6. False choice or no choice at all
The false choice is commonly used in marketing slogans or rallying calls. There’s a whole range of choices but you offer only two, giving the illusion that there are far less choices available. Or worse, you offer two choices that ultimately produce the same outcome. Examples:
Give me liberty or give me death.
Hmm, no thank you. How about I cower in fear, keep my head down and let things continue the way they are? As you can see, there’s an illusion in the statement above that I have to fight for my rights or die when I could very well just choose to go through life without a care. As they say, ignorance is bliss, right?
Yes or Yes?
This is used very commonly in motivational seminars. (Each time I hear this, I feel like digging my ear drums out, stomping them on the ground before serving them in a burger patty for the speaker, hoping that he or she’ll choke on it and die.) Unbearable? Yes. Effective? Yes! It gets the response the speaker wants. And the trick, too, is that the more-closed ended the question, the better.
Another way to control or shape discourse is to ask close-ended questions that lead to what the opponent wants. This brings us to another fallacy aptly referred to as ‘leading one up the garden path’. In a way, it’s a false choice because there are perhaps more pertinent issues requiring attention rather than the one your opponent has chosen. If you’re planning to mindfuck with this option, instead of addressing the issue at hand, simply get your opponent(s) to think about the issue you’re about to light up right under their ass(es). It’s a common trick in Malaysian political discourse, that’s for certain. And for ruling parties with might in the area of media, this gives them an immense advantage since most people easily fall for what they read in the news.
7. The sacred cow a.k.a “Ini bukan budaya kita” a.k.a middle-class values
The easiest way to illustrate this category of mindfuck is by giving an example. So, here’s one:
Philosophical John: I question the need to be married, have kids and a career, and bury ourselves six feet under ground.
Concerned Jane: Are you depressed? I’ve got this excellent psychiatrist you can call.
The point here is that if someone questions what’s been carved in stone as ‘normal’ – a family comprising a heterosexual couple with kids, for example – they’re deemed ‘different’ by society.
Yes, sacred cows. They’re a very much like the golden calf that drew Moses’ followers away from holiness after he went up Mount Sinai. A naughty little deed which enraged the Prophet when he returned (to the point of breaking the tablets containing the Commandments). These are cows deemed so magnetic in a person’s moment of uncertainty and weakness that the Israelites in this case fully ignored the Prophet’s simple instruction to sit tight and wait for him to finish conversing with the ‘Big Man’ upstairs.
To use this mind-numbing tactic, create a sacred cow of your own or use existing ones to your advantage. Corporations do this all the time. They use market research data which have a record of your hopes and fears. And then they use their product and services to feed or stall your hopes and fears. The sacred cow becomes a magic button for them to induce you to purchase products to fulfill those hopes and allay those fears. Whether it’s the hope of baby-quality skin (never mind that you’re about to celebrate your 70th birthday) or the fear of becoming bald (never mind that you’re born with baby-fine hair).
You could also create an institution or idea and decide arbitrarily – by law – that it can’t be questioned. So that anyone who questions it is instantly deemed crazy, seditious, unreasonable or even criminal. Examples include the infallibility of a religious group or of royalty, ‘racial harmony’ (always strong) or – the zeitgeist of the 21st century in our country – ‘national security’ (always under attack).
An example of sacred cows close to my heart has to do with how in Malaysia, the Orang Asli or Orang Asal’s land is being taken away for ‘development’. Be it for a Mega Hydroelectric Dam that no one gives a damn about, or for a few more oil palm plantations. Don’t ask why. Don’t question if the extra dams or oil palm plantations are really necessary! Just don’t question the cow!
After all, isn’t it a known fact in modern capitalist societies that ‘development’, ‘economic growth’ and ‘higher income’ are what everyone craves for? Of course, they’ll become the very phrases dangled by the powers-that-be when they take our taxes and spend them. When they want to be voted in again for another 100 terms or so. And if you’re questioning this, you may as well put on the straitjacket yourself and check into Tanjung Rambutan. Sacred cows can also be found in everyday language, too. Listen carefully to yourself and those you’re conversing with and you’ll hear some firm favourites popping up like mushrooms. Like religion, career, childhood and the old ticking biological clock.
Sacred cows have special powers that create customs, laws (religious laws, employment law, laws on child’s rights, etc) and even, traditions that can protect them from challenging viewpoints. Sacred cows are sometimes waved about as taboos, too. These are usually topics or behaviours classified as socially unacceptable, or off-limits in public debates or family discussions.
At the end of the day, laws are merely the cloth that cloaks the hopes and fears of those in power – or in a legitimate, ideal democracy – the hopes and fears of the people. Imagine the power sacred cows hold over man’s universal idea of (1) childhood – innocence; (2) marriage – sanctity; (3) religion – afterlife; and (4) family – accomplishment. Some people become nervous when new thoughts are formed and discoveries are made about them because of their stranglehold.
So, to quote Bart Simpson: “Don’t have a cow man.” Recognise these ‘sacred cows’ and question them, not for the fun or function of being oppositional, but to address genuine concerns when you have them.
If we take the case of development and economic growth in modern capitalist countries for example, we can ask ourselves: Are these sacred cows so valuable to the existence of humankind? Or have they become distractions that hide the true agenda of the government and, therefore, don’t hold any real substance or benefits for the citizens? What about sustainability, global warming and human rights? The bits that preserve humankind? Now, there’s food for thought!
There’s something to be said about the way we place importance on the wrong things. Things that bring artificial or transient ‘success’ or happiness.
We should argue more (really)
I believe that nothing’s beyond questioning as to not question anything is in fact to give these sacred cows more power than they deserve. And we all know what power does. Not only does absolute power corrupt absolutely but where power lies, there lies chances of its abuse. So, bring truth to power! Only with discussion and debate, will we truly know what’s at stake, what needs to be done to change things for the better and get to where we want to go.
Happy mindfucking. Because, remember, it’s always better to mindfuck than to be mindfucked!
Articles in this series were inspired by Aristotelean Rhetoric Advocate, Jay Heinrichs, as featured in Bloomberg Businessweek. Some content has been adapted from Jay Heinrichs’s Word Hero and Thank Your for Arguing, his blog, Word Hero, and lastly, What sort of orator are you?
The writer’s use of the term ‘mindfuck’ is as liberal here as his political and religious beliefs. Its application in this series of articles is primarily to enlighten readers on the existence and prolificness of logical fallacies in both the political sphere and personal space. He believes rhetoric should be taught in schools in order that people may argue and reason better with one another and be in a better position to put forth their viewpoints on anything under the sun.
This writer also firmly believes that the many tricks of arguing and reasoning out there need to be exposed, so that better quality discourse is able to guide the advancement of the human race. Really, he does. (That idealistic bastard!)
For some fun, identify some of the rhetorical devices and logical fallacies used by the writer in the series of articles, and share your favourites in the comment section below.
(Featured image accompanying article on main page courtesy of Scott F, source: http://bit.ly/Uh9KUh)