh the benefits.
I don’t pretend to have answers to America’s problems. No one has them, including (especially) our presidential candidates. They’re problems so big that it takes the combined intelligence and effort of millions of people to resolve them. We’re not going to resolve them by using flawed thinking and appeals to emotion. Even the “straight talkers” on the campaign trail bullshit us.
So when it comes to actual political decisions, my philosophy is simple:
Do what works; don’t do what doesn’t.
There is no perfect path. There is no one political answer that works to make this country great. “Great” is subjective. What you think makes this country “great” says more about you than it does about the country.
I do have political convictions. But I don’t trust them. I suspect I’m wrong about everything I feel about politics. Because that’s the nature of conviction. I’m certainly not going to legislate my convictions on other people, and I expect the same from everyone else. Every political decision, every act, every law is a balance between costs and benefits. We design a lot of laws that are intended to have certain effects; a lot of times they simply don’t work. If you want to legislate something, you’d better have evidence it’ll do what you want it to do, and you need to show that you’ve accounted for the costs and risks.
And if you want to persuade me to take your side on a political issue, don’t give me emotion. Don’t tell me how strongly I should feel about it. It’s not that I don’t care–I do–but emotions don’t fix problems. Emotions commit fallacies. Convictions don’t impress me much.