Touching a False Dichotomy
Updated: 3 days ago
When I was an adolescent I was given the title “untouchable” from a group of knucklehead peers. While the details of that relationship will not be discussed herein I’d like to explore a line from a song by the same name and from which my title derived.
In 1990, rap group Above the Law released an album entitled Livin’ Like Hustlers. It featured a song called “Untouchable” and I recall the non-explicit version being played in heavy rotation on Saturdays by a local college radio station, as that day was reserved for hip hop and R&B.
In the song group member Cold 187um states, “In this lifetime you got two things; bad and good, and ain’t nothin’ in between.” As a teen, I remember having agreed with the premise.
False premises and dichotomies
As an adult, I realize that the false premise of Cold 187um doesn’t support the conclusion one could draw. For instance:
Premise 1: In this lifetime you got two things; bad and good, and ain’t nothin’ in between.
Premise 2: A bittersweet breakup can be considered bad, due to experiencing sorrow for no longer being with someone a person loves, while also good regarding relief from no longer remaining susceptible to abusive behavior the partner exhibited.
Conclusion: Therefore, there may be nuance, some middle option, between what is considered to be good and bad.
I was privy to many examples of this fallacy when growing up and I remain exposed to them well into adulthood. Here are some I’ve often heard:
· “You’re either with us or against us.”
· “You either condemn it or you condone it.”
· “You’re either saved or you’re not.”
· “The world is full of righteousness or wickedness.”
· “Ryde or die.”
· “Vote or die.”
Per one source, “A false dilemma assumes that the options that are presented are mutually exclusive,” and it “assumes that the options that are presented are collectively exhaustive.”
Narrowing one’s perspective by splitting into extreme or polar opposites may seem reasonable if not given more than surface-level consideration. However, life isn’t as simplistic as the incorrect dichotomies with which we use to relate.
“[Y]ou’re either antiracist or you’re racist. That means if you’re not actively participating and trying to dismantle this system of white supremacy or white privilege, then you’re doing nothing and just accepting it.”
I know many well-educated people, I’m aware of many well-funded corporations, and I’ve observed many well-placed politicians who’ve fallen for this dichotomous trap. One wonders if even a cursory assessment was used when considering the false premises:
Premise 1: You’re either antiracist or you’re racist.
Premise 2: John Doe doesn’t consider himself a racist, though he doesn’t participate in antiracist action.
Conclusion: Therefore, John Doe is a racist, despite what he thinks of himself.
Premise 1: If you’re not actively participating and trying to dismantle this system of white supremacy or white privilege, then you’re doing nothing and just accepting it.
Premise 2: Jane Doe doesn’t support white supremacy as an ideology or a movement, yet she doesn’t actively participate in trying to dismantle a system in which she has little power to begin with.
Conclusion: Hence, Jane Doe accepts white supremacy.
One imagines that whoever has the ability to simply create racists out of people who aren’t actually racist is truly the one with power and privilege. Even when a premise seems logical it can be incredibly flawed.
One is further reminded of a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail during which Sir Bedevere the Wise uses flawed logic to support an irrational and emotive mob of people who falsely accuse a woman of being a witch.
In this case, the conclusion is foregone and the premise is then established to support the rhetoric:
Conclusion: The woman in question is a witch.
Premise 2: A woman is placed on a faulty scale and weighs the same as a duck.
Premise 1: Witches burn, as does wood, and a person who weighs the same as a duck has the ability to float like wood that burns similar to witches.
According to one source, “Irrational beliefs tend to be rigid, extreme, and illogical. Instead of allowing for the complexities of life, irrational beliefs rely on black-and-white thinking that traps the believer into extreme, unhealthy outcomes.”
Per A Practitioner’s Guide to Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (3 edn), these irrational beliefs are as follows:
· Demandingness is an unrealistic and absolute expectation of events or individuals being the way a person desires them to be.
· Awfulizing is an exaggeration of the negative consequences of a situation to an extreme degree, so that an unfortunate occurrence becomes “terrible.”
· Frustration Intolerance stems from demands for ease and comfort, and reflects an intolerance of discomfort.
· Global evaluations of human worth, either of the self or others, imply that human beings can be rated, and that some people are worthless, or at least less valuable than others are.
Unlike irrational beliefs, rational beliefs are tentative, flexible, logical, consistent with reality, and they support one’s helpful or healthy level of functioning. Without them, and left to our flawed perspectives, beliefs may negatively impact our feelings (emotional and bodily sensation) and behavior.
Without critical evaluation, I listened to “Untouchable” and agreed with a faulty premise. Doing so established a pattern of false dichotomous thinking that I then used throughout my life.
Others also use this form of impaired evaluation to divide nations and sow the seeds of discontent. However, once we are aware of how irrational false dichotomies work we can begin weeding displeasure and addressing macro-level division.
Let us not refrain from touching false dichotomies, because that which is untouchable may also be quite unhelpful, unhealthy, and unworthy of our consideration.
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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