Last month, in the process of exploring the awkward fact that most people in today’s industrial world have never learned how to think, I talked at some length about thoughtstoppers: those crisp little words or phrases that combine absurdity and powerful emotions to short-circuit the thinking process. Thoughtstoppers, as I noted then, very often keep the people around us (and ourselves, let’s be honest) from getting past blind emotion and dealing with the rising spiral of problems that confront us today. They’re everywhere these days; the media is awash with them, and every politician and pundit spews them into our mental ecosystems the way computer factories spew toxic waste into the environment. Learning to detect and dismantle them is a crucial skill for navigating past the rocks and whirlpools that beset voyages of the mind just now.
I’m sorry to say, though, that learning about thoughtstoppers—useful and indeed necessary as that is—will not keep you out of all the mental traps set for the unwary in today’s world. There are other things that lead people into mental dysfunctions of various kinds, and as we proceed with the current sequence of posts on learning how to think, it’s going to be necessary to do as Lewis Carroll recommended in The Hunting of the Snark:
…It next will be right
To describe each particular batch;
Distinguishing those that have feathers, and bite,
From those that have whiskers, and scratch.
Some of the traps in question are logical fallacies so old they have names in Latin. We’ll be getting to those in due time, not least because it’s good sport to point out, to people who insist that their notions are exciting cutting-edge insights nobody ever thought before, that any ordinarily bright twelve-year-old in ancient Rome could have explained to them exactly why the notions in question are so full of holes they make Swiss cheese jealous. Before we get to that entertaining theme, though, there are other fallacies that don’t have that long of a pedigree, and it so happens that these play an even larger role in the failure of thinking in our time.
It probably has to be mentioned here that the less geriatric mistakes I have in mind aren’t more exciting, cutting-edge, and insightful than the classic fallacies just mentioned. Quite the contrary, most of them would have made the ordinarily bright twelve-year-olds in a Roman schoolroom gape in disbelief, perhaps with a muttered Mehercule!, that anyone could be dense enough to buy into them. That’s certainly true of the first example I have in mind, the subject of this week’s post, which has the distinction of being the most popular fallacy in today’s political culture.
A few examples will be more useful at this point than any amount of abstraction. One of my readers mentioned, a few weeks ago, that he’d been denounced as a racist in the course of a conversation. In that conversation, which touched on affirmative action, he happened to ask whether there was any evidence that affirmative action programs actually worked, as a way to decrease disparities in educational success between white and black populations in the United States. Asking that question was enough to get him accused of racism.
Notice the very peculiar logic here. If it’s a good idea to decrease disparities in educational success between white and black populations in the United States—as I believe it is, and as I have every reason to think the reader in question believes it is as well—then it would make sense to try to figure out whether current efforts in that direction are actually doing what they’re supposed to do, wouldn’t it? If affirmative action programs don’t accomplish this goal, then it would be helpful to find that out, so that they can be replaced by more effective programs, wouldn’t it?
Try to make this point in a conversation like the one my reader was involved in, though, and you can count on having such perspectives dismissed out of hand. I’ve been in similar conversations myself, and can vouch for that. At best, you’ll get a discussion, by turns angry or labored, about the virtues of affirmative action programs, which pretty consistently will not include the evidence you’ve asked for. At worst, you’ll be told that even thinking about asking such a question proves that you must have a Klan robe in the back of your closet and a Confederate flag on your living room wall.
(Please notice, by the way, that the point of bringing up this example is not to start a debate on the value of affirmative action programs; it’s to discuss a habit of thought used by some defenders of such programs, among many other things. I mention this here because I’ve noticed repeatedly that when I try to discuss habits of thinking, people will very often try to change the subject to whatever I’ve brought up as an example. I suspect this is a defensive move meant to protect bad habits of thinking from close examination. Be that as it may, attempts to detour the conversation on this blog’s comments page into a debate about affirmative action will be deleted without comment and without mercy.)
Such distinctly odd habits of thought aren’t limited to the left by any means. I’ve had at least as many conversations with so-called free market capitalists—I say “so-called” because, as Adam Smith himself pointed out, it’s the first concern of every self-respecting capitalist to make whatever market he or she frequents as unfree as possible, in order to maximize profits—in which raising the most modest question about the supposed benevolence of the market system is more than enough to get you accused of favoring Communism.
Note the same peculiar logic at work. If capitalism has flaws, as of course it does, those who want to see it survive anyway might reasonably want to know about those flaws, so that patches of one kind or another can be used to mitigate the failings of the system. Insisting that there are no such flaws simply drives anyone harmed by capitalism into the arms of Marxist radicals. Try telling that to your average rock-ribbed American conservative, though, and see how far you get!
