Saturday, April 16, 2011


We adore logical fallacies here at Marlinspike Hall, ancestral manor of the Haddock clan -- that arm indigenous to Tête de Hergé (Très Décédé *D'Ailleurs).

[* One of these days, we will have to address the issue of the correct form of "décédé," and whether it modifies "tête," an obviously feminine word, or "Hergé," an indisputably male person, even if décédé.]

One logical fallacy that we rarely discuss involves the use of "either/or," either explicitly as some purportedly bifurcated presentation or implicitly by the invocation of some imaginary branch in the persuasive path. We don't discuss it because it is an easy one, readily identifiable and facile snicker-fodder, but also because I tend to lose my cool early on in the discussion.  Like my ancestors, I curse and throw fine china.

Some people, less ardent, maybe, or perhaps less invested in rhetoric, consider my frenetic reaction to be, itself, illogical  (though I challenge them to label it in any way fallacious).

When "either/or" starts popping up with regularity, especially within public political discourse, it's a sign.  (All semioticians are excused from the remainder of this blog post.  Should you choose to stay, you must keep your sound and fury under wraps.)  A surge in the "either/or" method of argument and persuasion, when the dependency of the involved terms is a fallacy, indicates our submersion into deep ideological doodoo.

Interlocutors are ripe for "either/or" picking when they feel threatened, when they are confused, when it's easier to blame and deny in the vast minimum of a sound bite or a 140-character tweet than it is to understand and participate, in depth.

Kennesaw State University put out a nifty little cheat sheet on "Either/Or," and one comment near the top of the page actually got me pumping my fist and muttering a fierce, emphatic "yes":  

These tactics are purposefully designed to seduce those who are not well informed on a given topic. A clever writer or speaker may use the either/or fallacy to make his idea look better when compared to an even worse one. This type of selective contrast is also a form of stacking the deck. This type of argument violates the principles of civil discourse: arguments should enlighten people, making them more knowledgeable and more capable of acting intelligently and independently.

The New York Times published an article this morning about Republican governors, primarily of Tea Party persuasion, who are trying to repeal decades of environmental protections in their states.  Since it is awfully hard to argue that, in and of themselves, these are odious protections and ridiculous regulations, the reasoning being offered to justify raiding the involved moneys goes something like this -- "this" being a citation from a radio address by Maine governor Paul LePage, who proposes a 63-point dismantling of environmental protections and laws in his state, including opening a good chunk of the North Woods to deforestation and eliminating some child protection  mandates (product testing for toxic chemicals, for example):

Maine’s working families and small businesses are endangered,” he said. “It is time we start defending the interests of those who want to work and invest in Maine with the same vigor that we defend tree frogs and Canadian lynx.

Sorry, it's not an article, it's a blog. The distinction slips by me, more and more frequently. In particular, it is a multi-authored blog, called Green: A blog about energy and the environment.  This entry was written by Leslie Kaufman.  I am not yet sure whether journalism presented in a blog at a newspaper website merits different treatment or receipt than an article directly under the auspices of the banner.  Something to ponder should I ever return to my historic levels of caffeine consumption.

Anyway, let's leave if-and/or-when and return to either/or.  In political speech, "either/or" is often used as a fallacious way to so focus the interlocutor's mind such that he comes to believe in an artificial limitation to the choices inherent in a situation.

The last time I followed an "either/or" mass movement was in January 2010 on the "Dr. Phil" website as his followers weighed in on the topic of aid to Haiti following the magnitude 7+ earthquake that killed over 220,000 people and left millions homeless in that already economically devastated country.  The overwhelming tenor of the arguments are represented by the entries cited below.  It's clear that the authors are speaking from a massive, accumulated frustration that is serving almost as a unifying identifier. They refuse to even speculate on the need of that radical "exotic" other, the Haitian.  The argument is poor and illogical, but protected by its popularity, its good-old-boy environs, and disguised as a kind of brave, shoulders-braced-and-chin-jutting patriotism of the people.
The only country where we have homeless without shelter,
children going to bed without eating, elderly going without needed meds,
and mentally ill without treatment - yet we have a benefit for the
people of Haiti on 12 TV stations, ships and planes lining up with food,
water, tents, clothes, bedding, doctors and medical supplies. Imagine if
we gave ourselves the same support that we gave all other countries. I
feel bad for them but I guess who cares about America.
-- user raiderdreger, March 23, 2010

