The False Dilemma or False Dichotomy Fallacy reduces a complex problem to two radically over-simplified choices, usually one objectively good and one objectively bad. “You’re either with us or you’re against us” is probably the classic variant.
It’s difficult to talk about the False Dilemma without talking about the Iraq War during the Bush era, since for many U.S.-American liberals (and many who hold anti-war sentiments throughout the world, I’m guessing), the way in which loyalties were so problematically and harmfully framed during that period remains a raw and open wound. Either you were for the war or you were unpatriotic. Either you were for the war, or you wanted the terrorists to win. Either you were for the war, or you didn’t support our troops. Either you were for the war, or you hated America. Et frakking cetera. This, at least, was the thrust of this craptacular Joe Lieberman editorial from 2008. (Note: you have to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal online to view the article. You can also view Joe Conason’s smackdown for free on Salon.)
Even more hurtful then constantly hearing that you were effectively a traitor for not wholeheartedly jumping on the Iraq War bandwagon was the success, for a time, of this particular viewpoint. There was a period between 2003 and 2006, when public criticisms of the war post-“Mission Accomplished,” post-Abu Gharaib, and post non-discovery of weapons of mass destruction, became more de rigeur, when one literally could not express a negative or even ambivalent opinion about the war without being told to just “support the troops,” without having one’s patriotism questioned. Embarrassingly, until early 2004, I was one of these insufferable Iraq War supporters, and my biscuits are still burnt at least in part because this particular fallacy played me like a two dollar banjo.
But war hawks are certainly not the only ones prone to this logic. In times of upheaval and uncertainty, human beings in general are fond of practicing the politics of ideological purity, drawing unambiguous lines in the sand.
So, while the most common rhetorical effect of the false dilemma is to eliminate the middle ground, another variant posits vast, irreconcilable differences between two relatively similar positions or ideas. Take the college rivalry in my home state, for example. There are two major universities in this state who have had open, seething disdain for one another for well over a century. It’s a rivalry that is rooted in class differences and politics. University A is located in a conservative rural area; University B is located in a small city known for pot-smoking musicians, hippie culture, and one nude beach. University A has a long, proud military tradition. University B has a history of anti-war protests. You get the idea. Nearly everyone in my family has attended University A. I am a graduate student at University B and have cultivated a smug indifference to football in order to survive the Thanksgiving holiday.
Yet while the notion of these two schools as vast opposites (choosing to go to one or the other isn’t simply an educational choice in this state, it’s a statement about identity and loyalties) is rooted in some historical and geographical distinctions, we’re essentially talking about Granny Smith apples and Red Delicious apples. You are still talking about nominally diverse public universities in a very conservative state. Both schools began enrolling women at about the same time. Both schools have roving bands of conservative students that publish the names and course listings of faculty deemed “too ideological.” Both schools have been cited by minority and LGBTQI students as difficult environments, though the students and faculty at University B are perhaps more self-righteous in the way they tout their tolerance and diversity credentials. I recently attended a wedding in which the bride and the bride’s family were all University B loyalists, while the groom and his family were dyed-in-the-sackcloth University A adherents. The way this wedding was hyped, you would have thought that this was the merging of two civilizations, the coming together of blood enemies to celebrate joy and love. Really, it was just a whole bunch of upper-middle class white Christians.
This particular type of false dilemma allows loyalists of University A or B to focus on minor differences between two relatively similar groups, allowing one or the other to say, “Well, at least we’re better than THEM.”