Avoiding False Alternatives

The following is adapted from the new book Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue from City Lights Books.

If a healthy political culture is rooted in conversation and based on honest argumentation, then one of the most corrosive rhetorical tactics is the use of false alternatives.

An argument based on false alternatives keeps people from considering the full range of relevant possibilities. Typically, this involves presenting an issue as if there are two – and only two – possible courses of action, one of which is unattractive for practical and/or moral reasons. An argument from false alternatives also routinely builds into its claim one or more assumptions that could be challenged.

Love It or Leave It

imagesOne common example is, “love it or leave it.” If a citizen objects to a public policy, especially involving a war, someone who supports that policy will suggest the opponent should love the country or get out. Since most people aren’t going to abandon their home – “leave it” just isn’t an option – it appears they have no choice except to “love it,” which is defined as supporting the policy. Such a suggestion is not only anti-intellectual, but anti-democratic. Obviously, people don’t have to choose between loving their country, no matter what policy is followed, or getting out. We can love our country and want to change a government’s action, such as a war, because we believe that would make it a better country. In a democracy, that kind of critique is not only allowed, but should be encouraged – it is, in fact, the lifeblood of politics. Demanding that people “love it or leave it” is a way to undermine critical thinking and democratic dialogue by ignoring all the other possibilities. Unconditional love might be appropriate in certain human relationships, but it is not conducive to a healthy intellectual and political life. …

You should read the full excerpt from Truthout by Robert Jensen (in fact, get a copy of the book for the complete argument). But there is an important point made at the end of the article which emphasizes something I often have to contend with friends and acquaintances:

Many people’s response … is: “That’s fine for you, but I’m not political,” which is based on the flawed notion that one can live outside of politics. We are all political, whether we become politically active or not. We all live in a society in which there is a distribution of power. If we don’t participate in politics at some level, we are simply handing our latent political power to others to exercise for us. As difficult as it can be to come to judgment about complex issues, to avoid making a judgment simply gives someone else the power to judge for you.

Don’t let anyone else live your life for you.

2 responses

  1. I agree entirely. I’m very bookish, but unlike some lovers, I am very politically aware. As I live in UK, many of the trends that you mention are either here or on their way here. We seem to slavishly follow American thinking on most issues, even the bad ideas. Because of the EU we also get a lot of daft ideas promoted by Eurocrats. Talk about a rock and a hard place!

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    • This may be the greatest tragedy and it is so classical: America sees itself as the best and the brightest; America insists that the rest of the world should be like America; America is rapidly becoming the biggest stinker on the planet; China strives to outdo America at all costs; the planet dies a little bit each day.

      Where’s Marcus Aurelius when you need him?

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