Category Archives: False Dichotomy

An unforeseen cost of free speech

Freedom isn’t free.  Sure, and neither is free speech.  Some of the costs are those of ire from your allies for giving time to someone whose views you despise, some costs are the time and energy expended in ensuring that those with whom you disagree can express their views.  And there are the costs of considering and replying to their views.  These kinds of costs are familiar to those with Millian sympathiesthose who know only their own side know little of that.

Dennis Praeger at NRO has exacted a new cost for those who defend free speech: being attacked by those for whom you’ve fought for the freedom to speak for not being sincere in supporting free speech.  His reason?  Because you don’t seem to agree with his views.

While some of the professors who have signed these statements might sincerely believe that the university should honor the non-left value of free speech, one should keep in mind the following caveats.

First, the number of professors, deans, and administrators who have signed these statements is very small. . . .

Second, while no one can know what animates anyone else, it’s a little hard to believe that many of those who did sign are sincere. If they were, why haven’t we heard from them for decades? Shutting out conservatives and conservative ideas is a not new phenomenon.

Third, these statements accomplish nothing of practical value. They are basically feel-good gestures. . . .

If any professors want to do something truly effective, they should form a circle around a hall in which a conservative is scheduled to speak, with each professor holding up a sign identifying themselves as a professor: “I am [name], professor of [department].”

…. But it won’t happen. It won’t because the university is a particularly cowardly place.

Let’s start with the fact that because there are few professors signing the letter in support of free speech, they must not be sincere.  Surely this is backwards — it’s because they are few and stand to be on the receiving end of the ire of their colleagues that we know they are sincere.

Second, the familiar no conservatives in the academy line is just dumb here, since those who stand up for free speech and so on in the academy have been doing that since the beginning.  That they need to stand up for conservatives is (i) evidence of the problem Prager is talking about, and (ii) shows what wilting violets academic conservatives turn out to be.  Ooooh the Marxists can be soooo mean.  Prager’s big thought is that because they aren’t conservatives, they can’t seriously be in for protecting conservative speech.  But, hey, you’re not supporting free speech unless you’re supporting the rights of those whose views you hold to be deplorable to speak.  Otherwise, it’s just self-congratulatory nonsense.

Third, if Prager’s criterion for sincerity is to ‘form a circle’ around folks who are talking on campus, then (a) he’s got a misunderstanding of how most academics spend their time, and (b) he’s forgotten about the prof at Middlebury who got a concussion protecting Charles Murray from an angry mob of student protesters.  Yeesh.

The takeaway is that Praeger, because he doesn’t see the academics as on his side can’t see the work they are doing for free speech as anything but insincere.

Scumbag Teacher Meme

The scumbag teacher meme is one of the classic tu quoque memes on the internet.  It’s regularly: won’t accept late work, but takes forever to return papers; berates students for wasting time, but chats with students about stuff through class; has a Ph.D., but uses ‘irregardless’.  There are other non-tu quoque versions, too, like requires that you learn cursive, cancels class just 5 minutes before or with a note on the door, requires an expensive but never used textbook.  Most of the instances are misunderstandings about how education works and why teachers need more support (and more pay), but they are stand-ins for some frustration folks have with the current educational climate.

In a new instance of the scumbag teacher meme move, Jim Geraghty at NRO has an objection to how the Day without a Woman Protest is affecting schools.  You see, because so many women are teachers in the Alexandria schools, they ‘ve had to cancel school for a ‘teacher work day’.  Geraghty then identifies the troubles facing the schools:

Alexandria’s public schools underperform the statewide average in subject after subject. In the 2015–16 school year, 80 percent of Virginia students passed English proficiency exams; 73 percent of students in Alexandria did. In math, 80 percent statewide passed; 68 percent of Alexandria students did. Statewide, 77 percent of students passed a test of writing proficiency; 69 percent of Alexandria students did. In history, 86 percent of students passed statewide; 77 percent of Alexandria students did. In science, 83 percent of students statewide passed; 69 percent of Alexandria students did.. . .
[T]he ills that plague Alexandria schools and, indeed, schools around the country… [are] unlikely to be solved by “A Day Without a Woman.”

