Bully for false dilemmas

Thomas Sowell thinks most of the contemporary rhetoric about school bullying is nonsense.  Empty rhetoric, says he.

There is a lot of talk from many people about bullying in school. The problem is that it is all talk. There is no sign that anybody is going to do anything that is likely to reduce bullying.

The trouble, as Sowell sees it, is that teachers can't decisively respond to bullies in the classroom.  Why is that?  Because the courts are more interested in protecting the rights of the bullies.  And you see, when the courts are all over the teachers, when the government interferes with how discipline in the classroom is handled, nobody can be in charge.  And then there are bullies. 

Might educators abuse their power, if the courts did not step in? Of course they could. Any power exercised by human beings can be abused. But, without the ability to exercise power, there is anarchy.

And so there are two choices: anarchy consequent of judicial meddling to preserve the rights of bullies or . . .  What?

For years, there have been stories in New York and Philadelphia newspapers about black kids beating up Asian classmates. But do not expect anybody to do anything that is likely to put a stop to it.

If these were white kids beating up Hispanic kids, cries of outrage would ring out across the land from the media, the politicians, the churches and civic groups. But it is not politically correct to make a fuss when black kids beat up Asian kids.

I am going to take a shot at what Sowell's suggestion is:  racial profiling for bullying.  Alright, that's crazy.  How about not being worried about the racial politics of identifying violent individuals, regardless of the color of their skin?  That seems plausible, but is that outlawed by the courts?  No.  So that's not a different option. Okay, I don't know what the proposal is. Certainly not about how teachers should run class, now.

Sowell isn't very clear about what he sees as the alternative.  Fine, maybe we can see his alternative in the way he handles a contrast case: 

Britain was once one of the most law-abiding nations on earth. But the reluctance of the left to put some serious punishment on criminals has been carried so far there that only 7 percent of convicted criminals actually spend any time behind bars. Britain has now overtaken the United States in various crime rates.

Ah, so it is the state punishing criminals, but more severely?  How does that have anything to do with teachers in classrooms?  Or bullies?  Now it's about crime rates.  Huh.  Some false dilemmas derive from there being two options posed, but the best third option suppressed.  This false dilemma has one option posed (and rejected), and then no clear alternative offered.  Maybe should be called the 'false whatever-lemma'. 

24 thoughts on “Bully for false dilemmas”

  1. Ah, but I noticed that the Wikipedia page for ABSO didn't have anything to do with bullying!  Score one for Sowell!  Though, strangely, it seems one can be charged with "dogging." ( It is what I thought it was. I clicked the link.) Score one for the weirdness of the world!  Aaron gets the assist.  For both!

  2. What can we do about "False Dilemma Bullies": people who go around pointing out false dilemmas? 

  3. Folks,
    There is no false dilemma in Sowell's article, because as Scott points out Sowell isn't presenting a dilemma. Sowell makes two separate claims; one the federal government isn't going to do anything about bullying, and schools are limited to an unreasonable degree in how they can discipline students. The real problem with his article is that he doesn't cite any sources, and I'm not about to do his research for him.
    -Ben

  4. It is a question, regularly, whether to interpret a series of speech acts as amounting to an argument (expressing reasons toward a conclusion) or as a collection of bald assertions.  If we go with the former, we will attribute reasoning, and some of it will be bad.  That sometimes means that we will judge a piece of communication harshly based on that reasoning we see there.
    If we take the latter route, we don't attribute any fallacies.  But that's because we're not looking for reasoning at all.
    I guess my defualt is to interpret the sentences people communicate to me, especially in circumstances taht lend themselves to argumentation, as bearing relevance relations.  If your defaults, Ben, are to see Sowell's sentences as having nothing to do with each other, then all the better for you.  We don't attribute any fallacies to Sowell.  Right.  But, again, that's because we don't attribute any reasoning to him.   Who's more charitable there?

