False dichotomies

"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

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.

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