(For the reason mentioned above, any attempt to detour the conversation on this blog’s comments page into a debate about the virtues and vices of capitalism will be deleted with extreme prejudice. Capitalism isn’t the issue here; the habit of thought used by some defenders of capitalism is.)
Along the same lines, consider what happens when anyone on any side of the fraught political landscape of our time—left, right, center, up, down, or around the bend—proposes a possible solution to any social problem you care to name. The first concern of critics is to find one person somewhere, or one small group of people somewhere, who will not be helped by the proposed solution. Once such a person or group can be found, the person who proposed the solution can count on being told in strident language that their proposed solution is wrongetty wrong-wrong-wrong, and that they themselves, because they have suggested it, are bad people who are personally responsible for the sufferings of the person or group that has been left out.
Here again, the same peculiar logic is at work. If, let’s say, ten million people are being affected by a given problem, and a proposed solution will help nine million of them, pursuing that solution has two straightforward advantages. First, nine million people will be helped; second, it will be much easier to find a solution for the remaining one million, since the scale of the problem has just decreased by an order of magnitude, and whatever specific factor or mix of factors keeps those one million people from being helped can be targeted more directly with a solution. Yet I promise you that if you point this out in a discussion of the kind I’ve sketched out, you can be sure that you’ll be accused of personal wickedness for even raising the issue, much less suggesting that helping nine million people right now might be a better idea than waiting around indefinitely on the off chance that a perfect solution can be discovered.
These three examples all unfold from the same bit of florid illogic—the insistence that whatever isn’t all the way over on one side of a given spectrum must therefore be all the way over on the other side of that spectrum, that what isn’t perfectly good must therefore be perfectly evil. With an eye to the one of the richer ironies of American history, I call this the One Drop Fallacy.
Those of my readers who don’t happen to be connoisseurs of the richer ironies of American history may benefit from an explanation. For many years, in the Southern states of the Union, laws were on the books requiring that all citizens be categorized as either “white” or “black.” These terms didn’t actually have much to do with skin color; they were abstract conceptual fictions pure and simple, as indeed was (and is) the entire concept of race. The rule in Southern states was that if you had a single ancestor anywhere in your family tree who had ever been categorized as “black,” you were “black,” full stop, end of sentence. This was known as the One Drop Rule, from the habit of speaking of heredity in terms of blood; if you had “one drop of black blood”—and of course plently of ugly synonyms for “black” got inserted into that phrase instead—why, you were on the wrong side of the Jim Crow laws, and that was that.
Now of course in practice this was gamed thirteen to a dozen and six ways from Sunday. There were, and are, plenty of strawberry blondes with peaches-and-cream complexion down South who had, and have, at least one ancestor who got to this country chained in the hold of a slave ship. Back in the days of the One Drop Rule, it was commonplace for a little convenient bribery to take care of the matter and get them categorized as “white.” Similarly, light-colored African-Americans routinely redefined themselves as “white” when they could get away with it—the classic jazz number “The Sunny Side of the Street,” for example, is all about the joys of “passing.” In reality, most people in the Southern states are descended in varying proportions from a free mix of European, African, and Native American ancestors, and their skin colors fall on a spectrum that fills the entire space between pale pinkish-white and really dark brown.
Yet this was not a reality that Southern elites in the days of Jim Crow laws were willing to address. The entire structure of political and economic power in the postbellum South depended on the ability of privileged white people to keep poor white people and poor nonwhite people at each other’s throats, so that they never noticed that they had much more in common with each other than either one had with the privileged classes that were exploiting them both. The One Drop Rule was a crucial element in that strategy of division. By turning the lively and complex texture of Southern genetic diversity into a rigid and arbitrary distinction between “black” and “white,” it erased the existence of the middle ground where everyone actually lived.
That’s what the One Drop Fallacy does, too. Wherever it appears, it’s a rhetorical gimmick that erases the middle ground. It redefines every issue into a choice between two predefined answers, one allegedly good, the other allegedly evil. This is extremely useful if you want to keep people from noticing that your “good” may not be all that good, and that there may be better options you don’t want them to think about. Since the entire structure of political and economic power in late industrial America depends on trying to trick people into thinking that the only choice they have is between one alternative that’s really bad and another that’s slightly worse, the media, the universities, and the officially anointed intellectual class—the principal instruments of regime propaganda in every contemporary society—play the One Drop Fallacy on every stop and key.
