[An earlier version of this blog was supposed to be saved in draft form and went out by mistake previously: my bad! It may or may not be worth reading again. I leave that up to you!]
In one of my favorite episodes of “Seinfeld,” Jerry has been convinced by Elaine that he should put all his stuff in a European carry-all that Peterman sells. After he does so his friends all accuse him of carrying a purse, to which he responds repeatedly: “It’s not a purse, it’s European!” Fun stuff. But it’s also what logicians call a “false dichotomy,” as though the object couldn’t be both a purse and come from Europe.
Not a big thing in this case, but it’s one of those fallacies we commit on a fairly regular basis and it can have painful repercussions — as when one says in an angry voice “America, love it or leave it,” as though one can not both love America and leave it. Or one can love America and stay, which seems to be ruled out by the angry remark. The implication is that one cannot love one’s country and criticize it at the same time. This is absurd. Many people think uncritical acceptance of the status quo is the heart and soul of patriotism, but in fact it is jingoism, which is an altogether different thing. The true patriot loves his or her country and also sees the mistakes it makes and wants to try to eradicate those mistakes, or correct them somehow. The jingoist is blind to faults and follows blindly wherever his leaders take him. You can usually spot the latter by the flag waving in his front yard or the decal pasted to his car window.
Another common example of this mistake, as I mentioned in a recent blog, is the notion that we either save jobs or we save the environment, we cannot do both. Of course we can: we can both create and save jobs and save the environment at the same time by investing in clean energy.
Time for a brief lesson in logic. The above mistake derives from our ignorance of what a dichotomy, or a disjunction, happens to be. Disjunctions take the form of either/or and they can be exclusive or inclusive. The mistake we often make comes from confusing the two, thinking that an inclusive disjunction is exclusive, that we must have either toast or tea when we can have both; we either save the environment or we save jobs when we can do both. Very few disjunctions are exclusive — even the disjunction between life and death (either you’re alive or you’re dead) can be confusing when a patient lies deep in a coma and the families are discussing whether or not to “pull the plug.”
There are almost always grey areas when people shout either/or. But it’s how demagogues like Rush Limbaugh make a living: they ignore the shades of grey; they reduce complex issues to simple black and white making their listeners think things are much simpler than they are (and the speaker much smarter than he is). Paul Harvey used to do the same thing. To many, it’s a breath of fresh air, leading them out of the confusing maze of complex issues where there appear to be no obvious paths into the light of day where they can see clearly what was confused before. But that leads us into a false sense of security and it glosses over many a tough problem by deluding us into thinking an issue is clear-cut when it is not. We need to be wary of the false dichotomy: the purse can be both a purse and European, Jerry!