A chilling German play called “The Arsonists” is about a man named Biedermann who lives in a town where arsonists have turned many homes to ash. They infiltrate their way into people’s homes by disguising themselves as peddlers. He wonders how anyone could be so foolish to take one of them in.
But then Anna, his maid, reports that there is a peddler, named Schmitz, at the door, and though Biedermann wants to throw him out, she notes that all the peddler wants is kindness and humanity. Biedermann changes his mind because, after all, he is not inhuman.
Soon Schmitz settles down in the attic because it is a fine place to sleep out of the rain and when Biedermann asks him point blank if he is an arson, Schmitz assures him he is not. He adds that his friend Willi says that no one is willing to offer charity anymore, and he will be really surprised to see how nice this family is.
Just then Willi rings the doorbell and now there are two arsons in the house, invited in willingly by the family. Soon the arsons are bringing barrels filled with gasoline into the attic. When Biedermann asks what is in the barrels, Willi tells him, gasoline, and they all laugh together. Of course, this must be a joke.
When the chorus asks him if he can smell the gasoline, he assures them he smells nothing. How quickly he has become used to the smell!
Next, Biedermann helps the arsons in his attic find a detonator cap and measure the fuse. He assures the audience, laughing, that he is certain as long as the two men are well fed and kept, he will be safe. Finally, he hands the arsons the matches, strikes them himself, and the sirens start to scream. His house will be turned to char like all the others.
The unbelievable happens in this story. A man participates in every phase of burning down his own house, with each step padded by flattery about what a good person he is and aided by his own consent to be blind and self-deceived. In this story, you just want to scream at Biedermann, “Can’t you see?”
We, who have read the Book of Mormon so much, have seen two nations, the Nephites and the Jaredites, strike matches through hundreds of years until they, too, conflagrate their nations, step by flaming step.
I fear that we are watching this same trend in the United States in these unhappy days when literal matches are being flung everywhere while many leaders stand by tacitly approving. The top law enforcement officer in Massachusetts, the attorney general said, “Yes, America is burning, but that’s how forests grow.”
This could have been a time of national unity, when all of us rallied around our disgust at the George Floyd murder, which is reprehensible. It was a chance to come together against brutality and see each other across our heartache and political divisions.
As Peggy Noonan wrote, “Most everyone concedes the problem—that black men are profiled and cannot feel safe in their own country. Walking while black, driving while black—Tim Scott of South Carolina has been stopped for trying to impersonate a U.S. senator, which is what he is.”
This is a problem, along with many others, that we have to confront with humanity and intelligence. Unfortunately, the national dialogue instead gives us a narrative that insists that we choose an extreme position based on a false dilemma—and extreme positions are matches that burn our house down.
The False Dilemma in Critical Thinking
When one is taught critical thinking skills, they learn that among the fallacies that distort clear thinking is the false dilemma. According to Richard Norquist, “a false dilemma is a fallacy of oversimplification that offers a limited number of options (usually two) when in reality more options are available….Either-or arguments are fallacious because they tend to reduce complex issues to simplistic choices.”
When are false dilemmas presented and who uses them?
“Generally, when this rhetorical strategy is used, one of the options is unacceptable and repulsive, while the other is the one the manipulator wants us to choose,” Norquist notes.
Right now, we are awash in false dilemmas, designed to push an agenda forward. We are told what we are supposed to think, no, what we must think, because the other option is unacceptable and repulsive. We are given an entire agenda that we are told we must believe. If not, we can only be one of those who are choosing the other repulsive choice.
Today the other option is that you are racist or hateful. Who could abide that or proclaim a point of view that will be automatically designated as racist?
If the manipulators can convince people of the false dilemma, then their option, will be hard to beat—even if it is full of matches that set your city on fire.
The False Dilemma that You Must Sympathize with Rioting or You are Racist
I recently wrote an article talking about the power of a false dilemma to corrupt an entire nation, and I specifically noted one. That is the popular sentiment that suggests if you are not willing to overlook, justify or sympathize with those who riot, loot and destroy that you are racist and are part of the problem. It is an either-or proposition without any distinctions.
Since the last thing anyone would want to be is racist, in many places rioters are left to do what they will night after night. What concerns about this either-or false narrative is that it completely ties the hands of those who would protect our burning cities and gags discussion. You do not stand for social justice if you don’t watch the cities burn with at least a certain understanding insists this narrative.
We are trained to have our sympathy enlisted for those with the matches.
