The Comfort of False Dilemmas
November 28, 2008
I was a particularly mischievous child, or so my parents tell me. Canning never seemed to work because the canes in my house would disappear faster than goodwill at a Bangladeshi gathering in Serangoon Gardens. So my parents resorted to faulty reasoning to keep me in line. You either stop jumping across the open drain or your don’t get your ice cream; you either do your homework or you don’t get to watch the A Team; you either clean up your room or you don’t get to swim later…and the abuse went on. It was faulty reasoning only because I quickly discovered that persistent mind-numbing will-breaking whining always got me what I wanted, without having to do all the boring stuff. Not only did it drive my parents crazy, I also learned early, years before taking up philosophy classes at university, the logical fallacy of false dilemmas.
A false dilemma goes like this:
Premise 1: Either X is true or Y is true
Premise 2: X is false
Conclusion: Therefore Y is true.
To flesh it out:
President Bush: You are either with us or you’re against us.
Not a Moron: But Iraq is not where Osama is.
President Bush: So you hate America and the troops!
Thanks to my constant whining, I realized that I didn’t have to clean my room and still get to go swimming. Thanks to my being a spoilt brat, I was years ahead of my peers when it came to dissecting logical fallacies in Logic and Reason 101 at university. I have, of course, dutifully footed the bill for my parents’ therapy ever since I started working.
All this brings me to another false dilemma implied by The Straits Times on 27 Nov 08. In covering the occupying of Bangkok airport by protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), ST’s front page headlines screamed “Protesters wreak chaos: Bangkok airport siege by anti-govt demonstrators leave thousands stranded”.
To non-Singaporeans out there, first of all, congrats; and secondly, it needs to be explained that such a headline goes straight to the heart of the politics of fear in middle class Singapore. The most pernicious and persistent false dilemma in Singapore is the choice between democracy and stability. This false dilemma has been expressed in various forms over the years by different PAP leaders. You either have political compliance and economic growth or you have democracy and complete chaos. Incidents like those in Thailand are often played up in subtle, sometimes not so, ways to underline the stark choice.
And its wishful thinking to assume everyone sees the logical fallacy for what it is. I was coming home from the airport on the night of 26th and my taxi driver asked me about the flight cancellations to Bangkok. “Quite bad”, I said. Immediately, with the PAD as case-study, he launched into a lecture on why political freedom is as detestable as paedophilia. He ended, as all good academics do, with a rhetorical question, “I really don’t know what these people want”. I could almost hear LKY crying with pride somewhere in his oxygen chamber. “What most people want I suppose; to have a say in who governs over them”, I replied. The taxi driver looked at me from the rear-view mirror as though I had just said “Little boys can be sexy too”. The rest of the ride was in silence.
ST’s headline was factual. The airport was occupied, thousands were stranded, flights were cancelled and chaos reigned. But it’s not in the business to only report the facts; its here to support the government construct a nation in its own image. This entails emphasizing and de-emphasizing meanings which enable the state to look good.
But the real question is not how Singaporeans recognize false dilemmas and reject them. The real question is, do Singaporeans want freedom from false dilemmas? I don’t really think so. Here are some reasons why.
Firstly, false dilemmas are assuring. Like in any parent-child relationship, it comforts Singaporeans no end to have clear and easy choices presented to them. It offers security from risk and the unknown, and defers all decision-making to the state. This is made easier by the state’s track-record and the myth of meritocracy. After all, if one were to create a score card and total up the number of things the PAP government got right and what it got wrong, the former would be a considerably longer list.
Secondly, economist Bryan Caplan asked why Singaporeans in general seemed so supportive of the PAP government’s policies, even the unpopular ones like the ERP? He offered three possible explanations. A. Singaporeans were unusually high in economic literacy (the majority understood the economics of problems and approached them with rational mind); B. Singaporeans had great deference to the government elites (they believe that these elites know what they’re doing and deserve support); C. Singaporeans were resigned (they believe that ordinary Singaporeans can’t affect policy and give up trying). There is consensus that the answer was mainly B, with a strong dose of C.
Thirdly, we enjoy being infantilized as citizens. There is something about Singaporean culture which produces an infantile mindset. And this is evident everywhere from civic matters to popular culture. Whenever we are confronted by something we don’t agree with we want it banned. We want the big Nanny to step in and make things better – pronto! Also notice how a society that celebrates inane nonsense like Hello Kitty, doe-eyed barely adolescent pop stars or cutesy street fashion is also a society that longs for a big thumb to suck on.
All these make false dilemmas comforting. They are clear directions conveyed to us disguised as choice. We pretend we’re exercising our right to choose when we’re actually surrendering critical thinking. And the best part is that the government is not to blame here.