Here it is in a meme:

Here’s Geragthy’s final analysis:

Apparently, they’ve decided that standing up to the sexist menace across the river in Washington and nationwide is more important to them than doing their actual jobs. It’s a shame they aren’t more concerned with the tangible problems those jobs present every day.
But the trouble is that people can walk and chew gum at the same time.  Teachers can be worried about X and it can be at the top of their priority list, but they can also be worried about Y and Z, too.  And that means that they can even make some room to do Y and Z, too.  John had a nice observation about this a few weeks back with the ‘think of the children‘ trope.  In  this case, however, it’s a case of a red herring of assessing the importance of X with the greater importance of Y.
Another way to see this would be as an instance of a perfectionist’s false dilemma, or as John termed it a few years back, argumentum ad imperfectionem.  That it would be preferable for teachers to be in class for every day of scheduled school is correct, but this is not a perfect world.  And teachers are at liberty to use their personal days as they see fit.  That they all use them on the same day for a political purpose, well, is in an important way, exactly the point they were trying to make.

Polarization Perfectionism

Hi all, I’m back blogging here at the NS again, after a long break.  Ready to get back to it.  Thanks, John, for keeping the fire burning.

David French, over at National Review, has some pretty dark views about whether the partisan divide will ever be bridged, given the polarization of the political populace.  He makes some nice observations that polarization yields the view that one’s opposition is less open-minded, intelligent, honest, or even hard working than the average American.  (He leaves out the fact that polarization is both the result and cause of the divide, which is that it’s too often that we only talk to and read our own side…).

His argument that we can’t overcome polarization is on the basis of what he sees as who would need to be the leader for it. Namely, the new president, Mr. Trump.  The Donald has alienated folks given the way he’s campaigned (and given the inaugural), so folks don’t trust him.  But even if he were to soften his tone and recognized his political opponents as more than craven losers, French doesn’t think it’d make things better.

…if Trump stopped tweeting, spoke only in the most measured tones, and relentlessly reached out to black and Latino voters while also governing as a conservative, many millions of leftists and their media supporters would still howl in fury at his political program. You would relentlessly hear that Trump was somehow worse now than when he insulted his opponents, because that was only talk, while his policies represent actions.
This is a case of what’s sometimes called the Perfectionist false dilemma.  The reasoning goes like this:
We can either adopt some change to improve things or leave things as they (unfortunately) are.  The change won’t fix everything, nor would any fix be quick.  Therefore, the fix isn’t worth it.
Of course, the conclusion does not follow when it’s put that way.  Why? Because the reasoning leaves out the tertium quid of the ameliorating option of making things a little less bad.  Sure, in the Trump case, people still would distrust him and oppose him.  But that’s likely because of his long and bad history, and moreover, if he (as French notes) doesn’t change  his policies, he would merely be play-acting.  (Sure, if you only change your rhetoric, that’s not going to improve the divide by anything…)
But the main issue would be: if T were to change the rhetoric and actually heard the voices of those who were critical, then there may be some policy shift.  That would help with polarization.  Moreover, if he would take the time to explain his policies to those who disagree, maybe we’d understand why what he’s doing is more than sheer keptocratic manipulation.  But, hey, he’s just the President, not a miracle-worker, right?

False dilemma, inclusive disjunction

Mark Steyn’s lead post at NRO today was an argumentative (and organizational) trainwreck.  Here’s just one of the fallacious lovelies.  Steyn observes that lefties have in the past been against marriage, as a kind of anti-bourgeois bit of posing.  And now the lefties want marriage for homosexuals, now as a kind of ennobling and civilizinginstitution.  He  poses the dilemma for them:

Which of these alternative scenarios — the demolition of marriage or the taming of the gay — will come to pass? Most likely, both.

I like the fact that you can have an inclusive ‘or’ in ordinary English, but this one seems wrong.  First, it seems that the two features are at least prima facie inconsistent — if marriage is demolished, then it won’t play the taming function it’s supposed to play.  Right?  Second, are those the only two options or consequences? How about gay unions going on as they have for years and years, but now with legal protection from the state?

 

Did he just false dilemma himself?

Jed Babbin, over at The American Spectator, has some objections to the gender-integration of combat troops.  He breaks the issue into two questions:

First and foremost is whether the presence of women will add to or detract from the readiness and capability of the unit to perform its mission. The second is a moral question: Will having women serve in harm’s way benefit our military and society at large?

OK. That sounds fine.  Though the second moral question seems improperly formed.  Shouldn’t it be less an issue of serving society at large but more an issue of equal treatment of those in the military (i.e., not having a glass ceiling for women)?  Well, regardless, Babbin holds that the answer to the second is a NO, but he feels like the PC police will descend on him if he says much more about it:

The question of benefit to society has been mooted politically.