“’Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence,’” a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The New York Times blithely explained.
As one friend wrote on social media, my white children are safe from police when they leave home. A black mother’s children aren’t safe. How can I possibly tell her not to take to the streets with violence?” In this new world, my friend has been conditioned to think riot is justified. She’s been convinced of a false dilemma.
The False Dilemma that You Must See Police as Essentially Brutal or You are Racist
This, of course, leaves us unable to defend ourselves.
New York Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins told Laura Ingraham, “NYPD is losing the city of New York right now…The men and women are being pelted with rocks, bricks, cars [are] lit on fire. And this is continuous…Our hands are being tied…The rank and file…have sent me numerous emails, letters, text messages, photos of New York City…being destroyed…The commissioner, the chiefs of the NYPD are too afraid to let the men and women keep control of the city.”
Nearly three hundred police officers have been injured in New York City alone. In New York an officer was stabbed in the neck, two more were shot and one felled by a hit-and-run driver. In St. Louis David Dorn, a 77-year-old, retired police officer, black, was shot while he was defending a pawn shop from looters.
This brings us to another false dilemma we are being delivered: Police are the brutal, militarized agents that cause the riots. We must slash the funding of police, decrease forces, hate them, have them stand down from protecting immigrant businesses being destroyed and Washington monuments sprayed with graffiti—or we are racist.
Now, yes, have we seen that some policemen act brutally? Right there on nine minutes of tape with George Floyd. Have we seen other moments that made us cringe during these demonstrations? We have, and people agree that this must be aggressively addressed.
Yet, what would the world be like without police? Do we imagine that they are unnecessary or are we willing to let our streets be claimed by whomever has the force and the numbers to run amuck? In a fallen world, there are sinful police, there are misguided prejudices as there are in every profession, and, given that, we have to identify the problems and solve them, but not fall to the false dilemma that we must disdain all police, ask them to stand down in the face of criminal activity and slash their budgets—or we are racist.
Pete Hegseth, a member of the National Guard who was called up in Washington DC said that without their efforts every monument in the nation’s capitol would have been defaced. He said, “There was one point, I was standing for thirty minutes guarding the Viet Nam War Memorial and I thought to myself how in the world am I in the nation’s capitol guarding the Viet Nam Memorial, because the protesters who say they want to exercise their first amendment right really want to deface the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Memorial or the Viet Nam Memorial. It was surreal.”
Recently, the Minneapolis City Council has voted to abolish the police department with a veto-proof majority, despite the mayor’s objections. This is in a city that has been ruled by chaos and a police station that rioters burned to the ground in the last week. The mayor, Jacob Frey has promised to work relentlessly with the police chief toward deep, structural reform and addressing systemic racism in police culture, but it wasn’t enough. The crowd he addressed booed him and told him to go home, Jacob.
New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio is cutting funds from the police department and moving them to social services. This slash is made to a police department already over-extended in the wake of their problems.
You can’t even suggest alternatives to the narrative. James Bennet, the editorial page editor of The New York Times is resigning because he authorized the publication of Senator Tom Cotton’s editorial calling for the military to respond to the unrest. The publication fomented such a brouhaha among the newspaper’s staff, that the editorial was withdrawn, but that wasn’t the end of the fallout, because now Bennet is gone. Apparently only some correct opinions are allowed on the opinion page.
Like Biedermann, you find the fuse and light the match to your own city metaphorically because in this mindset, you can’t do anything else but nod with some approval toward those who burn our cities. It is the way to signal that you are a good, sensitive person who “gets it.”
The False Dilemma that You Must Hate America or You are Racist
Another false choice is equally threatening. Ben Shapiro described it well, “Members of our political class have decided that instead of rallying against obvious evil, Americans must be categorized as enlightened or benighted based on their answer to one question: Was America and is America rooted in racism and bigotry? If you answer in the negative, you are complicit in racism and bigotry. If you answer in the affirmative, you may be categorized among the woke, the aware, the sensitive and the decent.”
He continued, It’s a game pressed forward by the most powerful messaging institutions in our society: our media who award Pulitzer Prizes to faux history like The 1619 Project, which argues that every American institution has been fatally corrupted by America’s original sin, slavery, and that every inequality of today can find its roots in inequities of the past. Our celebrities…proudly proclaim that rights to free speech, property ownership, and due process are merely facades for the continuing and malign maintenance of structural inequalities.”
