Monday, July 17, 2017

Not For, Not Against

False Dilemmas

“He that is not with me is against me;
and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.”
Jesus of Nazareth,
Mathew 12:30, The New Testament, circa 30 CE

"It is with absolute frankness that we speak of this struggle of the proletariat;
each man must choose between joining our side or the other side.
Any attempt to avoid taking sides in this issue must end in fiasco.”
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks,
speech made on November 3, 1920

“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make.
Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
President George W. Bush,
speech before the U.S. Congress, September 20, 2001

Is it possible to have a view that is not for an idea, a person or a thing and yet, also, not be against it? In other words, neither for nor against. There might be other choices or options besides these binary choices. There might be a host of options.

For example, I am neither for religion and religious belief nor am I against it or the practice of it. I participate in many of the traditions and rituals of Judaism, the religion of my youth. Yet, while doing so does not greatly or generally inform my worldview, it does have an important place in my life and in my thinking. While I can and do understand and appreciate the importance of religion, I myself am not overly religious. At the same time, I am not a committed atheist.

You see, it is complicated, as are many such difficult questions of life. Going from the particular to the general, my example of the complexities of religious belief can also describe many things that others might find important. That I do not actively support an issue, an idea, a cause does not mean that I am against it. This might mean that I have no interest in it, or that I have some interest, or that I have not sufficiently examined the evidence, or that I have changed my views (in the face of new evidence, often overwhelming), or that I remain unsure, unconvinced of the argument’s veracity or validity. 

One of the most famous examples of “for/against” reasoning in history is when Jesus of Nazareth made this argument in the New Testament, the chief historical account of the seeds and beginnings of Christianity. He uses emotional language as a means to to compel/encourage the Judeans, his coreligionists and fellow Pharisees, to join him in his messianic mission “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (see Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18).

The record shows a few did; most did not, at least not openly (see John 12: 42). We do not know all of the reasons why most did not. It might have been as simple as they did not view him, the Galilean from Nazareth, a man raised outside the power centre of Jerusalem, as the messiah, as the man who would eventually bring peace to the world, starting with their world of Judea. That he did not then and there fulfill his messianic mission must have been disappointing to the large crowds who head him speak.

Modern Christian teaching taken from this parable, however, is that those who did not join the side of Jesus thus rejected his message, his teaching, and thus hindered his earthly mission for heavenly justice. This kind of thinking has inculcated modern Christianity (sometimes taking on the form of Manichaeism); it is thus no surprise that this phrase is invoked during times of crisis as a rallying cry for action and the meting out of justice or vengeance. This suggests that they hold a view of Jesus as a zealot.

Often, this means violence and violent action will be justified as a solution.

It is no surprise, then, that Vladimir Lenin (who was aware of Christian teachings) used such a code phrase in a a speech in the middle of the Russian Civil War (November 1917–October 1922), and in the crucial days leading to the formation of the Soviet Union, which eventually became an autocratic one-party communist state. To use a more recent example, President George W. Bush employed such polarized language shortly after the terror attacks of 9/11 in the U.S. He did so with a purpose in mind: to prepare the nation and the American people for invasion and war.

In doing so, political leaders are appealing to a socio-religious history known by their citizens, as a basis to support their actions, which they naturally view as “imbued with righteousness.” The results have all been disastrous, or to use Lenin's words, taking sides has had the opposite intended effect: “end[ing] in fiasco.” So, the next time someone uses this rhetorical device, you can know that it is being used to bring about emotional dualistic thinking, which is also called binary thinking: either/or; for/against, good/evil, etc.

This does not mean that you have to think this way or that you have to be drawn into an argument that is polarized, politicized, or militarized. There are times when you have to take sides—such as defending liberal democracy, particularly in regimes that deny it—but far less than political and religious leaders say or would like you to think or believe. One must also be aware of false dilemmas, which present a solution to a problem with only two choices.

Often this is not the case; often there are many choices, many possible solutions.

Some view this as wishy-washy or weak or indecisive. I view this as being thoughtful, as being a critical thinker, as being careful, gathering all the relevant facts, and not being swayed by emotions. You will not be compelled to do so by fiery speeches, or by appeals to nationalism, or by talk of vengeance from the bully pulpit; you will know that this is the right thing to do. It will be “your own mind” that you make up.

—Perry J. Greenbaum, July 17, 2017

1 comment:

  1. The world is a complicated place. We must be open to examining, testing, and reconsidering our opinions.
    Democracy is the political realization of the scientific method.


Comment Policy:

All comments will be moderated; and bear in mind that anonymous, hostile, vulgar and off-topic comments will not be published. Thoughtful, reasonable and clear comments, bearing your real name, will be. All comments must be in English.