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False Dichotomies and Framing the Debate
By David Newell September 6, 2006

In the last few years the political landscape within America and within the world has often been described as polarizing or polarized. This often comes from the mouths or pens of journalists characterizing the relationships of actors and parties involved in the world's most relevant debates. This phenomenon is not new, either in character or intensity.

As our society currently seeks solutions to some of America's and the worlds greatest problems, however, polarity can be a great hinder to finding solutions, not because of the dividing passions it can engender with both people and politicians, as much as because it can make us blind, blind to the only possible and realistic solutions to these problems.

This blindness results from the creation of false dichotomies. Traditionally this term is used to describe the problem of excluding the middle point of view. However, I think it goes deeper than this. I would term false dichotomies as not only excluding the moderate or the middle, but as creating a dichotomy where a dichotomy doesn't or shouldn't exist. In other words, many of what are set up as opposite ends of the given debate are often NOT mutually exclusive. However, because of the way in which the given debate is framed, we are led to believe that each problem we face has only two polar-opposite and exclusive solutions.

Let's put this in real terms. Take illegal immigration. The current debate pits charity towards hopeless people seeking a better life and our own national economic needs versus the morality of illegally crossing the border and national security. Do we have to have one without the other? Why not? Why not increase national security, maintain the integrity of the law AND help economically deprived would-be-citizens while helping our economy to boot? This is an area where I believe, incidentally, that the Bush administration had it right. The administration essentially suggested making it harder to come in illegally (by strengthening the border and cracking down on employers of illegal immigrants) while making it easier to come in legally (by creating guest worker programs and programs for those already here). Is this a moderate stance? No, because it takes positions which either end of the debate considers extreme. Yet, it seems to be the best hope of satisfying all of the values embraced by both sides of the spectrum. The left gets charity for immigrants, as well as economic health for the U.S. The right gets the integrity of legality (through making those previously considered illegal, legal--they are only legal or illegal because the law, i.e. WE, say so) and national security (through keeping tabs, via a guest worker program, on individuals who would be here anyways, with or without such a program). This sort of solution also happens to be the only truly realistic one; immigrants will keep coming no matter what we say or do and, unchecked, they pose a threat to the integrity of our laws and to our national security. However, because of the way the debate on immigration is currently framed it is unlikely, especially in an election year, that such a real solution will receive sufficient support.

So what creates false dichotomies? It is, as I have alluded to, in the framing of the debate itself. Basically this happens when an issue arises, values are expressed by varying persons or parties, and through either intentional or unintentional means these values are grouped into two opposing camps. The intentional means of doing this include politicians and the like making power grabs for themselves or their parties. The unintentional means of doing this include those who foolishly decide to champion the cause of a given value at the expense of other values. Thus the two sides are set up. Those who think differently are dismissed or labeled as "moderate," and moderates have little hope of creating the impassioned feelings that the polar opposites seem inherently to have by virtue of showing their absolute devotion to single values by excluding the importance of other values.

In addition to this separation of values comes the monopolies on words attached to these values. These include such terms as "progressive," "liberal," "conservative," and the like. One cannot be progressive if one wants to progress against the grain of those who already call themselves progressive, for example. This wouldn't be a big deal except for the fact that many people, unknowingly, buy into the notion that only conservatives can be "conservative," etc. Thus the monopoly on words only serves to strengthen the false dichotomies by making the frames of the debate stronger.

In real terms, let's put it this way: when the Iraq war began, I supported it and its cause. However, over time and after having more information revealed about the reality of the cause being pursued and the reality of the information given as reason for going to war, I eventually decided that, given what I know now, I would not have supported entering the war. When I started out being for the war, I could safely have been labeled a "hawk," due to my "evident" predilection for violence and war as a means of solving the worlds problem. However, when I switched my point of view, did that suddenly make me a "pacifist," because of my being too cowardly to use force to rid the world of a tyrant? Such labels and terms should really rub all of us the wrong way because they so completely fail to describe the real values and beliefs we hold. Sure, there are some true "hawks" and "pacifists" out there, but most people, I think, believe that violence should be used with great prudence, but should be used nonetheless if given the right circumstances and dire need.

Going beyond the debate as currently framed is what I would like to call "thinking outside the box." However, regrettably, this term has also been hijacked to mean thinking in a way more extreme in a certain polar direction than those who went before you. TRULY thinking outside the box means realizing that the world is not black and white or even perhaps gray, but rather a mix of blacks and whites and grays. In other words, false dichotomies lead us to believe that only ONE black and ONE white exist with anything in between being gray. In reality, more than one black and one white might exist, and by recognizing this, we can best choose WHICH white or mix of blacks and whites are best for the given situation; this is thinking outside the box in the true sense, not just in thinking outside one box but inside another.

Some more examples. Abortion. Why does it have to be an abortion free-for-all or no abortion at all under any circumstances? Why does national security have to come at the expense of civil liberties and visa-versa?

Finally, let me end with an example that may seem blasphemous to those accustomed to some of the more prevalent false dichotomies. Democracy. On one side of the coin we have those who say affirmatively, "YES, have it, believe it, spread it across the globe!" On the other side we have those who suggest that other types of government, i.e. communism, totalitarianism are better. I believe, on the third hand, that democracy is good SOMETIMES and for SOME people. I view it as the ideal form of government as long as we imperfect beings wrestle with governing ourselves. I believe that the United States should, without question, remain as and cherish our tradition as the first modern democracy. I believe that democracy is the best government man can hope for governing himself, albeit an impossibly flawed system at that. However, democracy is the ideal and thus NOT ideal for everyone at ALL times. In my opinion, Iraq was not ready and should not have been given a democracy as a government at this time. If the ultimate aims of democracy are securing personal liberties and freedoms, I ask, how free are the Iraqis now when they cannot walk in the street without fear of being targeted by a death squad? Is this freedom or anarchy? However, by saying this, does this make me anti-democracy or pro totalitarianism? No, it just means that I don't buy into the "democracy-at-all-costs or nothing" dichotomy.

Copyright © 2006 by David Newell

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