  5. What I find strange about this is the "full circle" idea that may have been missed here.  When this country was first being formed, Brittan releassed most of their prisoners, put them on boats, and sent them here in an attempt to create anarchy.  Now, today, Thomas Sowell says that Brittan has surpassed us in crime.  I wonder if they will be sending over another batch of prisoners again?

  6. Let me try again my last response didn't go through.
    I think you're interpretation of his argument is wrong. His conclusion is, "We should be skeptical of Obama's efforts to stop Bullying."
    "There is no sign that anybody is going to do anything that is likely to reduce bullying."
    He then goes on to give various reasons for why we should be skeptical; Schools are limited in how they discipline students by various court rulings, a bullying crackdown would have a disparate impact on blacks (key democratic voting block), and liberals are generally less inclined to increase penalties for crime.
    You're mistake was assuming a much stronger thesis than Sowell intended. Sowell doesn't advocate any policies, what he does do is criticize court rulings that he feels place an excessive burden on schools.
    "When judges create new "rights" for bullies out of thin air, just as they do for criminals, and prescribe "due process" for school discipline, just as if schools were little courtrooms, then nothing is likely to happen promptly or decisively."
    Where in your opinion he commits a fallacy is when he goes on to say, "Might educators abuse their power, if the courts did not step in? Of course they could. Any power exercised by human beings can be abused. But, without the ability to exercise power, there is anarchy."
    He could be accused of presenting a false dilemma if he said, either the courts never step in or we will have anarchy. Obviously he doesn't believe that the courts should never interfere, what he believes is that the requirements that they placed on schools are unreasonable.

  7. Hi Ben,
    That's a better challenge, namely that Sowell's line of thought isn't between options, but to show that little will change with bullying, especially if Dems are in charge. Basically, there are legal stumbling blocks and a lack of political will. 
    The trouble is that the way he shows this is by contrast with what a conservative would do — have really strict rules, impose heavy sanctions, and so on.  Have "swift and decisive action."  The reasoning is that since Dems won't do that when they run classes like "little courtrooms", they won't do anything.
    The trouble, of course, is that Sowell isn't clear what the conservative alternatives are.  I considered a few in the post, and they were either legally beyond the pale or already in place with 'no tolerance' policies. 
    I think in this case, it is important to remember that to criticize someone's actions (or as Sowell sees it, inaction), it is required that you show that there were other and better options, not just that the (in)action led to bad consequences.

  8. Scott,
    "I think in this case, it is important to remember that to criticize someone's actions (or as Sowell sees it, inaction), it is required that you show that there were other and better options, not just that the (in)action led to bad consequences."
    Except he isn't criticizing someones' actions he is making a prediction about what will happen, "not much." His argument would be like someone in 2001 predicting that not much will get done about climate change because of a Republican president and a senate that voted unanimously against the Kyoto protocol.
    He never argues that a Republican president would be capable of doing more, after all there are two obstacles; lack of political will and court rulings. Minus the second obstacle, he strongly implies that a Republican would be likely to do more because conservatives are less inclined to leniency.

  9. You must be reading a different article, Sowell has done a lot of criticizing on the grounds that we either exercise power his way (the non "politically correct way") or we do nothing about bullying and accept rising crime rates, just like Britian.  Ergo, ipso fatso.  Try to stay on point Ben.

  10. John,
    "Sowell has done a lot of criticizing on the grounds that we either exercise power his way (the non "politically correct way") or we do nothing"
    I've read this article many times and he never says anything remotely like that. The example of Britain was used to demonstrate the consequences of excessive leniency, he is criticizing Britain for straying to far in one direction from the appropriate mean.

  11. I think you get it Ben.  The alternative is clear–the non politically correct application of punishment, or we'll become Sowell's (likely fictional) image of Britain.  The choice, dear Mericans, is yours.