The One Drop Fallacy also serves political ideologies not currently in power that want to enforce absolute doctrinal conformity. Watch the culture warriors on both sides of the current political spectrum, and you’ll find a precise equivalent of the old One Drop Rule at work: if a given writer, let’s say, ever expressed an opinion that the approved ideology labels as evil, then the writer is entirely evil, and anyone who thinks otherwise is automatically redefined as a supporter of whatever believers in the approved ideology hate most. No middle ground is allowed; if you don’t conform to every last detail of the ideology, you are assumed to reject all of it.
In the real world, of course, this is abject nonsense. Theodore Seuss Geisel, for example—the children’s author who wrote under the name Dr. Seuss—drew, during the Second World War, some cartoons that made use of then-standard ethnic caricatures of the Japanese. On that basis, certain social-justice activists have insisted that Geisel must have been a fascist—after all, he did one thing that current social-justice ideology doesn’t approve of, so he must have been everything current social-justice ideology doesn’t like, right? Wrong. Geisel also crafted blistering and hilariously funny caricatures of Hitler and the Nazis—far more of them, by the way, than the handful of cartoons he did that contain ethnic sterotypes about the Japanese. He was also, by the way, Jewish. The One Drop Fallacy doesn’t make room for such things, which is one of the core reasons why the One Drop Fallacy is a fallacy.
The crucial thing to remember, in dealing with the One Drop Fallacy, is that there is such a thing as a middle ground. There are plenty of people today, for example, who have no time for the political correctness of the left, and who also reject the patriotic correctness of the right. They are probably a majority in this country just now, in fact. Thus it’s the first concern of the well-funded pressure groups that want to promote political correctness, on the one hand, and patriotic correctness on the other, to insist that such people do not and cannot exist. If you’re pushing an ideology that’s arrogant, antidemocratic, and absurd, as of course the pressure groups in question are doing, the only way you’ll be able to get most people to buy into it is to insist that anyone who doesn’t accept every last tenet of the ideology you’re trying to market must therefore accept every last tenet of something even worse. That sort of Hobson’s choice will get you a certain amount of faux credibility, for a while.
The best way to get out from under the One Drop Fallacy, in any of its myriad manifestations, is to remember a simple rule: the opposite of one bad idea is usually another bad idea. Is fascism a bad idea? You bet. Those of my readers who have taken the time to learn something about the political landscape of early twentieth century Europe already know that the people who yelled the loudest about the evils of fascism at that time—the anti-fascist activists that today’s Antifa groups lionize, in fact—were supporters of Stalin’s regime in Russia, which killed around three times as many people as the Nazis did, and presided over a system of prison camps, torture chambers, and mass graves that made Heinrich Himmler drool with envy. It isn’t enough, in other words, to be opposed to evil, because it’s possible—and in fact very easy—to oppose one evil so monomaniacally that you fall into another. If you want to avoid that, you actually have to stand for something good.
In a broader sense, the fact that drowning is bad for you doesn’t mean dehydration is good for you, and so on straight through the lists of opposites. As Aristotle pointed out a very long time ago, every virtue is not the opposite of one vice, but the midpoint between two. Democracy itself, that much-maligned and much-misunderstood system, is a midpoint—it occupies the unsteady point of balance between anarchy, on the one side, and tyranny on the other. Being a midpoint, and thus having to be eternally patched together out of compromises that never quite satisfy anybody, it inevitably offends people who want nice simple answers of the kind that make them right and everybody else wrong.
For those of my readers who agree (as I do) with Winston Churchill’s dictum that democracy is the worst system of government, except for all of the others, learning how to detect and dismantle the One Drop Fallacy is an important skill. It’s actually pretty easy, once you have the concept handy: simply look for the middle ground that’s being erased, and then figure out what stake the person pushing the One Drop Fallacy has in erasing that middle ground. Like most of the fallacies that beset the life of the mind in modern industrial society, the One Drop Fallacy very rarely happens by accident; it’s not simply that someone got careless or clumsy when they were thinking; there’s usually an agenda being pushed. Identify the agenda and you can give it as much honest consideration as it deserves.
In other news, I’m pleased to announce that several of my posts on this and the old blog, including Hate Is The New Sex and several of my posts on Schopenhauer’s philosophy, have been republished on the very impressive Norwegian news-and-views website Kulturwerk. The one drawback, for those of my readers who aren’t sufficiently multilingual, is that they’re appearing in Norwegian translation. Those of you who do happen to be fluent in that language, by all means head on over and join the discussion!