False Dilemmas: a Recurring Battle

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Note: This is a companion piece of sorts to a couple of earlier posts: Getting Beyond Either/Or, and Change Happens at the Center. Both of which touch on the importance of seeing opportunities for creating change when you look beyond the only two options you are being presented with.


A False Dilemma (also known as a False Dichotomy) is a logical fallacy that reduces an argument down to only two options despite the fact that many more options may exist. We hear them every day: “America, love it or leave it;” “You’re either with us or you’re against us;” “You either love me or you hate me.”

People in opposition to your goals will use these fallacious arguments in an attempt to force you into an extreme position to create the assumption that there are only two positions. That way they can paint you with broad strokes, and start employing other logical fallacies to misrepresent your positions.

False dilemmas are particularly popular with politicians in ‘us vs. them’ two party systems. People with lines drawn in the sand are not interested in entertaining the idea of reasonable alternatives. To paint the two-options-only picture serves to get potential supporters to forget logic and reason, and to dig in their heels against a one-dimensional villain.

How Do You Counter a False Dilemma?

According to the website, Effectiviology, there are several ways to respond to a false dilemma argument. Here are a just a few of those strategies.

  • Refute the premise of mutual exclusivity by explaining why two options can both be true. Give examples of how ideas be defined as either/or can be described as both/and.
  • Refute the premise of collective exhaustivity by providing counterexamples which show that there are additional options beyond the ones which were presented.
  • Refute the validity of one of the options that it contains. For example, one frequently repeated either/or dilemma is the argument against raising the minimum wage is that raising the minimum wage will put small businesses out of business. However, Researchers say raising the minimum wage doesn’t kill small businesses or reduce job opportunities.
  • Refute with a counter-dilemma using similar premises, but which reaches a different conclusion.

One of my favorite ways to confront a false dilemma is to point out what values both sides have in common. It is the quickest way to show gray areas of this ‘black and white’ argument. Common self-interest is a powerful thing.

Leading by Example

“Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.”
– Albert Einstein

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You don’t have to be in “leadership position” to model the values, and behaviors that build trusting and effective personal and professional relationships. In fact, even if you are not deliberately setting out to lead by example, you’re probably doing it anyway. It’s human nature. We care deeply about what goes on around us. We tend to recognize what works, and what doesn’t.

So knowing that people are watching anyway, here are a few ways you can more effectively lead by example.

Be honest. If you are honest with people, it will encourage them to be honest with you. The trust that is created will help catch future problems earlier, and help to resolve internal conflicts before they reel out of control.

Follow through on promises and commitments. Don’t over-promise.

Lighten up. Take the work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

See assets. Don’t dwell on people’s deficits. Recognize the assets that everyone brings to the table. We often see good things in people that they don’t recognize in themselves. Create a culture of compliments.

Focus. Stay determined, resolute, and purposeful. Stay true to your shared vision for the future, but . . .

Prioritize wellness. Don’t let your untiring commitment burn you out. Take care of your physical and mental health, and remind others to do the same.

Own your mistakes, and come up with strategies to fix them.

Be kind. Say, “please,” and “thank you.” Fundamental human decency can be extremely helpful in getting people through difficult challenges.

More walk, less talk. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.”

A quick post-election reminder

In the aftermath of the catastrophic U.S. election, I find it necessary to remind myself of an important reality. Institutions cannot stop social change from occurring. Culture creates change. People locking arms with others who share their values, creates change.

If you want your community to be welcoming, safe, free of misogyny, racism, and other forms of oppression, the culture within your community can create that change. We do not need the permission of a government official, to do what is expected of respectful, compassionate human beings.

By all means, keep the necessary pressure on institutions that seek to be barriers to a more egalitarian society. But at the same time, do not forget that politics and policy are but a sliver of life in a free and democratic society.