The false dichotomy (also known as false dilemma, or restricting the options) is a recognised fallacy that also has an obvious and close relationship with the Middle Way. A false dichotomy assumes that a judgement that is incremental (shades of grey) is absolute (black and white). However, the issue it raises is that of how we can tell false dichotomies from true ones. Is anything black and white?
Here is an example of a false dichotomy from a US comedy:
The assumption that one is either a good or a bad father is obviously false, and is used here manipulatively. Other examples of false dichotomies include George Bush saying “Either you are with us or you’re with the terrorists”, and the demand made in an Ulster pub, “Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?” Both of these example ignore possible third options that might involve some degree of agreement or disagreement with either side of the dichotomy: I might disapprove both of terrorism and of George Bush’s ‘War on Terror’, and I might disagree with both Catholic and Protestant beliefs whilst sharing to some extent the culture of each.
I would argue that the only true dichotomies are abstract. These consist in a merely logical distinction between a quality and its absence. “Are you Canadian or not?” and “Is the answer 1.25 or not?” are both true dichotomies in theory, so long as we are only dealing with the concept of a Canadian or the number 1.25. However, as soon as you apply these terms to experience, any dichotomy you apply becomes false. Stephen Harper may define himself as 100% Canadian, but given that Canada wasn’t settled by people of European origin before the 16th Century, he doubtless has ancestors (as well as other influences) that make that Canadian-ness a matter of degree. The number 1.25 applied to an actual object will also be approximate, depending on measurement that can never be perfectly precise. Any actual object in experience will thus be more or less 1.25 (metres, tons, or whatever).
In experience, then, all dichotomies are ultimately false. However, there are many that we would do well to accept in practical terms. In practice, either you catch a train or not: you cannot half catch it and remain alive. Iceland is either part of Europe or it isn’t, though the answer may depend on your definition of Europe. Perhaps it’s better to save up our objections to false dichotomies for the ones that really matter. The sort of time when it most seems to matter are when people in a certain group assume that because you’re different in some way you must be “one of them”. For example, scientific naturalists sometimes assume that if you question the ‘truth’ of scientific results, then you must be a dogmatic peddler of the supernatural. This is where it seems most important to make an effort to get across the mere possibility of the Middle Way.
The basic technique to spot a false dichotomy in practice is to ask yourself whether the two opposed qualities you’re dealing with could be translated into one quality and its negation. “Either you’re British or you’re French” is an obvious false dichotomy, whilst “Either you’re British or you’re not” may or may not be a dichotomy in practical terms, depending on how “British” is being defined. If it means possessing a British passport, it is in practice a true dichotomy, but if it is a matter of ethnic, geographical or cultural purity then it isn’t.
Are these false dichotomies, either in thorough-going terms or in immediate practical terms?
1. Cats and dogs
2. There is no viable alternative to the company’s current employment policies.
3. Numbers that are not 15 are either larger than 15 or smaller.
4. Photographs are either colour or monochrome.
5. This dog is either dead or it is alive.
6. “The deadline is 12 noon on 15th June. Either meet it or lose your job!”
Photo: not entirely black and white guinea pigs by 4028mdk09 (Wikimedia Commons)