Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Great Either/Or

(Note: This post is not intended as a response to the philosophical ideas of Søren Kierkegaard, whom I generally admire. Kierkegaard believed that the Hegelian dialectic had devalued the crucial principles of individual autonomy and free will. I understand what he meant, although there are still things that I like about Hegel.)

The Great Either/Or is a fallacy in logical thinking that I have encountered my entire life, even among highly educated people. Richard Taruskin has documented its destructive effects on my own field of musicology in the introduction to his Oxford History of Western Music. Carl Dahlhaus, he points out, famously asked whether art history is the history of art, or the history of art? In a lighter vein, David Hackett spoofed this line of thinking by asking "Basil of Byzantium: Rat or Fink?" The point is that it's quite possible Basil was both a rat and a fink, and it's also quite possible that the history of art is actually the history of art, whatever that might signify. Both/And is usually the more realistic answer. Nevertheless, I have been accused more than once, after making that assertion, of wanting to repeal the Principle of Contradiction.

So here are some things I want to vouch for:

• It's quite possible to be a liberal and still believe strongly in individual responsibility.

• It's also possible to believe there is an important role for communal responsibility without being a collectivist, a socialist, or any other kind of "ist."

• Most of the reality of what politicians supposedly deal with is lived out in the gray area between extremes, and political change generally consists of shifting positions within that gray area in incremental ways.

Nevertheless, Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, was quoted this week as saying that Jesus was “a free marketer, not an Occupier. Jesus rejected collectivism and the mentality that has occupied America for the last few decades: that everyone gets a trophy—equal outcomes for inequitable performance. There are winners and yes, there are losers. And wins and losses are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual.”

First of all, I want to lay to rest the idea that in American schools these days, everybody gets a trophy. My son, for example, is a senior in high school. For the past four years, he has been participating in a series of auditions that will ultimately lead an elite group from all over Texas to the All-State Choir, which will perform next spring for the annual meeting of the Texas Music Educators Association in San Antonio. The competition is stiff and unrelenting. After four years of trying, Jeremy is one audition away from qualifying, and he must study a varied repertory of music from three centuries and in three or four different languages in order to even sing that audition. There's still no guarantee that the trophy will be his. In my experience as a parent, things like this are more the rule than the exception.

The broader point, though, is that Perkins makes himself irrelevant the moment he opens his mouth by implying that everybody is either an Occupier or a free marketer. The possibility that somebody —e.g. yours truly—could be both doesn't even seem to occur to him, so deeply has he bought into the Great Either/Or. If somebody doesn't agree that the diligence and determination of the individual are the Alpha and the Omega of moral values, then that person is presumably sitting in an Occupy encampment handing out trophies. There is no middle ground.

I don't mean to pick on Tony Perkins; he's too easy a target, and his comments wouldn't even be worthy of attention if they didn't serve my broader point. It must be particularly difficult, though, for a religious leader to have to rule out a priori the idea that there can be something more important than the actions of individuals. After all, as another well-known religious figure recently wrote, "It's not about you." At some level, Perkins must understand that. Nevertheless, he is so steeped in the Great Either/Or that when he looks beyond his own nose all he can see is collectivists.

So just remember, the next time somebody says that there are two kinds of people in the world, that there are indeed two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don't. In an ideal world, everybody would be in the second group.


  1. I almost hate to invoke Darwinian thinking here, but I read somewhere that what you are calling the Great Either/Or, aka the false dichotomy fallacy or binary thinking, as I've also heard it called, may be hardwired into our brains. Our australopithecine ancestors' survival often depended on making either/or decisions with little gray area: either that beast approaching is a predator or it isn't; either that leafy plant is edible or it's potentially poisonous.

    The problem with this kind of thinking comes, of course, when matters are not so easily categorized, as you so well pointed out. But our human tendency to sort things that way remains and is something we all have to deal with. How to get out from under binary thinking? One method I read once is to think of a third possibility. Just doing that will free our minds to think more in the grey rather than simple black and white.

  2. It's David Hackett Fischer, Robin, not David Hackett. In our house we often note the complete complementarity of liberalism and many kinds of conservatism. We also note that many of our fellow liberals are in many ways conservative. Then there are those perfectly consistent, family-values conservatives like Newt Gingrich, Dick Morris, etc. . . .

    You're right. Too easy.

  3. The return of Gingrich has me totally baffled. There is nothing about him that seems appealing. I can only conclude that the Republican party is seeing the emergence a suicidal streak comparable to the one the Democrats had through most of the 80s and 90s. Poetic justice, I suppose.

  4. "Poetic justice, I suppose."

    Doggerel justice, perhaps. Nothing poetic about these clowns.

  5. "There is nothing about him that seems appealing."

    There is nothing about ANY of them, or the party as a whole, that seems the least little bit appealing.

    Then again, predicting republican actions based on what I think is appealing--or logical, or sane--won't get you very far.