  12. John,
    I think you and Scot's real objection to the article is not the content but the snarky tone. What you call a false dilemma is Sowell's belief that the deterrent effect of punishment is the thing most likely to change people's behavior. Is he wrong? I don't like those stupid red light camera's, but I am darn careful around Cicero and Petersen.
    Tangentially, agreeing with Sowell that increased punishment would deter bullies, and is the most obvious solution, doesn't obligate one to endorse stricter punishment. Saudi Arabia chops people's hands off for stealing, I wouldn't be surprised if that reduced the amount of stealing…and no I don't endorse chopping people's hands off.
    Ben

  13. That's right again Ben. 

    Respecting basic rights, etc. = not exercising power

    Not exercising power = chaos.

    there's our choice.  It's a crappy argument.  Not taking it as an argument, but as snark, I think (as Scott argued above) is less charitable to Sowell).

    You're iron-manning Sowell.  Citing the Philly situation as evidence of his view underscores that fact.

  14. Ben, noting Philly is the same strategy as Sowell's noting Britain — you show the consequences of following this line of (in)action.  That's to criticize it, and you and Sowell have highligted what you take to be the cause of that (in)action: leniency.  But arguments from consequences are comparative judgments, and the criticism is incomplete without showing that an alternative doesn't have those consequences or other worse ones.  Without the alternative, it fails as an argument.  And that's why it's a false-whatever-lemma.

  15. John and Scott,
    Sowell's argument should be interpreted through his thesis, as I've stated before his thesis is that we should be skeptical of Obama's anti-bullying efforts. I think he offers some decent reasons to be skeptical. What you object to is the premise that we either except more punishment or more crime/violence/bullying/etc. You consider this premise a false dilemma. It isn't a false dilemma at all, it's a trade off.
    You seem to be claiming that Sowell is making an argument for a conservative approach toward punishment. Except he never actually advocates any policy changes or positions. Sowell's overall argument doesn't depend on some kind of extreme false dilemma, his premise is that all other things being equal there is a trade off. You have stray manned this single premise and used it to dismiss his entire argument. And that's a shame because, we should be skeptical of Obama's anti-bullying campaign. 
    "Respecting basic rights, etc. = not exercising power
    Not exercising power = chaos."
    ^The above is a text book straw man.

  16. I think your objections such as they are have been sufficiently addressed.  I will note, however, that failing to iron man someone with a bad argument doesn't constitute straw manning him, classic or otherwise. 

    Besides, with remarks such as this:

    "When judges create new "rights" for bullies out of thin air, just as they do for criminals, and prescribe "due process" for school discipline, just as if schools were little courtrooms, then nothing is likely to happen promptly or decisively."

    Sowell shows himself litle worthy of fairness. 

  17. John,

    "……failing to iron man someone with a bad argument doesn't constitute straw manning him……"
    You're wrong. The thesis of his argument is not "the conservative approach is better." Maybe he believes that, maybe he implies it, but it simply isn't the thesis of his op-ed. He clearly states the thesis of his op-ed in the first two paragraphs, that we should be skeptical of Obama's anti-bullying initiative.
    "The problem is that it is all talk. There is no sign that anybody is going to do anything that is likely to reduce bullying."
    Further, he never advocates any specific policies, as Scot acknowledges. If he were making a disjunctive argument he would have posed an alternative.
    But I will email him tomorrow and ask him whether my interpretation is that correct one.

  18. Ben,

    You keep making the point without knowing it.  There is the Obama-liberal (God only knows what that is in Sowell's mind) and the non-politically correct alternative–exercising punitive power conservative style.

    And I'm not wrong about that general claim above.  I'm not iron-manning Sowell.  Not iron manning him doesn't mean I'm straw manning him.  He's got nothing but contempt for what he takes to be the alternative to his advocated but undefined approach.  All anyone here has done is pointed out that even if he's correct about Obama's implicit racism and dishonesty (speaking of straw men), the dilemma he suggests doesn't obtain.

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