Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Film School Cop Out and the Excluded Middle

I have written before about common logical errors. ("Gardasil and Logical Errors") I think it is a useful topic, even on a politico-economic blog, as those types of errors often underlie our most common mistakes. For example, the error I am discussing here, that of the excluded middle, or center, is characterized by pretending that two positions represent the whole range of choices, that is, that one must choose A or B, there is no other option. Sound familiar? How about all those FairTax advocates who responded to criticism by asking "so you want to keep the current system?", as if the choice were the FairTax or inertia, ignoring entirely the existence of any other plan, much less the possibility of reforming the current system without adopting another. Or, to switch to the other side of the aisle, how about those who oppose any changes to the current welfare system by arguing the choice is between welfare and people starving in the streets, completely ignoring, just for a start, the possibility of eliminating federal welfare and leaving it to the states, or the possibility of private charity filling in, or, the big one so often overlooked, the fact that ending welfare may motivate many who are technically disabled but still capable of work returning to the labor force. (See "Peanut Butter and Disability") I could go on, but it should be clear by now the purpose in my discussions of logic, that those who understand logic to some degree are less likely to fall into the most common errors, or to be swayed by emotional, but irrational, arguments. (See "Government by Emotion", "Selfishness as Reason - "Wants", "Needs", "Fairness" and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions".)

All of this came to mind today while reading movie reviews, when I came across a discussion of the recent tendency to praise films with ambiguous endings for supposedly allowing us to use our imaginations. A number of critics argued against such a position, putting forth that, while it may be effective in a few films to leave the ending ill-defined, most modern films using this pattern tend to show signs of laziness more than brilliance, with the ambiguity serving only to disguise their inability to come up with a decent plot resolution*.

This is where the excluded middle rears its ugly head. Rather than agree that ambiguity is a tool which can be used well or poorly, many who want to defend vague films instead respond to any critic by accusing them of "wanting to be spoon fed endings". Which is, of course, an absolute absurd response, assuming that the only possible way films can be made is either a brilliantly vague ending or an overly simplistic and concrete one. It ignores entirely the possibility of bad ad foolish vague endings, as well as well defined but brilliant resolutions, not to mention all the shadings in between, varying degrees of resolution and ambiguity.

In its form, this argument reminded more than most of the common political uses of this sort of idiocy. For example, when the Ron Paul supporters were more active, arguing against, essentially, any use of the military except (perhaps) the defense of the territorial borders of the US. Whenever one dared to raise a criticism, the immediate response was a twofold use of this specific mistake. First, to accuse the critic of being a socialist, which the Paulists turned into their all-purpose slander, and second, to accuse any critic of empire building. Both, as should be obvious, were absurdly reductionist examples of the excluded middle. First, assuming one must either be a Paul booster or a socialist, with no other options possible. Second, assuming anyone who argued for military action that was not a response to direct invasion was a miniature Napoleon. Not only were they perfect example of this logical error, but, as with film example above, they both also show the most common outcome of the use of this logical fallacy, the excessively reductionist tendency to paint one's critics as the epitome of evil, that is, to make debate, much less persuasion, impossible.

And that is, in the end, why I am bothering to write again. I have written many times that I believe one of our worst tendencies is to see those who hold different political views as rivals, enemies, even the embodiment of evil.  ("The Futility of Blame", "The Inverse of Empathy", "Inconsistent Understanding", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "Should I Laugh or Cry?", "Intellect and Politics", "Ritual Abuse, Backwards Logic and Conspiracy Theories", "The Path of Least Resistance", "Prelude to a Future Essay on Heroic Ethics and Romanticism") Not only does it make for an overly hostile political environment, but it dissuades us from engaging in the most productive political activity, persuasion and debate.  And, because the excluded middle so often feeds into this mistake, I feel especially obligated to point out its shortcomings. Not that I expect this one essay to convince anyone, but still, perhaps if I keep pointing it out, and perhaps a few others pick it up as well, maybe our political environment will change for the better one day.


* For the record, I am largely sympathetic to such an argument. Then again, I am not convinced laziness is the best explanation. Some may be lazy, but many may have bought into the argument that ambiguity indicates brilliance and thus intentionally made bad films, films effectively indistinguishable from the products of laziness or incompetence, all because they think a failure to resolve a plot shows they are clever.

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