How False Choices Encourage Bad Choices

First published at in November 2007.

Historically, political rhetoric has been awash with fallacious arguments meant to circumvent more rational thinking about political events and policies. One way we can break free from the tendency of fallacious arguments that move us toward poor political decision making is to understand the different types of logical fallacies.

With this goal in mind I d like to focus on the logical fallacy of “false choice” (sometimes called “false dilemma,” “false dichotomy,” or “either/or” argumentation). Arguments based in the false choice fallacy present only two “sides” or “options” for the public to consider, ignoring the fact that very often more than two “sides” or “options” exist with respect to any given situation. In addition, these types of arguments often (although not always) present the public with two of the more extreme choices in the spectrum of options that actually exist and/or present these “sides” as diametrically opposed to one another with no middle ground in between.

In my last essay, I talked about the use of synecdoche in the rhetoric of pro-life groups and the abortion debate serves as a good example of the false choice strategy as well. In media coverage and political rhetoric, the debate over abortion rights is typically framed as “pro-life versus pro-choice.” The tendency to discuss the issue in these terms ignores two important things. First, it obviously ignores the fact that there are more than two positions on the issue. For instance, someone could be pro-life in all cases except for incest or rape this position doesn t fall neatly into the “pro-life versus pro-choice” false dichotomy. Second, such rhetoric encourages citizens to see these views as mutually exclusive, as having no common ground. I argue that the “pro-life versus pro-choice” framing of the abortion debate therefore hinders any opportunity we have at negotiating and creating a workable solution that might satisfy the two groups and, instead, constantly reminds them to consider themselves as “enemies” with nothing in common at all. (It should be noted here that the maintenance of the abortion debate s false choices behooves the political consultants who are paid to win elections and therefore might be willing to do so at the cost of a stronger democracy, since they are able to reliably mobilize their respective bases around the false choice of pro-life versus pro-choice.)

With an abbreviated discussion of false choice arguments at hand, we should think about what they mean for current political rhetoric. The most obvious (and perhaps most infamous) example of a false choice argument stems from Bush s televised address to a joint session of congress on September 20, 2001 when he stated that, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” This statement, while perhaps successful in its attempt to unite a wounded nation and ignite a thunder of applause, still woefully oversimplified the nature of the terrorist threat by suggesting that there were only two available options for dealing with it. And it would be remiss not to add here that the statement also foreshadowed the barrage of “slash and burn” rhetoric and tactics that were to later come in an effort to shore up for support for our invasion of Iraq and cost the United States worldwide support after the attacks of 9/11. The consequences of this rhetoric are no doubt severe and far-reaching. In his framing of the “War on Terror” in a rhetoric of false choice, Bush and his administration has done irreparable damage to the reputation of the United States and to its ability to work together with global partners to solve a variety of other pressing issues facing the world s population.
Unfortunately, the problematic use of false choice arguments isn t only a tendency of conservatives. Indeed, the much-decried and debated advertisement that pitched the question, “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” uses the exact same type of fallacious argument. There are certainly more options than the ad s title presents to the public. And while the text underneath the title might acknowledge the middle ground between the two options offered in the ad s title, that does not excuse the fact that the ad is essentially a call to one of two extreme positions, not unlike Bush s implied edict that world citizens could either agree with U.S. policy without question or be considered mortal enemies of the United States. So, what are the implications of MoveOn s use of false choice? First, the group played right into the “Support the Troops” rhetoric that has been so successful in mobilizing conservatives. They did not heed the advice of scholars and instead engaged the debate using the terms already set up for them by conservative war rhetoric you support the war or your don t support the troops. Second, by playing the false choice card has passed up an opportunity to engage citizens on the issues the ad really wanted to talk about the politicizing of military officials by the Bush Administration to the detriment of our country, the people of Iraq, and our troops. By choosing a false choice argument for their ad title, MoveOn directed attention away from the issues this country needs to address and toward the rhetoric of troop support that has become the rhetorical equivalent of the “Vietnam quagmire.” Hence, rather than debating the whether or not to condemn the Petraeus report and what that report stood for, congress soon began debating whether or not to condemn Somehow I don t think that was their intention when they created and placed the ad.

False choice arguments shut out minority opinions, ignore vital information, promote division over unity, weaken public debate, and promote either/or thinking patterns that are bad for policy and bad for our country. Whether we re talking about the bad choice of framing the abortion debate in mutually exclusive terms, the bad choice of the Bush Administration to set the terms of “War on Terror” in “us versus them” rhetoric, or the bad choice of to publish an ad that took attention away from the very issue they sought to shed light on, it is clear that the paths created by false choices often lead directly to bad choices.

If progressives want to “win the heart and minds” (to borrow a phrase) of the public, they should steer clear of the types of rhetorical strategies that mimic those of the Bush administration, play into the ridiculous rhetorical terms of debate set up by conservatives, and diminish the public s view of our movement to take back our country and our democracy. To do otherwise is a vital mistake that serves to weaken our democracy.