By Mike Cronin
“If you don’t put this ribbon magnet on your car, it means you don’t care about kids starving in Elbonia.”
“Senator Do-right voted no against my bill to fund Program Y with higher taxes – He hates blind people.”
“You’re either for me or against me!”
Sound familiar? These are example of the False Dichotomy/False Dilemma/False Choice fallacy, and we are surrounded by examples every day. It takes critical thinking to spot them and see them for what they are.
Let’s have another look:
“If you don’t put this ribbon magnet on your car, it means you don’t care about kids starving in Elbonia.” Maybe. It might also mean I find it pretentious to brag about my charitable giving, or I don’t like to advertise my activities, allegiances, or involvements for security reasons; or it means I don’t want the sticker to damage my car, or it means I care about something else more than I care about starving kids in Elbonia, etc.
“Senator Do-right voted no against my bill to fund Program Y with higher taxes – He hates blind people.” Or maybe he found out Program Y is corrupt, or he doesn’t like pork-barrel spending, or he’s a budget hawk, or he won’t agree to anything put forward by a political enemy, etc.
“You’re either for me or against me!” Or, maybe you have a far higher opinion of your significance than I do!
False dichotomies are a staple technique of politicians, especially during election campaigns. Advertisers love them, too: “If you bought brand X, you’re paying too much!” How do they know? Maybe you got a great deal.
Whenever you see an either-or proposition on offer from somebody who wants something from you, it’s a safe bet to assume you are being offered a false choice.
Another popular fallacy that professional debaters (politicians, talk-show panelists, pundits, etc.) love to use is the “Straw Man” argument. Simply put, it means exaggerating or misrepresenting something someone else said in order to (attempt) to make a clever rebuttal. Here’s an example:
A large corporation announces it’s going to close a major plant in the US and move it to Mexico. One of the reasons given is the too-high labor costs here due to the minimum wage, workman’s comp, and payroll taxes in the US.
Professional blabbermouth: “Company X announced today that it’s moving to Mexico. I guess they think it’s OK to exploit Mexicans and pay them slave wages. How unpatriotic.”
The blabbermouth ignored the full context. It’s quite possible that a Mexican working in the new plant will make much less than his or her US counterpart; what is not mentioned is how far that pay might go in the Mexican economy, or how much better off the Mexican might be working in the new factory than her or she would have been without that opportunity. The blabbermouth also ignores the very real possibility that rather than the corporation being unpatriotic for moving, it may be that our law makers have been unpatriotic by creating the conditions that are driving the company to move!