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Intimidation by False Premise

Which are you - a dog lover or a dog hater?

Ridiculous as this question sounds, it’s an example of a very common fallacy. Throughout history people have made statements to the effect of “You are either for us or against us.” While it sounds compelling, rarely is it true. It is usually said by people in positions of power to drum up support but no one is immune to falling into this trap.

When you hear it, a red flag should immediately pop up that the speaker is trying to intimidate you. They are using a “false dichotomy” to force you to accept their position and only their position.

This faulty thinking has many other names as well - all-or-nothing fallacy, black-or-white fallacy and bifurcation fallacy are just a few.

It manifests itself in many ways. A not-so-subtle example is when a political party presents itself as being the only one that wants the best for the country and that if you support the other major party you are in favor of making things worse. “We support democracy - they are a threat to democracy.” (By the way, in the U.S. both major parties say this.)

Another common and not very subtle usage of this is when a business asks you to opt-in to their product, email list, ebook, etc. For example, a box pops up to offer their amazing bread maker and gives you two options:

1) Yes! I want to get 40% off the incredible Baker’s Delight Bread Factory

2) No, I want to continue serving crappy bread to my friends and family.

These always get me shaking my head and my fist at the audacity of the attempted intimidation. In fact, if I had been considering opting in, that ploy will often cause me to nope out just on principle alone.

The phrase “silence is complicity” is yet another oft-repeated form of false dichotomy. It is essentially saying that if you do not vocally support their position, then you are supporting the other extreme. Most situations are complex and reflect a spectrum of ideas and beliefs that do not fit neatly into just two boxes. Maybe I support your mission but not your methods to accomplish it. That does not mean I support the opposite viewpoint. When I hear “silence is complicity” I know it is an attempt to intimidate me into preaching their message.

Often with false dichotomies neither of the two contrary options is true. In other cases, it is presented as if one and only one of two propositions can be true. This does not allow for the fact that more than one proposition can be true at the same time, or that there many be other options or possibilities.

Defusing the false dichotomy

The key to dealing with these is first to be able to recognize the false dichotomy. Think about whether the two options presented are the only options. Are they accurately portrayed? Can both propositions be true?

Then explain the fallacy to the other party (gently, never aggressively). For example, show how both options may be true. If they ask, “Do you like Carl or do you find him annoying?” You could reply “I like Bob but I sometimes find him annoying.”

Or if one of the arguments presented is wrong in some way, demonstrating why it is false could defuse the entire proposition.

Be very careful in how you respond to two-choice options. They are diabolical in that they appear to be logical arguments, but closer scrutiny reveals more options and ideas than just the two that are presented.

Remember that if you accept the premise and choose a side, you are rejecting not just the one viewpoint at the other extreme but all other viewpoints in between.

Think well and be well!

- Steve Haffner

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