Catch that? Those institutions and ideas like free speech and property ownership that underline our understanding of America are attacked as part of the systemic racism that is troubling this country.
Shapiro notes, “Declaring America’s most fundamental structures corrupt and cancer-ridden is deeply dangerous. Once a structure has been condemned, its foundations declared unstable, it can only be destroyed. There is no way to argue that fealty to a particular political program inside that supposedly corrupt structure can fix the problem.”
When we hear the words “systemic racism”, it does not just mean that we should find solutions to specific problems like police violence among some members of the Minneapolis Police force. It means something much greater– undoing America to its very foundation, including many ideas and institutions embedded in our Constitution that we consider priceless and are the very banner under which change happens.
Hostility toward Drew Brees
One of the first casualties is free speech, especially that which honors America. It is not enough to acknowledge the sins of America’s past, if you see America as a beacon of freedom and decency where we can work together toward solutions, you are insensitive and racist. You should be fired or criticized—and are.
Drew Brees, quarterback of the New Orleans, gave $5 million in March to help deliver meals to needy people in Louisiana during the COVID-19 crisis and is generally known as a player-philanthropist. Many of those who benefitted from his largesse were black, but that didn’t help when it came to the criticisms that exploded on him when he said this Wednesday in an interview with Yahoo Finance:
“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country. Let me just tell what I see or what I feel when the national anthem is played and when I look at the flag of the United States. I envision my two grandfathers, who fought for this country during World War II, one in the Army and one in the Marine Corps, both risking their lives to protect our country and to try to make our country and this world a better place.
“So every time I stand with my hand over my heart looking at that flag and singing the national anthem, that’s what I think about. And in many cases, that brings me to tears, thinking about all that has been sacrificed. Not just those in the military, but for that matter, those throughout the civil rights movements of the ‘60’s, and all that has been endured by so many people up until this point. And is everything right with our country right now? No, it is not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flat with your hand over your heart, is to show unity. It shows that we are all in this together, we can all do better and that we are all part of the solution.’
For this, fellow athletes weighed in, including teammate Malcolm Jenkins, who said, “Here we are with the world on fire and you continue to first criticize how we peacefully protest.”
Yet, in reality, had Brees criticized his teammates in any way, or just stated his own love and convictions? The point is in this new atmosphere, you have to carefully pick your way across a minefield just to speak about America. Your convictions are required to go underground or you will be punished.
Brees was put right at the very heart of a false dilemma. You must disdain America and uproot it as its heart or you are racist.
We know that to be racist is one of the worst epithet’s that can be hung on us and so the new script carries. How can you defend institutions you have been taught to hate? It is just another match that is lit to burn down your own house.
If you want to get a sense of how the new thought regime works, it is already beginning to play out. The Federalist reported that this week, Sacramento Kings play-by-play announcer Grant Napear, who has called games since 1988, resigned after tweeting “All Lives Matter” when he was asked for his response to the Black Lives Matter movement. “Within days, Napear had also lost his popular sports talk radio show. He later issued a public apology to the Sacramento Bee…”I had no idea that when I said ‘All Lives Matter’ that it was counter to what BLM was trying to get across.’
“No matter. For the sin of being insufficiently woke about BLM, Napear’s career is over.
You can hear the idea that America, itself is hateful and deserves punishment in this dialogue from a documentary made by filmmaker Ami Horowitz, who embedded himself in the protests in Minneapolis.
In this clip from Horowitz (which includes many bleeped expletives), the protestors tell us, “We’re attacking big, known businesses like Apple, Boost…Target, Walmart, Best Buy…You better lock your doors!” This protester calls looting “slavery money…So when we take it back or we burn it down, yeah. We’re getting back what’s ours. You won’t give it up? Okay, you ain’t having it no more.”
Another added, “If anybody’s a thief, it’s America.”
Black scholar Thomas Sowell said, “Politically there are few ideas more potent than the notion that all your problems are caused by other people and their unfairness to you.” Why potent? Because it creates anger and your anger can be weaponized for political ends.
The False Dilemma of (1) Admitting that Your White Privilege Makes You Racist or (2) You are Racist
This dilemma is a can’t-win proposition because either way, if you are white, you are racist
Because we don’t want to be racist, we seek to be sensitive to other people and understand their experience, but unfortunately the idea of what racism is, is a moving target. Again Thomas Sowell, captures this. “If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago, and racist today.”
