Carolina Curious: How False Dichotomy Deflects From Truth
This month on "Carolina Curious," we’ve been taking a look at how language is used to deflect from the truth.
WFDD listener Christina Connell wants to know how certain techniques are used in politics, for example. Last week, UNC-Greensboro Communications Professor Roy Schwartzman tackled “red herring.” Today we look at the term “false dichotomy.”
Schwartzman relays the perils of black-and-white thinking to WFDD’s David Ford.
On the long history of false dichotomy:
This way of thinking has been labeled many, many different things over the centuries. In fact, what's interesting about this fallacy is that more recent research is indicating that this type of thinking may well be hardwired into our evolutionary biology in a sense, so that automatically our senses and our perceptions of the world are designed to make categorization very easy by saying something we encounter that is new or different is either all one thing or all another. And you can see where this is very functional from a survival standpoint. So, for example, you know, think back into the prehistoric age. We see some large wooly thing approaching us. Well, immediately false dichotomy can kick in and say, "Well, we've got to classify that one of two ways. Is it something we can eat? Or is it something that is going to eat me?" So, of course, your life depends on having a correct answer to that. But the reason it's a dichotomy is because there are only two choices. You can make this intuitive decision very, very quickly — "That's coming toward me, really big. Now I'm seeing big teeth. I better run away."
On the pitfalls of black-and-white thinking:
The problem is that the world is not a true-false test. Things aren't just all one thing or another. Most choices we have to make and most alternatives are matters of degree. The world is much more richly textured than all one thing or another. Another popular name for this fallacy is called black-white thinking, and I think that has particular resonance in our region of the country in the South with a history of segregation because, indeed, it is false dichotomy and that kind of thinking that directly resulted in racial segregation. People were classified as either black or white. Well, in reality, there is no such thing as a singular "white" race or a singular "black" race, because there is no such thing as racial purity in that sense. As a matter of fact, the notion of clearly defined races is a human imposed categorization scheme.
On what happens when false dichotomy falls into the political realm:
That's part of the reason for dysfunction in government. You're either conservative or liberal. That's it. Nothing in between. Well, what happens? No compromise, no dialog, no entertaining of possibilities. You're either Republican or Democrat. You're either pro-life or pro-choice. And here's an actual example from a very important moment in history, which is 9/11. You're either with us — the United States — or you're with the terrorists. Now, in some cases, those dichotomies are important. So, for example, in morality, we very often will talk about needing to differentiate between good and evil. However, even those distinctions need to be looked at much more specifically. Is it the case when we're confronted with moral choices that something is either totally good or totally evil? This idea of being so quick to make categories that are all or nothing has historically and continues to have terribly damaging results. We need to appreciate the richness of life's textures beyond just two choices.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.