He then turns to the question, again, whether the presence of women will add or detract from readiness:

So we are left with the first question, which has to be answered with a resounding “no.”

Wait.  He posed the dilemma (add or detract), and now he says ‘no.’  Now, that doesn’t mean that he’s going to be arguing for a third option (though, given the way the question is posed, it should). Given what he says later (like, having women around yields “complete the destruction of the warrior culture”) it’s pretty clear that what Babbin means to say is that it will detract from readiness.  But, sheesh!  Somebody over there is playing (and being paid to be an) editor, right?

 

Adventures in false dilemmas

Here's the title of Howard Rich's post at American Spectator.

Barack Obama: Socialist or Nouveau Fascist?

Rich argues that Socialism isn't quite right about Obama's policies, as he does let many who have done well keep their spoils.  So it's fascism.  But the fascism label, Rich concedes, "isn't perfect".  That's why he calls it Nouveau Fascism. You see… when the term doesn't work, just call it a new version of that! 

Just is

Yet again, in the can't tell if trolling category, we have Ross Douthat, New York Times Columnist, arguing for the death penalty.  It's the not fact of arguing for it (full and irrelevant disclosure: I think we're better off without it), it's the way he does.  His argument has all of the earmarks of a sophistry challenge:

This is a healthy fear for a society to have. But there’s a danger here for advocates of criminal justice reform. After all, in a world without the death penalty, Davis probably wouldn’t have been retried or exonerated. His appeals would still have been denied, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison, and far fewer people would have known or cared about his fate.

Instead, he received a level of legal assistance, media attention and activist support that few convicts can ever hope for. And his case became an example of how the very finality of the death penalty can focus the public’s attention on issues that many Americans prefer to ignore: the overzealousness of cops and prosecutors, the limits of the appeals process and the ugly conditions faced by many of the more than two million Americans currently behind bars.

Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely, by contrast, could prove to be a form of moral evasion — a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked. We should want a judicial system that we can trust with matters of life and death, and that can stand up to the kind of public scrutiny that Davis’s case received. And gradually reforming the death penalty — imposing it in fewer situations and with more safeguards, which other defendants could benefit from as well — might do more than outright abolition to address the larger problems with crime and punishment in America.   

That Troy Davis's likely unjust (and therefore actually unjust) execution inspired people to care about his fate is not an argument in favor of the death penalty anymore than the outpouring of blood donation and patriotism was an argument for 9/11.  Some in the public responded in the appropriate moral way to an atrocity.  Good for them.  But the atrocity is not the reason for their being moral.  Take away that atrocity and they can be moral about something else–like prison reform, about which many already care death penalty aside–Douthat's insinuation is a false dichotomy (it's either death penalty elimination or broader prison reform!). 

There's too much that's just awful here to comment on.  Here, however, is the worst of the worst:

Abolishing capital punishment in a kind of despair over its fallibility would send a very different message. It would tell the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice. It could encourage a more cynical and utilitarian view of why police forces and prisons exist, and what moral standards we should hold them to. And while it would put an end to wrongful executions, it might well lead to more overall injustice.

And thus the sophistry challenge.  Eliminating the big injustices would merely (albeit justifiably) undermine confidence in the unjust system.  That would be unjust. 

If it impedes economic growth

I watched the first Republican debates this last Tuesday.  Michele Bachmann, I felt, got the short end of the stick. Even for her coming out party (she declared herself in the race at the debates), she was too often talked over and seemed to get the fewest direct questions. John King spent way too much time asking "Elvis or Cash," "Iphone or Blackberry," "Boxers or Briefs."  Bachmann didn't get a chance to shine. Too bad for fallacy hunters like me.  But when asked what government program she'd cut to reduce the deficit, she did offer up a classic false dilemma (video):

And I would begin with the EPA, because there is no other agency like the EPA. It should really be renamed the job-killing organization of America

Short reply: it is part of the government's job to think 20+ years down the road even when you don't.  Too many complain about the government being on people's backs, but, you know, if you have dangerous chemicals that could end up in my drinking water, the government should be on your back like a family of spider monkeys.  Got toxic waste and need to dispose of it? G-man, I hope, has a long, long, long list of forms and so on that you need to fill out and verify before so.  Why?  'Cause nobody (not even the polluters) wants to live in a world of trash.

