(Note: I revised the first paragraph to clarify the meaning of false dichotomy–04 June 2012)
dichotomy = division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups
A favorite tool of the Fellowship of the Perpetually Aggrieved (FPA for short from now on) is the false dichotomy. According to the FPA, in order to be considered in favor of/against a general concept (“B”), you ALSO have to be in be in favor of/against all of the specific tenets (“A”) which they have declared as being part of the general concept. Therefore, to the FPA, if you are against a specific “A,” then you must also be against the general “B,” and no other option exists. As long as the FPA can control the DEFINITION of the general concept, they can stretch it and distort it to include whatever cause they choose to embrace. In other words, facts and logic and perspective are secondary to their myopic, self-serving narrative. Here are a few examples:
1. Being Against Abortion = Being Against Women’s Health
During a House debate last October about a bill that opposed federal funding for abortion, bolstering the already-existing Hyde Amendment, Nancy Pelosi said this:
“Under this bill, when the Republicans vote for this bill today,” she announced, “They will be voting to say that women can die on the floor and health care providers don’t have to intervene if this bill is passed. It’s just appalling.”
There are actually two false dichotomies here:
First, the Republicans who voted in favor of this bill (and 11 Democrats, but Pelosi gives them a pass because they’re not Republicans) must be against saving a woman’s life because they are against taking the life of her unborn child. This is simply not true. Read this, a summary of a report published in Ireland in 1994, to get an idea of just how few abortions are done to save the life of the mother.
Note especially this distinction: an operation done to terminate an ectopic pregnancy is NOT the same thing as an elective abortion, as an ectopic pregnancy will NEVER go full-term since a fallopian tube is incapable of holding a growing fetus. The tube will eventually rupture and cause serious injury or death to the mother, as well as the death of the fetus. Likewise, an operation to save the life of a mother that, unfortunately, results in her miscarriage is NOT the same as an elective abortion.
To Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the FPA, however, all such procedures are to be classified as equal to elective abortions so that they can claim that someone who is against ELECTIVE abortions is also against any procedures that are done to save a woman’s life.
2. Denial of Federal Funding = Denial of Access
As I noted, the above quote is an example of two false dichotomies, and this is the second one. The 1986 Federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act states that if ANY person has a legitimate medical emergency, he/she may get medical care at any hospital that accepts Medicare–which is pretty much every hospital in the country–EVEN IF that person does not have the means to pay for the care. For instance, if an uninsured pregnant woman is having an emergency, e.g. an ectopic pregnancy, she can go to just about any hospital and receive medical care, even though that care may include terminating the pregnancy. Contrast this to elective abortion: there are no extenuating circumstances that have placed the mother’s life at risk. Because it is not classified as an emergency, hospitals do NOT have to provide this procedure and the federal government–i.e., the taxpayers–SHOULD NOT be made to pay the clinic that does provide it, any more than it should reimburse breast implants or liposuction. In other words, if a woman wants to pay Planned Parenthood to terminate her unborn child’s life, she can do so (provided that she lives in a state that has not banned elective abortions–but that is a separate issue), but neither she nor Planned Parenthood has any right to demand federal reimbursement for it.
3. Being against business-killing regulations = Being against ALL business regulations
On 8 September 2011, President Obama delivered a speech that preceded the delivery of his American Jobs Act to Congress, a speech that included this paragraph (my emphasis added):
But what we can’t do -– what I will not do -– is let this economic crisis be used as an excuse to wipe out the basic protections that Americans have counted on for decades. I reject the idea that we need to ask people to choose between their jobs and their safety. I reject the argument that says for the economy to grow, we have to roll back protections that ban hidden fees by credit card companies, or rules that keep our kids from being exposed to mercury, or laws that prevent the health insurance industry from shortchanging patients. I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy. We shouldn’t be in a race to the bottom, where we try to offer the cheapest labor and the worst pollution standards.
Obama was trying to set up the narrative that those who object to unreasonable regulations by the EPA, et. al. are trying to return to the 1970’s and before, where factories were allowed to dispose of their wastes irresponsibly, poisonous substances were not contained properly, and laborers were exploited by unscrupulous bosses. He conveniently ignores the fact that federal overreach threatens to destroy the economy in Texas, has all but doomed the town of Tombstone, Arizona, and strangles small businesses before they even launch. To my knowledge, NO ONE has EVER requested that the basic regulations–e.g. those regarding mercury–be repealed, so Obama’s claim to the contrary is disingenuous.
