Artificial divisions

John Muenzberg

Column by John Muenzberg, lecturer of philosophy 

Elections reduce a complex situation into a simplistic choice. We instinctively know that this reduction is a false narrative, and we react with frustration. While movies have obvious bad guys, real life rarely does. Yet elections require you to make a choice between just a few possibilities.

Campaigns try to tell you that their candidate is the good guy, and their opponent is the bad guy. Since you have to make a choice, political campaigns try to reduce nuance and simplify complex decisions into an advertising slogan.

This simplistic view relies on a logical fallacy called “false dichotomy.” “Dichotomy” is a division into two things. Presenting only two choices when more than two exist is falsely representing the choice as a dichotomy, hence the name.

A classic example of a false dichotomy is to declare “You are either with me, or against me.” To not fully agree with someone is not the same as being against them. People can agree with some of your goals but not all, agree with your goals but not your method or just think your goals are the lesser of two evils. Reducing this to two choices is false.

One of the false dichotomies of this election was the reduction of people into classes, races and genders. In order to get elected in a system that requires an either/or choice the campaigns try to reduce all cultural and social differences into such a choice. Do not believe that this reflects reality.

In the first days after the election, numerous accounts of overt racism and sexism have been reported, many of them in high schools and universities. Many minorities, including LGBTQ, women and people of color, have been verbally and physically assaulted. Some of these are probably “jokes,” such as the students that built a makeshift wall to separate a Hispanic student from her roommate. Others have been literal assaults, like the black woman who was threatened with a gun while pumping gas.

While incidents of racism and assaults happened before the election, it is clear that Donald Trump’s victory has emboldened many people to lash out, believing they have impunity. We know this because many of the perpetrators have explicitly invoked Trump as they yell at minorities to “go back to where you came from.”

The reaction of many of you who voted for Trump will be to minimize these attacks, perhaps dismiss them as exaggerations of poor losers. This is a defense mechanism to preserve your own integrity. But this is where the false dichotomy can become so destructive. Just because you voted for Trump does not mean you have to agree with everything Trump’s supporters do.

If you do not believe in racism, then speak out against racism. This does not make you a politically-correct liberal, it makes you a person who believes in equality for all people. If you do not believe in sexism, or gender discrimination, or homophobia, or religious intolerance, then act to stop it. When the KKK endorsed Donald Trump, Mike Pence disavowed the endorsement. Just because some people want to use Donald Trump’s victory to excuse their immoral and often illegal behavior does not mean that you must agree with them.

A few weeks ago, I endorsed the importance of places that students can feel safe. It is important that we make this campus a safe space for all students. Do not accept racist or sexist behavior from your classmates. Do not excuse such behavior because you do not want to be associated with the “other side.” Make a gesture to show other people that you can be an ally. Many people who supported Trump argued that this election was not fueled by racism or sexism. Now is the time to prove them right.