The perils of glorifying a fallacious question with an answer


I was elsewhere and too preoccupied with an urgent personal project last June when fellow Times columnist Prof. Leonor Briones came out with a very provocative column, “If we are so good in English, why aren’t we rich?” ( I therefore missed reading that column and, coming across it only now, I must say that I was taken aback and distressed by the sheer fallaciousness of its thesis.

In fairness to Prof. Briones, she didn’t come up with that question herself. By her own account, it was a paraphrase of a question posed to her when she was interviewed by a foreign correspondent of a newspaper with the largest circulation in a foreign country, and I don’t intend to fault her for her informative, if tangentially argued, response to it. But I do think that she could have provided greater clarity to her response by first pointing out—both to that foreign correspondent and to Times readers—that the question was a fallacious statement to begin with.

That question is an example of a non sequitur in normal speech, a proposition in which the premise and conclusion, although logically unrelated, are used as if they were. Listen to the foreign correspondent’s actual phrasing: “If you Filipinos are so good in English, how come you are not rich?” It duns Filipinos with a condescending, illogical question that really doesn’t deserve a serious answer. As a Times reader, Antonio Javier Belzunce, so sensibly observed in response to it, “Let us not be so naive. To speak a language like English has no connection to richness… only a means to communicate. It is applied wisdom that can bring richness into a country.”

I found it unsettling that Prof. Briones chose not to challenge the validity of that question, either at the time of its utterance or as an afterthought when she wrote her column. Perhaps out of civility or even deference to a presumably well-informed foreign interlocutor, she accepted its argument at face value. But then she responded to it by citing factual information and arguments that actually refuted its premise, followed by more factual information and arguments that also debunked its conclusion. In short, she demolished its argument in her very attempt to give credence to it.

The danger though in letting such a fallacious question pass without challenge is that it legitimizes and gives currency to its wrong argument. From the readers’ responses to Prof. Briones’s column, in fact, I get the sense that not a few readers took it as gospel that we Filipinos indeed are so good at English—an obviously wrong notion—but that we are destined to be poor for many reasons—a likely prospect but one not warranted by the premise. There’s no doubt that her arguments effectively crowd-sourced several other reasons why Filipinos remain mired in poverty and underdevelopment, but I would say that it was in a manner that doesn’t encourage them to think rationally about their national predicament.

I think that Prof. Briones’s column could have generated greater understanding rather than raucous objections and more misdirected sentiments had she first put that question on more solid, logical footing. It wouldn’t have been out of line for her to prompt that foreign correspondent to moderate and refine that question in, say, the following more sensible—and intelligent—comparative manner:

“If you Filipinos are much better in English than, say, the Japanese, Taiwanese, South Koreans, Singaporeans, and mainland Chinese, and assuming all other things being equal, how come they are wealthier and more progressive than you are today?”

With such even-handed, logical phrasing, the question could have elicited more focused, rational, and compelling answers on why we Filipinos have lagged behind our Asian neighbors in generating wealth and achieving progress, our century-long advantage in English over them notwithstanding.

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