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4 for Now
If you’ve spent any time on social media, you’ve seen some version of an either/or argument. You’re either a capitalist or a communist. A Democrat or a Republican. A cake-lover or a pie-lover.
Presenting ideas like this results in a false dichotomy. It’s also known as a false dilemma or black-and-white thinking.
So what the heck is a dichotomy?
That’s when you have only two options, which are also mutually exclusive or contradictory. You can choose “A” or “not A.”
What makes my opening examples false dichotomies is that the options in each pair are not mutually exclusive or entirely contradictory, nor are they the only two options available. So instead of presenting you with “A” or “not A,” I’ve given you “A” or “B” and expected you not to consider the rest of the alphabet.
Returning to one of the opening examples, I suggested you must be either a cake lover or a pie lover. But maybe you love both. Maybe you hate both. Maybe you only kinda like cake, but really love ice cream. When given only two options, you feel like you need to pick one. Whether you wholly agree with it.
Why do we end up using these false dichotomies so often, though?
According to professor of psychology Thomas Hills, “False dichotomies prey on the human tendency to consider the choices we are given instead of other choices that weren’t offered (but that probably still exist) … If we’re asked a question, we may naturally try to answer it before we consider that the question itself might be a load of rubbish … And we naturally ask ourself which [of the choices given] we’d rather have. And of course if we don’t want one, we must therefore choose the other.”
While this simplifies more complex issues, the problem lies in over-simplification. It can be misleading, divisive, and even dangerous. It unnecessarily pits us against each other, fighting over whether loving cake or pie is right.
Writer Sharlee Mullins Glenn suggests a solution: paradox (a seemingly contradictory statement that may be true). She says, “Paradox requires an inclusive perspective (not ‘either/or,’ but rather ‘both/and’), and is, therefore, the perfect antidote to the polarizing false dilemma fallacy we are so often presented with.”
To use an example from Natalie Willis, Assistant Curator at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, large Black women are often both stereotyped as undesirable and fetishized. The two conditions would seem to be mutually exclusive when you ask, “Undesirable or fetishized?” But when you look deeper into each, you see that both can be—and are—true.
(Please note: neither of these are appropriate ways to interact with any Black woman.)
Approaching decisions as paradoxes rather than as dichotomies helps us consider the other possibilities. When someone presents you with an either/or choice, consider before you respond: Are the two choices mutually exclusive? What other options may exist?
Because maybe you’re really a socialist Independent who prefers ice cream, and still kinda hates me, even after reading this.
4 for Later
- See a short list of other false dilemma examples from Texas State University.
- Gun Control vs. Power to Fight Tyranny? False Dichotomy 101 by Thomas Hills PhD (4-minute read)
- The pandemic highlights a logical fallacy that, unless checked, could prove our undoing by Sharlee Mullins Glenn (6-minute read).
- The Black Woman Body Paradox: Joann Behagg draws attention to the struggle of Black Women of size and celebrates their strength by Natalie Willis (8-minute read).