No, You’re Both Wrong
How to deal with the fallacy of false dichotomy and other manipulative framing
By MARTIN REZNY
Let’s start with a brain teaser. Which is true? Saying that teaching history through the lenses of theories like Marxism, feminism, or postcolonialism is fully responsible for today’s divisive public discourse, or saying that questioning the absolute correctness of any of these theories makes one an asshole/sexist/racist? The title of this article is a hint.
Like Alice Vitiello, Ph.D. explains in her essay, one of the surest ways to misinterpret reality is to only uncritically accept a singular theoretical framework and use it to interpret everything. We don’t even have a single theory of everything in material physics. Assuming we do have something even approaching it in the social domain is, in all fairness, pure insanity.
Let’s take the example of questioning something like the postcolonial theory. It’s undeniably true that various peoples throughout history have been brutally and unjustifiably oppressed or exterminated, and many are to this day. It’s also undeniably true that the kind of people who would do, enable, or even condone such crimes against humanity are, as close as anyone can get to it, objective assholes. However, does it mean that everything in the world is and always has been about this particular struggle? No, it doesn’t.
It’s not racist to look at, say, the civil war through the lens of economics as a Marxist or a capitalist; through the lens of an eternal spiritual fight of good versus evil; through the lens of behavioral psychology or history of war or American nationalism or any other framework. It’s not racist to allow oneself to be able to use frameworks unconcerned with race.
What’s racist is to actively think, argue, and do racist things.
What the other frameworks might show you is that apart from moral evil, there were economic reasons for slavery, and political reasons for slavery, and religious reasons for slavery, and psycho-social reasons for slavery that had nothing to do with evil intent and each require their own kind of solution, if your goal is to end racism and slavery once and for all. It may show you, annoyingly, why it is so difficult for many people to reject racist policies for reasons other than them being reprehensible human beings.
An argument can be made that even if something like the postcolonial theory isn’t perfect, its goals are desirable, and therefore questioning it in any way is helping the bad guys win. The problem with this reasoning is that this is how ideology works, not thought. It’s fundamentally intellectually dishonest and ultimately self-defeating to twist the truth (like by reducing its complexity) so that you help yourself achieve a political goal. Most of us do want racism to end, I know I do, but if it’s accomplished on the foundation of ideological politicking, it will just become the new terrible insane thing.
The Mental Martial Art of Box Breaking
Unfortunately, that’s not where the problems with the framing of thought end. Even when you get introduced to an alternative theory, you need to consider that the world cannot be reduced to two opposed theories, or even all the theories we have. The manipulative framework is in this case the whole debate, preventing one from considering whole alternative debates.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean everything is relative to the point where there’s no truth, it just means that truth is really complex. Not just black and white, not just shades of grey, not even black and white OR shades of grey. There’s all the other colors, and the black and white, and the shades of grey. And probably dimensions other than colors that we don’t fully comprehend.
Reducing the debate to a limited number of theoretical or ideological frameworks, typically two because of our bilateral bias, is called the fallacy of false dichotomy. True to itself, even its name is a false dichotomy because the reduction can be to more than two, but still fewer than all, options. Late comedian George Carlin has a great joke that illustrates how this works:
Here’s another guy thing that sucks. These t-shirts that say: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”. You ever see that? This is more of that stupid Marine Corps bullshit. Obsolete, male impulses from a hundred thousand years ago, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”. You know what I do when I see that shirt; I obstruct.
If you’re interested in free thought and not ideology, never let anyone force you to choose from a limited number of options. Always consider what are all of the applicable options, and then choose the best one among them all. Also consider what the precise definition and true limitations of each available perspective are. If the perspective pushed on you is to be for or against something like democracy, inquire into what that means. Democracy in particular can be roughly fifty different regimes, or a vacuous buzzword.
Nazis — Are They Bad?
Let’s try another exercise. I’m reasonably sure that since I’m a relatively privileged white guy (sorry for that), I’m doing all this pretend questioning only to help white supremacists push their agendas and prosper by relativizing how bad they truly are. So let’s browse through a variety of theoretical frameworks and see what they conclude about Nazis, shall we:
Postcolonialism: Nazis are morally bankrupt imperialist oppressors of the people, and major racist assholes.
Marxism: Nazis are morally bankrupt imperialist oppressors of the people, and major elitist assholes.
Feminism: Nazis are morally bankrupt imperialist oppressors of the people, and major chauvinist assholes.
American nationalism: Nazis are morally bankrupt imperialist oppressors of the people, and major traitor assholes.
I could go on. And on and on and on.
You see, truth might not be singular, but in extreme cases, it often is quite convergent. The evil of racism is not relativized and trivialized when you look at it from different points of view, it is more fully explained. Saying you have to adopt an absolute truth or everything becomes relative and meaningless is itself a false dichotomy, and a manipulative framing when applied to a whole discourse. In this case, it’s more informed and accurate to oppose Nazis because of them being racist chauvinist elitist assholes, rather than only because of them being racists. It’s only wrong to not oppose them.
If there’s any discussion to be had in this case, it’s about what’s the most worst thing about them and how severe should be the means applied to thwart them on a scale from uncompromising to extremely severe. As you move from a full metal Nazi through a vocal racist to your standard redneck, though, more complexities arise on the level of what’s the best strategy to address these people. But even so, there are vastly more frameworks that still condemn all racism, rather than condone, tolerate, or ignore it.
You have maybe some traditionalists, religious zealots, honest heartless eugenicists, old-school imperial jingoistic nationalists, and ruthless capitalists that would attempt to justify racism using logic of some kind. Everyone else along with their theoretical frameworks would advocate for an ethical treatment of all people, for personal, moral, economic, spiritual, political, legal, scientific, and/or abstractly philosophical reasons. That’s what you get to understand if you learn to look at the world through multiple frameworks.
The Surgical Spine Re-Insertion Procedure
When you choose to apply this knowledge to make a case in support of or opposed to anything for personal gain, then a) you’re an asshole, but b) you’re only proving anything to a person who doesn’t understand that it is only a single view out of many. A mind trained in breaking through the constraints of propaganda or false dichotomy would simply respond in a “true, but…” manner. Multiple perspectives can be true at the same time, just not equally. The search for truth isn’t an issue of arithmetic of how many arguments one can make, it’s about an informed choice of ultimate values.
When someone who may or may not be a racist apologist argues for instance that we cannot judge people from historical times by contemporary standards because they didn’t realize how bad was the normal thing that everyone was doing back then, it is an argument. It has logic and everything! And then there are other arguments that also make logical sense, like of course we can judge them, they were people just like us and there even were people back then who did understand that slavery was evil and opposed it publicly. The point is to evaluate which logic is stronger.
It’s not a healthy thing to shut down the debate, what’s healthy is to strive to make a better case for what is more completely and deeply right. Without fair consideration of alternative viewpoints, there is no understanding of the world or the enemy, only shouting and violence. There are no solutions, only the creation of new, worse problems. If the good guys are losing, the solution is to become better at being a good guy, not abandoning ethics. If you turn into a bad guy to win and you win, then the good guys didn’t win, did they.
But don’t take anything I say for granted just because I can make an argument. I always try to make my case after considering the complexity of the real world to the best of my ability, but I’m certain that there are perspectives that I fail to consider. Think about what I didn’t say, why I chose the examples that I chose and not others, think about my background like where I literally come from. I really try not to have any opinions only because I’m white or male, but who knows, call me out on any BS that I’m not aware of. But if I am a Nazi sympathizer, then free thought is fascist.
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