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Bad Moves: False dichotomies

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on July 31, 2006

By Julian Baggini

“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” George W Bush, 20 Sept 2001.

You couldn’t get a starker demonstration of a false dichotomy than President Bush’s bold statement, made shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. A false dichotomy presents two options as though these exhausted all the possibilities, when in fact there are other choices available. In this example, one alternative to Bush’s choice is to oppose terrorism but also to oppose America’s preferred methods of dealing with it. A person or country that adopts that line is not with President Bush, but nor are they with the terrorists.

On a charitable interpretation of Bush’s speech, he wasn’t really trying to suggest that the choice was so stark. He continued by saying, “From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” This suggests that not being “with us” requires acquiescence with terrorists and not just failure to support US policy.

Indeed, when Bush repeated the dichotomy a few weeks later, in the context of a crackdown on terrorist finances, again the main message seemed to be that turning a blind eye to terrorism counted as being against America in its fight against it.

However, if this is true, why did Bush not only choose these particular words but also to repeat the same formulation again? The answer could be that as a description of the facts, the dichotomy is false. But as a description of America’s intentions, they sent out a clear message. As a matter of fact, you may be with neither the terrorists nor America. But if you choose not to be with America, America will view you as being against her. America makes the untruth of the false dichotomy true by deciding that it will treat all those who are not with her as being against her, whether they see themselves in that way or not. This is one reason why many Europeans have accused Bush’s administration of adopting a bullying attitude.

Whichever way you interpret Bush’s words, it is clear that taken literally they are just false. Yet the rhetorical trick of presenting a false dichotomy (or false set of more options than two) is very popular. You often see a version of it in Christian evangelical literature. Christ, they say, claimed to be the son of God. He must have been telling the truth, lying or mad. There is no evidence that he was a liar or mad, so therefore he must have been telling the truth.

Of course, the problem is again that the options presented don’t exhaust the possibilities. Jesus may well not have claimed any such thing – the Gospels may be unreliable. He may also have meant something more metaphorical. After all, in Genesis it is said that “When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.” (6:1-2)
So clearly being the son of God isn’t a unique achievement and may mean something less than it is usually taken to be. Whichever way you look at it, there are more than the three options presented.

If we were to be too strict in our policing of false dichotomies, we would be robbed of some great quotes. “Life is either a great adventure or nothing,” said Helen Keller. Well, no, but I see her point and it wouldn’t have quite the same ring suitably qualified. Ditto Anthony Robbins’ maxim, “In life you need either inspiration or desperation.” Better still, Max Lerner’s warning, “Either men will learn to live like brothers, or they will die like beasts,” is no less forceful for being literally false.

The false dichotomy is a great simplifier. It cuts out all the complexity of an issue and presents just two choices, take ’em or leave ’em. There are times when rhetorical force justifies this wilful simplification. But we have to remember that it is simplification. If we accept such dichotomies too easily or at face value, then we are in danger of imagining the world is all black and white and we will miss the critical shades of grey.

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine.



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