I am aware of the dire circumstances of our economy. I realize most of your peers, as are you, are focused on the war on terror, "fixing our economy" while lining your pockets with my hard earned money and of course there is the health care fiasco that faces our country. The United States is run by big business not a democracy. I'm not going to pretend it is otherwise.'s all about money. Recently I have witnessed a great deal of money floating around, changing hands. You recall the disaster that occurred Haiti. Apparently there are people out there willing to help when horrific events present themselves. Governor Beshear we have a horrific event occurring right here, in Kentucky, but for some reason you are turning a blind eye. --  user cstohne, January 21, 2010, titled "Letter to Governor Beshear of Kentucky"

I hate to say this but no one seemed to care about this place before why now? We are in enough debt, we can't get jobs or have neough money to feed our own kids, or afford a dcotor or health insurance. Since when has any other country helped us in time of a disaster?
-- user delight1208, January 26, 2010, titled "Haiti relief"
Those lucky underclassmen in English 1101/55 and 57 at Kennesaw State in the Fall of 2002 were given three examples of an "either/or" fallacy, along with a polite reminder that it is possible to use the construction (literally or as a presentation format) without falling prey to misrepresentation.  This is the second example given:

A firm believer states: “I'm not pro-choice; I'm pro-life.”

Politicians have wrapped this issue up into a messy ball of catch phrases. They assume that a person must have a definitive stand on the abortion issue across the board – either for it or against it. Using these terms, however, make this either/or fallacy especially comical. Who is not technically pro-“life”? We are all still here on this planet – living, eating, socializing, etc. – living life. We like life; we fully support it. On the other hand, we are all Americans whose speech is protected by the First Amendment that grants us freedom of intellectual choice. Therefore, aren’t we all technically pro-“choice” too?

We can play these word games for hours, but these terms cannot adequately help us arrive at a conclusion on this issue if they obscure the realities. Wouldn’t some anti-abortion advocates be in favor of aborting a fetus in order to save the life of the mother? So are they pro-“life” or “choice” if they sacrifice one of them instead of both? … or neither? Do you see how this gets us nowhere? The pro choice/life debate has been “dumbed down” to these two equivocated, loaded, slanted, and distorted terms that only get people mad. Life, death, and abortion are much too complicated to be understood on a bumper sticker.  

You've probably noticed that I haven't mentioned or in the least belabored my arguments against the G.O.P. movement to divest environmental protections and regulations of capital by an assault on environmentalism at the state level. Should I list the benefits of not ruining 3 million acres of Maine's North Woods? Will I herald a return to persuasive logic if I argue the merits of salvaging the Florida Everglades, a goal likely to need every penny of its already allocated $50 million budget -- a worthy project that would be hamstrung by Tea Partier Gov. Scott's proposed $33 million cut to its funding. Is there merit to following the either/or rhetorical trend by placing the fate of the manatee alongside the socioeconomic destiny of Philhelmina Florida and her Florida family?

Those wily beasties who are spearheading these local attacks know that as soon as their opponents' words buy into their fallacious dichotomies, the verbal argument is won, or at least rendered so complicated and far afield of the point as to remain indefinitely on life support.  Gov. LePage is so eager to trap and trick that he fishes with a specific lure, knowing that I will follow his lead of "tree frogs and Canadian lynx." See how he tries to sneak in a sly reference to illegal immigration?

Piece o' cake.  Their own tendency toward overeagerness will betray these Money-Grubbing Earth Haters...

G.B. Trudeau: Doonesbury 08.06.2006

Why not one last moment of additional levity?  After referencing Dr. Phil's fans and their attitudes toward Haiti, I was reviewing past references in this blog to the island nation.  How fortunate to find this piece from April of 2009, readymade with an academic and rhetorical aspect:

You will recall that my Brother-Unit Grader Boob is an English prof at a large public university.

One of his writing assignments for his Freshman comp students involved song analysis. Sorry to say, Grader Boob notes that, "apparently, the idea of a thesis merging literary and rhetorical analysis escapes most of my writers."

By way of clarification, he offered the following quote from a student paper positing reggae as a music of resistance:

"Marley was a Jamican who sometimes visited the island of Hadee."

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