This Blog Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us: Mutual Exclusivity

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4 for Now

One of my early 4 for Now posts was about false dichotomies. To refresh, a true dichotomy is when there are only two options, and they are mutually exclusive. (For example, the time is either AM or PM.) A false dichotomy, as I shared in the original post, assumes there are only two choices, whereas there are actually more. (For example, “Breakfast or dinner?” assumes lunch, brunch, tea, or snack are not options.)

Another way dichotomies could be false is that the two options given are not mutually exclusive. Mutual exclusivity is when two things (objects, events, places, etc.) cannot exist at the same time. (For example, if you skip breakfast, you can’t also eat breakfast.) The Venn diagram would be two separate circles.

However (speaking of breakfast), if your options are pancakes or waffles, not only are there more options, you could choose both pancakes and waffles. Pancakes and waffles are not mutually exclusive.

But I’m not here to talk about food.

Practical Applications for Mutual Exclusivity

It’s good to keep in mind when coming across arguments (sometimes labeled “discourse,” even if it’s not true discourse) so you can avoid getting sucked into something that’s not worth anyone’s time.

For example, anyone asking “socialism or communism” has forgotten (or doesn’t know) that these two things aren’t mutually exclusive: socialism is the transition to communism (which is, in perhaps an oversimplification, extreme socialism).

Or “we don’t need student loan forgiveness, we need free college.” It’s fallacious to make this argument because it assumes if we forgive student loans, we can’t also have free college. Both can (and should) occur.

It’s tricky to recognize false instances of mutual exclusivity sometimes, thanks to what philosopher Steve Patterson has dubbed “The Bittersweet Paradox.” This is when it appears two things are mutually exclusive, but are merely opposites.

An example Steve gives is when a loved one has been painfully ill for a long time, then dies. You’re happy they’re no longer suffering, but sad that they’re gone. Happy and sad are considered opposite feelings, but they are not mutually exclusive. You can feel both at the same time.

How to Counter False Mutual Exclusivity

Countering arguments assuming mutual exclusivity is fairly simple: show how the options provided can exist at the same time. The key (and biggest stumbling block for many of us, I would guess) is to take a moment to think, before reacting emotionally to an absurd and fallacious argument.

Sometimes, people genuinely do not know enough about what they’re arguing that the fallacy is inadvertant. Responding angrily won’t help them learn. More often, people who throw around fallacies enjoy doing so because they want the attention they get from folks who respond emotionally rather than rationally.

You’ll find the method that works for you, but what I do (when I remember not to respond emotionally), is provide one good-faith response to a fallacy. If they respond with further absurdity or with insults, I know they’re not worth my time.

If, however, they express willingness to listen and learn, it becomes an opportunity for true discourse.


4 for Later

  1. Learn more about false dichotomies and how to counter them.
  2. While online arguments are hardly formal debates, taking some tips for debaters may help you pick your fights wisely and strengthen your discourse.
  3. Familiarizing yourself with basic rhetoric is useful, as well. I took this free course from EdX to learn more about persuasive writing.
  4. Learn about other logical fallacies. (You’ve probably already come across more than you realize!)

What do you want me to write about?

If there’s something specific you’d like me to cover, or something I’ve already written that you’d like to know more about, let me know!