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  • Courtney Price

Building Vocabulary: False Dichotomy

(Originally Published 1/20/21)

Today, I'm not talking about one word, but a phrase. This concept is an especially important one to understand in a world of dogma, propaganda and rhetoric. I should probably talk about those last three words at some point! But today, let's narrow our focus.


false dichotomy: A situation in which two alternative points of view

are presented as the only options, when others are available.


Why is this so important?

If we look around us, we are constantly bombarded by these messages. They often come from any type of news source, but can also happen in conversations we have with those around us. For example, "you're either with me, or against me" is a commonly used (or implied) phrase meant to garner your support. But is there another option in pretty much any case? Of course there is. There is no need, in the vast majority of scenarios in the world, to choose between two solutions. It is our duty as compassionate humans to find more options, to search out answers, to find common ground, or to make acceptable compromises.

Now, I know that there are some cases in the world where there are really only two choices. But it's honestly really difficult to think of a scenario that only has two options. Especially when we are considering thoughts, ideas, and hopefully creative compromises or solutions to problems. False dichotomies are not referring to yes or no questions, but they are referring to what teachers generally call "higher order thinking skills" (the ability to not just remember facts, but to analyze them, evaluate them, or be creative).

The "my way or the highway" method of thinking is not progressive. It leaves no room for understanding and a growth mindset. It shuts people down rather than engaging in helpful conversation.

If we truly seek for a society that is more educated, we have to stop pushing false dichotomies. Oops! See what I just did there? I presented you with an either/or situation! Here's what I really mean:

If we truly seek a society that is more educated, I believe that one method we should try is lessening our reliance on false dichotomies. As we allow ourselves and others the freedom to explore different ideas, we will likely find new insights to old problems.

I'm sure I'll still catch myself in the act of doing this from time to time, but I always think that being aware of something is half the battle. Being able to name the phenomena is an important step towards decreasing it.

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