Sunday, July 1, 2007

Evading False Dichotomies

Watching television coverage of this weekend's attempted terrorist attacks in the UK, I was particularly interested in a CNN story that depicted an argument between Muslims and Catholics, in which one person asked another whether he shared a certain belief and then demanded, "yes or no?". The answer is less important to me than the strategy behind the question: false dichtomy, forcing a person to view the world in a binary manner.
"Do you want the U.S. to win the war in Iraq? Yes or no?"
"Do you support the troops? Yes or no?"
"Do you like freedom? Yes or no?"
Related to these questions is the broader strategy of limited options:
"You can have peace or security. Which one do you choose?"
"You're either for us or against us. Which one are you?"
"You're either pro-military or you're a cut-and-runner. Well?"
Thinking about questions like these, I remember an interesting line from George Lucas's most recent Star Wars movie: "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes."

I should add that the tension of the question flows more from its paralinguistic force: a loud and challenging vocal delivery, perhaps a parallel hand gesture like a pointed finger directing attention one way and then another, and almost always a repetitious demand: "Yes or no?" "Yes or no?" "Pick, choose, decide!"

Accepting that I too risk committing the sin of oversimplification, I'll say it plainly: to demand false dichotomies is to employ the strategy of thugs. The false dichotomy does not invite clarity or precision. It does not invite at all. This strategy commands. And if you accept that command, if you distill your arguments through an opposing debater's filter, you will almost always lose the debate.

So how should you respond to the false dichotomy? I propose four types of response. Based upon the situation and your own temperament, one of these approaches should work.

Complicate Respond by collapsing your interlocutor's opposing sides into a complex whole. You might add, "It's a complex world, even though we'd like it to be simple." Employing this technique makes room for a more developed, more nuanced answer. And using the word "we" defuses tension.

Elevate Rather than answer the question, raise the debate to a higher-level question. Here's an example: "Why do you feel the need to distill a complex issue into a overly-simple question?" This kind of metacommunication -- communication about communication -- invites a shift from binary thinking to more open-ended dialogue.

Attack Push back against the interlocutor; call the bullying strategy what it is. You might say, "I will answer as I see fit. I will not be abused in this discussion." This tactic must be handled carefully, aided by a minimum range of nonverbal support. Remember: you're engaged in a debate, not preparing for a fight.

Abandon A final choice, perhaps the least palatable of the bunch, is simply to walk away. Bullying, whether it is physical or conversational, requires at least one interlocutor to abandon the golden rule, that we treat others as we would wish to be treated. Engaging in prolonged debate with a conversational bully may be initially stimulating but ultimately pointless.

I repeat that this final proposal is my least favorite. My own temperament leads me to accept verbal challenges even when I shouldn't. I would add that some debates are worth the effort, particularly when an audience may otherwise be swayed by a demagogue. So consider your options when faced with a false dichotomy and ready yourself. Slow your breathing, relax your muscles, and prepare your response. With luck (and some practice) you can transform a fight into a discussion.

Any other tactics for handling false dichotomies? Any experiences you want to share? Post a comment!

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