Passing Bull 167 –False choices


The other day, I was discussing with a friend the decline in public life here and in the U S and the U K.  The question arose whether people like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson were causes of the malaise or symptoms of it.  I wondered why they could not be considered as both causes and symptoms if we were looking at one version of the chicken and egg conundrum.

A dilemma occurs in an argument when one party is driven to a position of having to choose between two courses that are equally unattractive.  It is like having two pieces attacked by one in chess – being forked – or being snookered: whichever way you try to get out, you are in trouble.

A dilemma is false if it says that there are only two choices when there are more.  What you generally get is that if you do not do A, you will have to go with B, which will be truly awful.  The truth is that there are other possibilities, but you face an attempt to induce you to believe that you have no real choice.  Naturally, it is a weapon of choice among politicians.

As often as not, people say that you have to choose between two factors when you do not.  In his history, From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun says ‘True opera is a kind of music rather than a kind of play …’  Putting to one side the question of what a false opera might look or sound like, opera is both music and drama.  The joining of the music and drama defines what opera is.  We do not have to make a choice about what we like more or regard as the more important.  This is one occasion when you might truly say that it all depends on how it goes on the night.

This fallacy – that is what it is – might be compared to one that we might call that of ‘unnecessary choice.’  In a promo on CNN, Christiane Amanpour says that she insists on being ‘truthful, not neutral’.  That is plain silly.  Any journalist should aspire to be both.  Our Code of Ethics speaks of ‘scrupulous honesty’ and not allowing ‘personal interests to influence them in their professional duties.’  If the converse of ‘neutral’ is ‘passionate’ ‘committed’ or ‘partisan’, Ms Amanpour is in deep trouble.

These things matter when we get told that you are either for us or against us.  That is bullshit’ of a repellent tribal variety.


There’s an old political slogan you might remember … the public get the politicians they deserve. Through all the political turmoil over the past decade I can’t help but draw your attention to your own culpability. It’s at least partly your fault. And there’s every danger you are about to make the whole situation worse.

That sounds tough. Our political narrative assumes the public is always right. No elected official should blame the public for an adverse election outcome. When Hillary Clinton described the Trump voters as the ‘deplorables’ we all knew she was finished. You can’t say that in public life.

But still, the collective electorate can be wrong. They can make decisions that make governance harder, not easier. Let me give you a couple of examples.

First, let’s take our old friend climate change. The public overwhelmingly want Australia to contribute to lowering greenhouse emissions. At the very least they want us to make a proportional contribution to the global task of CO2 mitigation.

Alexander Downer, Australian Financial Review, 24 September, 2018.

What is terrifying is that the writer believes it.

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