The nirvana fallacy (also called the perfect-solution fallacy) is another one that sounds obvious if you explain it calmly, but works all too well once emotional pressures are applied. This fallacy is the rejection of anything that can be portrayed as less than perfect, usually by assuming and implying that an alternative is perfect.
The nirvana fallacy typically works like this:
Two people are debating some subject; one of them has a new idea that he or she thinks would improve life, and the other remains committed to the existing way. As the “new way” person explains their idea, the “old way” person quickly imagines a scenario where the new way could cause a problem, then accuses the new way of being horrible because of that one possibility.
The nirvana fallacy says this: “If I can imagine one flaw with your new idea, it’s stupid, and you’re dangerous for promoting it.” That’s ridiculous, of course; you can use “one flaw and it’s trash” to condemn anything. Food can rot, clothes can tear, cars can break, children can be rude, old people are too slow, and so on. You can find a flaw with anything. And that means that absolutely anything can be rejected if you apply the nirvana fallacy to it.
Sadly, this fallacy does work. It intimidates the person with the new idea, protecting both the old idea and the person holding it.
I began running into this fallacy when I explained to people why I was home schooling my children.
I explained that personalized instruction was better than a room full of thirty kids, that parents have the best possible position and motivation to teach their children, and so on. And almost every time I did this, the person on the other side would become angry and erupt with a condemnation. In the early years it was “What about socialization?” In later years (once the “socialization” complaint had worn itself out) it became, “What about abused children?”
Here are the reasons why those arguments were very bad ones:
- Regimented schools are anti-social. They divide children by age and separate them from the rest of the world. They severely limit their social interactions.
- Regimented schools forcibly group children and place them in subjection to a single adult, five days per week, forty-some weeks per year. Again this greatly limits their social development.
- The primary job of the adult in control of them is to subdue them; twenty or thirty children in a single room cannot be taught any other way. This is a direct repression of their social instincts.
- Factory-style schools are not magic, and some of their students have always been abused. Regimented schooling was nearly universal for a century, and child abuse didn’t go away.
The nirvana fallacy, then, rests upon imagination, not reality: If I can imagine any sort of flaw in your plan, I can, with disgust, throw it away, and you with it. It’s a cheap, nasty way to win and argument, but it works.
How The Trick Works
Home schooling advocates were shut down by these arguments many times. And that’s really why the nirvana fallacy was used: Not to change the mind of the home school advocate, but to keep other people from listening to him or her.
At a minimum, throwing the nirvana fallacy at us pulled us into useless conversations about socialization, rather than the virtues of home schooling. And it was effective at keeping people from listening. Here’s how it worked:
- The “old way” person was emotionally triggered and went to war to protect their existing belief. (If you’ve ever seen the Matrix movie, a docile citizen morphing into Agent Smith is a great image of this.)
- The “old way” person quickly imagined the worst possible failure of the new way, then threw it at their adversary in the most damning way possible: “Sure, lock all those abused children into their dungeons!”
- The condemning line was spoken loudly, so that everyone nearby would hear it and look at the “new way” person. This was done as an accusation, and clearly.
- The “new way” person is now being accused of promoting a monstrous evil. On top of that, a crowd is quite ready to believe that they are promoting evil.
I think you can see why the trick works so well. Not only is the ‘new way” person suffering a barrage of sudden fear, but their mind will also tend to lock, which is what fear does to us. That’s why we can review these conflicts a day or two later and say, “I should have said…” We don’t think of those responses in the moment because fear restricts our thinking, and particularly our ability to recall.
Now, before we go any further, I want you to consider how vicious the scenario above is. It’s a lot like a lion mercilessly tearing a zebra apart.
What To Keep In Mind
The first thing that must be done in moments like the one illustrated above is simply to recognize it and to bear the blow. I wish I had an easier first step for you, but I don’t; this will take a bit of experience and practice. Sorry.
Once you get past that point, however, you’ve pretty well won. What you’ll probably want to do is to buy yourself a moment to let your brain recover from the blow. You can do that by saying, “Wait, let me be sure I’m understanding you correctly…”
Past that point, reason will be returning to the crowd and your opponent will be losing his or her strength. That’s when you say, “You’re saying that none of the children who go to public schools are ever abused?”
After your adversary concedes (and probably makes another attempt at dominance), you can finish off with, “I have studies showing home schooled children to have fewer emotional problems than government school kids. What studies do you have?”
After that, the adversary will likely spit some more anger at you, but their attack will be over and they will not have won.
More next time.