There is a false dichotomy in believing that all dichotomies are either true or false.
To say “you either win or lose” is a dichotomy. It divides everything into two piles.
To call something a false dichotomy suggests the division is wrong and that there are more than two piles. For example, in most sporting events there is the possibility of a tie, where neither team wins or loses. Nature vs. nurture is another false dichotomy, since they both influence the development of a child.
The trap in calling something a false dichotomy is it suggests there are true dichotomies. But true dichotomies are rare. They mostly occur in mathematics or science where terms are rigorously defined. For example, a true dichotomy exists between even and odd numbers. By the specific definition of these words, it’s impossible for a number to be both odd and even.
But almost nothing we dichotomize is truly divided into two piles. They are merely perceived dichotomies – divisions we project onto the world because of our perceptions and biases. For example, in the U.S. we divide people politically as Liberals and Conservatives, but the terms are so poorly defined it’s easy to find examples of people who have some liberal views and some conservative views. There are other important alternatives for defining a person’s politics (what do you want to liberate? what do you want to conserve? how do you think it should be done?), but the convenience of the false dichotomy of liberal vs. conservative hides them from consideration. The convenience of binary logic blinds us from how poor a foundation for thought it can be.
All dichotomies can be sub-divided into smaller groups. This is rarely observed in debate, but if you believe you can divide anything in half, this applies recursively. You can have conservative liberals and liberal conservatives. And conservative liberal conservatives and liberal conservative liberals. If you stop to carefully examine anything polarizing, even when you’re certain you’re on the right side, you’ll discover nuance, contradiction and subtlety that will cause any wise mind to challenge the merits of the initial dichotomy.
Of course creating a dichotomy can serve a purpose. I may divide my list of contacts into two piles, friends and acquaintances, to help me decide who to invite to a party. But all dichotomies are arbitrary. Given a different purpose, I could create a very different way to divide the same list (people who like Duran Duran vs. people who hate Duran Duran). No law says we can only divide by two. Some divisions might have three groups, or five, instead of just two (e.g. people who like / hate / only like one song by Duran Duran). There are an infinite number of ways to divide that list, just as there are an infinite number of ways to divide anything. Depending on the goal, some ways are more useful than others.
In a sense, all perceived dichotomies are false if they are used too strongly. And the danger is when someone presents a perceived dichotomy as a real one, such as “You are either with us, or against us.” I admit there is power in dividing the world in two, as it forces people to decide and take action, a useful thing for a leader to do. But the presenting of any perceived dichotomy as a real one should cause any wise person to ask:
- What are other equally reasonable ways to divide this?
- Is there a third important group being omitted?
- Why did this person choose to omit them? Ignorance? Manipulation? Self-Interest? Inspiration?
- Do they acknowledge there are other equally reasonable divisions?
False dichotomies are dangerous. And they are everywhere.
What false dichotomy annoys you the most? Leave a comment.