“you open your mouth to speak against the withering wind’s furnace blast.”
– From the Poem, “The Hole in the Fountain,” by Q.R. Quasar, published in Ocean of Suns, Global Scholarly Publications, New York, NY, 2010.
It took me decades to find my voice. I am Frances Davis, and I am part of the relatively silent and ignored center of American politics. For many years I felt like a ping pong ball in a continuous table tennis tournament between an angry right wing and left wing. I would chime in on issues from time to time, but my nuanced thinking never had a consistent spokesperson or voice in the debate. I would choose the party or candidates I thought were the most pragmatic and least radical in their positions, and hoped that checks and balances in our branches of government would keep the country on a sensible course for the common good. I certainly never wanted a communistic or purely socialistic government, and I grew increasingly alarmed at the radical right with its social Darwinism, social stigmas and fend for yourself “trickle down” mentality. I am not alone, but apparently people like me are succumbing gradually to the “black or white” thinking and logical fallacies on either “side” of American politics.
This common narrative in mainstream media and in discussions around workplace water coolers is that America is getting more polarized. Apparently polarization is not just a perception. The people in the United States really are getting more polarized. The Pew Research Center conducted a year-long study of polarization, the largest in the center’s history. The center polled more than 10,000 adults between January and March of 2014, and found that “Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history. Growing numbers of Republicans and Democrats express highly negative views of the opposing party.” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/12/7-things-to-know-about-polarization-in-america/
The Pew Research Center study found that the center has gotten smaller:
39% of Americans currently take a roughly equal number of liberal and conservative positions, down from 49% in surveys conducted in 1994 and 2004. And, those with mixed ideological views are not necessarily “moderates.” Despite their mixed ideological views in general, many express very conservative – or very liberal – opinions, depending on the specific issue.
I believe one reason the center is shrinking is because of the incessant barrage of “all or nothing” messages hitting the public. The modern day media, whether traditional media or social media, thrives on controversy and sensationalism, which draws attention, gets them paid and keeps them in business. A controversy needs “sides.” If one party believes the sky is green, then there must be an enemy who believes the sky is yellow. It feels good for people with strong beliefs to say “you are either with me or against me, and if you are against me, then you are evil.” The belief becomes a rallying point and helps form a group that gives members a sense of belonging and togetherness and a sense of being on a good and worthy team. The team members can then work together to find sources and evidence to support their belief in a state of group-think. They help reinforce each other’s confirmation bias – together they applaud evidence that support their belief and discredit evidence against their belief.
I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s watching Walt Disney movies with rapture. I learned at a young age to always look for the hero and the villain. Snow White had the evil queen, and Cinderella had the evil step mother and step sisters. If there is a good guy, there must be a bad guy somewhere. We had Hitler during the Second World War, and the Soviets during the Cold War. It makes life so much simpler and calming and unifying to have an enemy that we all agree upon and that unifies us. We lack a unifying enemy at this point in history, so we are fragmented and break into factions where we choose our own enemies. Many of what the different factions of our society rail against is the opposite side of a false dilemma. It is frustrating for the drowned out center to see these false dilemmas go unanswered. The false dichotomies become commonly believed narratives, accepted and assumed to be true by just about everyone.
The Skeptic’s Dictionary, by Robert T. Carroll, Ph.d., defines false dilemma (or false dichotomy) as “a fallacy of reasoning that omits consideration of all reasonable alternatives. Sometimes called the either-or fallacy, one poses what looks like a true dilemma–I must pick one or the other–when, in fact, there are other viable alternatives. (There can be false trilemmas, etc.) http://www.skepdic.com/falsedilemma.html
Normand Baillargeon, in A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense, Seven Stories Press, 2008, https://www.sevenstories.com/books/2843-a-short-course-in-intellectual-self-defense, described false dilemmas and provided examples:
A false dilemma arises when we allow ourselves to be convinced that we have to choose between two and only two mutually exclusive options, when that is untrue. Generally, when this rhetorical strategy is used, one of the options is unacceptable and repulsive, while the other is the one the manipulator wants us to choose. Whoever succumbs to this trap has thus made a choice that is forced, and as such, of little value. . . . Here are a few examples of common false dilemmas:
• Either medicine can explain how Ms. X was cured, or it is a miracle. Medicine can’t explain how she was cured. Therefore it is a miracle.
• If we don’t reduce public spending, our economy will collapse.
• America: Love it or leave it.
I have found my voice and finally know where I reside in the chaotic political spectrum in the US. I reside somewhere in the purple depths between the blue and the red; it is not an easy place to reside (http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2014/06/polarization505px_30fps.gif). I will watch for false dilemmas and point them out when I can. I will attempt to generate an open and thoughtful discussion. While others still may not hear me or listen, I will at least start speaking up in Echoinghigher.com and elsewhere on social media. Silence is no longer an option.
-Frances Davis January 7, 2017