Political False Dichotomies

Posted: March 31, 2015 in Livin' in the USA, Philosophy, Politics
Tags: ,

A false dilemma, or false dichotomy, is a logical fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted.

courtesy Glogster.com

courtesy Glogster.com

by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

It’s hard to say which is worse, that politicians routinely employ false dichotomies or that their followers routinely fall for them. The logical fallacy in false dichotomies is very obvious, but a great many people don’t see the fallacy. Many even mouth false-dichotomy assertions as if they’re clever or make a point.

Cynical politicians use false dichotomy for several reasons: 1) To bypass their listeners’ reasoning faculty (all too easy a task); 2) To influence their listeners into only considering two, almost invariably bad, alternatives, rather than looking for others; 3) To cement the support of followers who accept the false dichotomy; 4) To rouse their followers into a frenzy of hatred against those to whom they’re impugning false beliefs or goals; 5) To intimidate those who hold other positions  into silence, because of fear of social ostracism, job loss, or physical violence from the politicians’ deluded followers.

Examples of false dichotomy abound in American political history. I’ll only cite two examples here, as I’m sure you can think of many others. The first was the  very common false dichotomy of Soviet-style “communism” (in reality, state capitalism) versus American-style corporate capitalism (“free enterprise,” to use the usual euphemism).  A more recent example was provided by the war criminal George W. Bush: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” To point out the obvious, Islamic terrorists can, and do, say the same thing. If that mirror-image false dichotomy, “if you’re not with us, you’re with the Americans,” were true, Fidel Castro would be pro-American.  (For now, we won’t consider the sloppiness of using “Americans” as a synonym for “American government.”) 

To put this another way, false dichotomies are false because there are virtually always other alternatives. Cynical politicians simply don’t want you to consider them. As an old proverb puts it, “When you only have two choices, choose the third.” Or the fourth, or the fifth.

How should we deal with false dichotomies? The most effective ways seem to be to listen for them, point them out publicly when we hear them, and to ridicule them and those who make them. If enough of us do that, it will (well, might) become socially unacceptable for politicians to use this crude form of political manipulation.


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