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.

Some Thoughts on Arguing

Kent Brockman: Mr. Simpson, how do you respond to the charge that petty vandalism such as graffiti is down 80%, while heavy sack beatings are up a shocking 900%?

Homer: Oh people can come up with statistics to prove anything Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.

– The Simpsons, “Homer the Vigilante”

We live in a world where civil discourse has become a rare commodity. There is little productive debate on topics of great importance, because people of influence and affluence have decided to force every issue into a framework consisting of lines drawn in the sand. This presents a tremendous challenge not only to democracy, but also to anyone advocating for social change.

I am not a scholar of the art of rhetoric. Nor do I claim to understand how argument and debate manifest themselves in cultures other than the one in which I live. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how you might, or might not want to approach arguing.

Arguing as Seed Planting

There are different definitions of “winning” an argument. An argument does not have to be a knock-down-drag-out fight. Sometimes the win simply consists of giving the other person something to think about.

Unless it is a unique situation involving instant replay enabling rules, when a coach or manager in any sport argues with a referee, they do not usually expect that a call will be immediately overturned. They are, however, planting seeds of concern or doubt in the mind of the official. If I tell you that number 12 is routinely breaking a rule, you will probably pay more attention to number 12 as the game moves forward.

Don’t Argue Values

The issues that we disagree on are laden with personal values. People have opposing views on issues because they have conflicting values. I dislike chocolate ice cream. I love vanilla ice cream. You will never convince me that chocolate ice cream is preferable to vanilla ice cream. When you argue that chocolate is better than vanilla, what is in dispute is a value. It is a preference, not a fact.

We should not fall into a trap of engaging those with whom we disagree in arguments about values. If you argue, it should be about facts. Facts still matter, and your facts should always be accompanied by evidence. In fact, next time you feel yourself being pulled into an argument, try the following approach. Don’t immediately set out trying to change the other person’s mind. Don’t tell them that they are wrong. Instead, articulate as clearly as succinctly as possible, the reasoning that supports your position. When you meet a skeptical person explain to them why you have taken your stand.

Don’t Argue – at Least Not with Everyone

There is a psychological concept known as cognitive dissonance. It suggests that people have a hard time dealing with the stress created by simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. It is believed that in order to reduce the discomfort created by the conflicting ideas, people will avoid the introduction of the conflicting ideas whenever possible. There are multiple research studies that suggest that people often see attacks on their belief as attacks on their identity, thus making them dig in their heels even more, thus increasing divisiveness.

If you refer back to my piece, “Change Happens at the Center,” you will see a strategy that may be useful when you’ve identified where a person sits on the continuum of opinion of the issue in question. The idea is to avoid the line in the sand people by focusing on moving passive opposition to a neutral state; neutral people to a passively supporting state; and passively supportive people to a fully committed state.  Read that full post here.

Agree with Your Opponent

Using a type of paradoxical thinking, you might use an approach that doesn’t directly argue with a person, but rather, tells them that they are right. Then, using their assumptions, you come up with absurd examples that prove their point.  Fair warning, this technique can backfire so be sure to practice it in some friendly, inconsequential settings first.

Go Ahead and Argue

Finally, if you absolutely have to throw down the gauntlet, try to go in with some sort of strategic framework. Here is an example of some tips which you might want to use to engage with your adversary. They come from, “10 Tips On Going For An Argument Win” by Siobhan Harmer (See the full article for details).

  1. Start off pleasantly
  2. Base your arguments on facts
  3. Respect the opinions of the other side
  4. It does not hurt to admit your mistakes
  5. Exercise self-control
  6. Try to have your adversary agree with you
  7. Ignore statements that have no merit
  8. Always keep an open mind during arguments
  9. Give your adversary the time to talk
  10. Play Up Your Arguments

That’s all I’m going to say on the subject for now, so don’t argue (or do . . . it’s up to you).