4. Opposing Irresponsible Choices About One’s Formal Education = Opposing Education/Encouraging Ignorance
A few months ago Paul Krugman penned an op-ed that claimed to compare the educational stances of Republicans to that of Democrats. What he ended up doing was espousing the very selective view the FPA has of education: namely, that education can only occur in a classroom (preferably under the watchful eye of a member of a teacher’s union). Quality of education, according to this view, is determined by the prestige of the institution attended–e.g. a four-year private university is preferable to technical school/community college–and whether or not that time in the institution results in the awarding of credentials, i.e. a diploma. Retention of course content and critical thinking skills are secondary. The amount of money spent to obtain the credentials is not even considered, for the educational experience is purportedly priceless.
Now, I’m not saying that credentials are unnecessary; they are an objective means of proving that an individual has the requisite knowledge to do a particular job. However, if the acquisition of knowledge is itself the goal–an education, in other words–then a diploma is not necessary. What one needs is access to the knowledge and the willingness to spend the time and effort to acquire that knowledge. That access can be gained with a simple click of the mouse now, a fact that has the self-professed gate-keepers of knowledge (i.e. members of academia) in a panic. That ease of access means that any motivated member of the public can become educated without their direct supervision, hence the need for a more “selective” definition what constitutes an education.
One of the big demands of the Occupy crowd is the immediate and unconditional forgiveness of student loans. After all, they argue, an educated populace (remember, they are using the narrower definition of the FPA) is an investment that the country should be more than willing to make. Being unwilling to write off their debt, in their view and in Krugman’s, means that you must want them to be ignorant. What they fail to recognize is that they themselves are expected to pay back their loans using the money that they earn from the job that their educational experience was supposed to prepare them for.
The logical thing to do, therefore, is twofold: first, major in a field of study that the economy needs. We are a country that depends increasingly upon those with technological, mathematical, and scientific knowledge. This is not to say that English majors, for instance, are not necessary, but there simply aren’t enough jobs for the number of English majors that our colleges/universities are producing (unless the said English major also studied, say, chemistry, and therefore has the requisite knowledge to write for that field–from some of the science textbooks I’ve encountered, publishers could stand to hire a few good English majors). This is also not to say that you cannot take classes in subjects that appeal to you personally, but be realistic in choosing your major.
Second, don’t take on an unreasonable amount of debt just to attend a big-name school, especially if you’re getting a degree that’s in demand. If you’re an engineer, for example, an employer isn’t going to care where you went as long as you can prove you know what you’re talking about. Use AP, CLEP, and community college to take care of the core classes that everyone has to take (e.g. English, math, foreign language) and transfer when it’s time to take the specialized classes needed for your major. If you’ve chosen to make a career in a field where who you know is just as important as what you know (i.e. anything in the arts) then the latter tip can help mitigate the cost of obtaining your degree, but please understand that a degree in a low-demand field, even from a prestigious university, does not guarantee you a well-paying job, or even a job at all in a bad economy, and you should make the choice with your eyes open.
The FPA, however, doesn’t feel that this common-sense approach is “fair.” “Fair” is a word much over-used by the FPA: it’s not “fair” if someone has to work harder than someone else, it’s not “fair” that one person has more money to spend on education than someone else, it’s not “fair” that a doctorate in gender awareness does not translate to the same salary and respect as a master’s in electrical engineering (it’s especially galling to them that a “mere” plumber or mechanic has better job prospects than they do), etc. So, they resort to making this skewed argument and deriding those who oppose it, as evidenced in Krugman’s article, to dissuade others from making the same points Romney and Santorum, et.al., have made.
Derision, demonization, and dissuasion, of course, are the goals of using these false dichotomies. It’s easier to mock than to reason, because most people respond by getting defensive about the personal insult and losing focus of the original arguments, which is what the FPA wants. They cannot refute facts and logic, so they try to misdirect, and imply that those who have views that differ from their own are not only wrong, but evil. The only remedy to this, that I’ve observed at least, is to be stubborn: refuse to be dissuaded, ignore the insults, and patiently demand that the FPA answer your arguments on your grounds, instead of theirs.