(N.B., I once had a colleague who confessed that he rooted for the polluters when watching the late 80's cartoon series Captain Planet.  So I will back off my statement that polluters don't want to live in filth.  Apparently, one of them does, or at least doesn't see the comic book justice of having his trash ending up in his bedroom.)

If it’s on a spectrum, it doesn’t mean anything

Phyllis Schlafly is a culture warrior.  Long ago, it was about the Equal Rights Amendment.  Nowadays, it's about gender.  Her recent post at the Eagle Forum is about an Oakland elementary school that had a presentation about gender identity.  It was paid for by the California Teacher's Union. 

The major message was that "gender identity" means people can choose to be different from the sex assigned at birth and can freely "change their sex." According to Gender Spectrum, "Gender identity is a spectrum where people can be girls, feel like girls, they feel like boys, they feel like both, or they can feel like neither."

Yep.  That's why there were terms like 'tomboy' and 'girlyboy' and so on.  Schlafly knows about those things, for sure.  Surely she's not objecting to the fact that someone's saying something true. She's objecting, instead, to how this is being presented.

Kindergartners were introduced to this new subject by asking them to identify toys that are a "girl toy" or a "boy toy" or both, and whether they like the color pink. They were read a story called "My Princess Boy.". . . . The lessons seem more likely to confuse the kids about who they are and, indeed, Gender Spectrum boasted that its goal is to confuse the children and make them question traditional ideas about who is a boy and who is a girl.

It is the confusion that's objectionable, you see.  That is, it can't be that Schlafly is objecting to it being made clear that some people are tomboys, it's that it is being taught that it's OK.  That, she thinks, is confusing.  Her thought seems to be: if you are going to educate children, it cannot be in the form of showing them that things are difficult, complex, and confusing.  That's bad. 

I'd like to know what Schafly thinks about teaching long division to third graders, because when my kid was in third grade, she had more trouble with remainders than she did with the idea that her classmate had two moms.  Oh, and she still had to do the long division — being educated means that you have the cognitive tools to face confusing facts, not deny them. 

But, you know, it's never really about the children with Schlafly.  It's all dogwhistling for cultural conservatism.  And the destruction of the intelligibility of sexual reality.  Ready for the conservative culture-warrior dogwhistling money shot?

Gender Spectrum is determined to make children think that boy and girl don't mean anything anymore, and that it's no longer normal to believe people are born male or female or have different roles.

Phew!  Now, I don't think that's possible, if they are on a spectrum.  Otherwise, it wouldn't be a spectrum.  Schlafly's point is confusion. An analogy: Black and white are on a spectrum, and you can have lots of things in the penubral space between the two.  But for it to be a penumbra, the two must be different.  The point of gender spectrum is that there isn't one way to be a girl or a boy.  But that doesn't mean the terms don't mean anything.  It's just that many of the things that we'd thought distinguished the two are irrelevant (playing with trucks, for example) and that a person's sex doesn't determine where that person is on the gender spectrum.  Sure, it's complicated and confusing.  But, geez, the only things that aren't complicated and potentially confusing are the mindsets of conservatives.  Well, to clarify, they aren't confusing, but they are all too often confused.

Better we didn’t shoot him?

Jay Homnick at The American Spectator isn't buying the "apotheosis of Obama" narrative he thinks is being told about the operation to take out Osama Bin Laden.  Partly because the target didn't really matter any more. He says:

Osama has been dead for years, of course, in the operational sense. He has not been in the position to lead anything. He was lucky enough to be physically in this world so he could read his own obituary. . . . He turned out to be in a suburban hovel rather than in a feral cave, but the basic reality was just as advertised. Once he went over-the-hill in Tora Bora, he was reduced to watching the reruns of his greatest episodes.

So operationally, it wasn't a high priority to get OBL.  He'd been cut off from the operations.  Ant it seems that when he's giving directions to others, it's more like advice.  Not orders.  And so:

I hate to say this, really I do, but it looks like we have done Zawahiri and Awlaki a huge favor by taking out their dotty old pensioner. They are off the hook of paying sentimental obeisance to the old mullah emeritus, plus as a bonus they get to invoke his martyrdom as a call to arms. Otherwise they might have had to smuggle him back to headquarters someday and deal with him up close.

We've been slowly working out this notion of the false dilemma with only one lemma (the false whatever), and I think this is a good version of it.  Homnick may be right about the consequences of killing OBL, but consequentialist arguments must always be constrastive.  That is, if you make a consequentialist argument against doing X, it must not only be from the bad consequences of doing it but you must show that those consequences are worse than not doing X.