Laura Hollis writes why collective guilt is a catastrophic mistake:
“Focusing on ‘discrimination,’ as our laws have done for decades, places the emphasis on conduct , which can be clearly identified and prohibited. Individuals (or groups) who engage in that prohibited conduct can be penalized.
“Punishing an attitude of racism, however, is more problematic. It is one thing to condemn it. But how do you penalize or sanction it, apart from the conduct that reflects it?”
This is what contemporary race theorists and activists call “white privilege.”
“According to these theories,” writes Hollis, “one is culpable simply for having ‘benefitted’ from a system in which blacks and other minorities were — and are — discriminated against. ‘Race’ is not only a ‘social construct’; it becomes a matter of economic identity, rather than ethnic identity.
“Even nonwhites who have succeeded in this system become ‘white’ by virtue of that success.”
Hollis adds, “It is one thing to acknowledge that blacks have suffered grievous discrimination, and that the consequences of that continue to this day. Those are the ugly facts. Similarly, when white Americans — or anyone who has not personally endured bias and discrimination — vow to do everything in their power to make their community and our country a better place, that is individual agency, not collective guilt.”
What is dangerous about the idea of collective guilt, is that it can also lead to collective punishment and in this country as Hollis notes, “We do not punish people for the crimes or wrongdoing of others.”
Unfortunately, the idea of white privilege becomes horribly divisive between ethnic groups just when we need to find ways to unify. It is from the idea of white privilege that we get ideas like micro-aggressions. From this you get contortions like saying, “America is a land of opportunity” is a racist comment.
Cleaning Graffiti as Misuse of Privilege
We’ve seen examples of white privilege used as a weapon this week. A video was taken of three girls who were scolded for supposedly misusing their white privilege when they scrubbed the initials “BLM”, meaning Black Lives Matter” from the Lafayette Building in Washington DC.
In the midst of this a woman, identified on Facebook as “Faith Alice Sleeper” stops in her vehicle and they had the following exchange. “Why are you guys removing ‘Black Lives Matter’ graffiti?” Alice asks the girls, videotaping the interaction from her vehicle.
“We’re just trying to take care of the city,” one of the girls responds. “We tried over there,” another girl told her questioner, “and it wasn’t coming off.”
“Why do you want that to come off?” Alice asked.
“Because it’s a federal building and we care about our country and our city,” one of the girls told her.
Alice responded combatively, “So you don’t care about black lives, then?”
“Not at all, that’s not at all what we’re saying,” the girls answered. “We certainly do care about black lives.”
“Not enough to leave up a message,” the woman said back.
“We don’t disagree with the message, ma’am,” one of the girls said, “it’s just on the building; we’re just trying to clean it.”
“Right,” Alice answered angrily. “Not a great way to use your white privilege, ladies! …That’s disgusting.”
Why False Dilemmas Appeal
False dilemmas are a political tool and, right now, we can see their danger in this country. They are matches that can lead us to burn our entire house down. You want people to line up behind your agenda? Just give them a false dilemma where one side is a repulsive choice–like you are a racist–and the manipulator of this dialogue wins.
Don’t like a particular political idea? You are a racist. Don’t like what I said? You are a racist.
What’s also worrisome, is that false dilemmas play so well on those whose philosophy is formed by memes and sound bites and who want to appear to be politically correct on social media. How much easier it is to jump to the “correct” side of the false dilemma to be cool and charitable than to think through distinctions.
Yes, you can be concerned about inequities and not nod your head to support riots.
Yes, you can support good police who work hard to not let violent mobs take over your cities, and still be against police brutality and prejudice.
Yes, you can value the ideas that formed America based on the worth and freedom of each individual, and not re-invent our institutions and throw away our nation.
Yes, you can truly seek to see all people as God’s precious children, grieve for the injustice that has marred lives and repent if you find prejudice in yourself, and still not ascribe to the idea of white privilege, that all are collectively guilty no matter how much good will they have exhibited.
In our quest to be charitable and humane and save our nation, we will have to use our intelligence to sift through narratives and see as clearly as we can. It is not a small task, but it is a necessary one.
Our prophet Russell M. Nelson linked arms with Derrick Johnson, NAACP President and CEO, Leon Russell, NAACP Chairman of the Board and The Reverend Amos C. Brown, Chairman Emeritus of Religious Affairs NAACP to write a joint op-ed in Medium. They wrote that the answers to racism “will come as we open our hearts to those whose lives are different than our own, as we work to build bonds of genuine friendship, and as we see each other as the brothers and sisters we are–for we are all children of a loving God.”