The tyranny of false dichotomies
When, in the aftermath of the shooting incident in Mandaluyong City, Bato dela Rosa said he would rather have stupid people with good intentions instead of smart people with bad intentions, he was making use of a rhetorical device widely deployed in our political discourse: presenting false dichotomies, or making people pick between two things as if these were the only choices.
A similar argument is presented in defense of Rodrigo Duterte’s foul mouth: What would you rather have, a president who curses but cares for the country, or a president who speaks in flowery language but doesn’t care for the people? Or: Which would you choose — a president who jokes about rape, or a president who is “raping” the nation?
The war on drugs is also being defended using this same reasoning, with fatal consequences. Which would you choose — the human rights of drug suspects, or the human rights of rape victims?
We see this as well when people’s political stances are elicited: Are you “pro” or “anti”? There are so many issues facing the nation today, but because people simply assume that being “Dilawan” or “DDS” means opposing or supporting everything the government says or does, no middle ground, no nuance, is to be found. Here, the false dichotomy is between criticism and support.
For politicians themselves, the use of false dichotomies is an effective tool to galvanize their base and defend their tenuous positions. But for the country, the result is further polarization — and the oversimplification of the debates that matter.
Perhaps our “duopolies of thought” are rooted in a history that goes beyond the political sphere. Moro-moro, sa pula sa puti, Magdiwang vs. Magdalo, Kapamilya vs. Kapuso: In various domains, it seems that we are constantly being forced to choose between opposite sides.
Some may say that this thinking dates back to the “divide and conquer” strategy that our oppressors — foreign and local — have successfully used against us. Others may link it to our insular roots, suggesting that we are not capable of thinking as a nation because we only became one relatively recently. Regardless of how it came to be, this kind of thinking is dangerous for three reasons:
First, it denies the complexity of the issues we face. By reducing people to either “pro-” or “anti-” Duterte, for instance, we lose out on the fact — borne out by surveys — that a majority actually believe that drug suspects should not be killed. We also lose out on the possibility of supporting something in principle (i.e., federalism) but objecting to it in practice (i.e., the PDP-Laban proposal), or supporting something in general (i.e., a campaign against illegal drugs) but objecting to its parts (i.e., extrajudicial killings).
Second, it perpetuates — and exacerbates — division. If people cannot move past the false dichotomy between support and criticism, then they will keep siding with their political idols and opposing those they assume to be against them—ultimately leading to antagonism and hate.
Finally, false dichotomies deny the possibility of alternatives, and keep us from demanding better choices. Can we not have police who are smart and benevolent? I believe we do have police officers who are both. Can they not be the standard?
Instead of choosing between two classes of victims — EJK victims on one hand, and rape victims on the other — can we not value the human rights of all victims, regardless of who perpetuated crimes against them?
And can we not have public officials who are good both in word and deed? Able to show empathy and able to act with integrity? Instead of choosing between two political sides, can we not hold all officials accountable for their wrongdoing, even as we support the good in the government — and demand something better?
It is not too late to move away from the binary politics that has held back our nation. By rejecting the tyranny of the false dichotomies that have been forced upon us, perhaps we can move toward better governance — and the realization that there are far more issues that unite us than our politicians would like us to think.
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