False Dichotomy

"False Dichotomy: This is where you say that there are only two choices, when actually there are more. For instance, you might say that someone is either alive, or they're dead, ignoring the fact that they might be Dracula. Or you might say that if someone's not a Democrat, they must be some sort of Republican, ignoring the very real possibility that they could be Dracula."
Lore Sjöberg, Alt Text episode 5, "Logical Fallacies"

A false dichotomy,note  also known as either/or reasoning, the black/white fallacy, false dilemma, or binary thinking, is when just two options are presented for something when there are actually (many) others. Moreover, the two options presented are rigged to favour one answer. There are two ways of doing this:

Classic. One choice is an unacceptable extreme, the presenter hopes the target will commit to the not-unacceptable-extreme option: "Kill the children, or buy their cookies."

Polarization. Both choices are unacceptable extremes, the presenter hopes the target will commit to the less-unacceptable option: "Kill the children with their own cookies, or only kill half of them."

Reality is rarely so simple, unforgiving, or rigged. Instead of an artificial binary choice favouring an ideology, life offers a diverse landscape of choices and consequences.

This binary approach is also a common media trope. Simply put: it is a lot easier for an audience to understand a story where characters are villains or heroes.note  In the simpler romances, it is more straightforward if characters exhibit a transcendent love, or an excoriating hate. Contrast Golden Mean Fallacy. Necessary for someone to be able to Take a Third Option (though, of course, doing that instantly subverts this trope by revealing the falsity of the dichotomy). A Sadistic Choice is similar, except all of the given options are horrible. Compare and contrast the Semantic Slippery Slope Fallacy.

Super Trope to:

Looks like this fallacy but is not:

  • There really are only two options.
    • The simplest form of this is to make the choices "A" or "Not A". In this case, "Not A" encompasses everything that isn't "A", even if that category is massive. For example, "You're either a Conservative, or not a Conservative," does include all possibilities, even though "Not a Conservative" includes liberals, libertarians, anarchists, or any other political philosophy that isn't simply conservatism by another name. More simply, if a cafeteria only serves tea or coffee and you ask for a drink, "tea or coffee?" is not presenting a false dilemma.
  • The act of presenting two options makes there become just two options. For example, if asked to call heads or tails on a coin, it can be assumed any other states the coin might land in are going to be discarded.
  • There really are only two options, even though there's a third (semi-)option that comes from combining (bits of) the other two. This is usually due to a linguistic quirk of English whereby both the Inclusive Or (A or B or both) and Exclusive Or (A or B but never both, often abbreviated xor) are both just 'or'. E.g. the statement "Everyone reading this page is alive or a human" is true for an Inclusive Or, but not for an Exclusive Or. Naturally, most statements like that are misleading in general speech. See the trope Mathematician's Answer.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Comicbooks 
  • During the initial promotion for Civil War, Marvel released a pair of message board signature images reading either "I'm with Captain America" or "I'm with Iron Man". Within days, fans were creating their own versions by the dozens, the most popular being: "You're all fucked when the Hulk gets back" or "THOU ART NO THOR"!
  • Spider-Man: Threat or Menace?

    Film 
  • A Few Good Men: Colonel Jessup, after having been accused of killing one of his own men (admittedly by accident): "I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it! I'd rather you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post." (You are either at war or not a soldier, used against a Military Lawyer)
  • The "Battle of Wits" from The Princess Bride presents this. The Man in Black puts two goblets between them and asks, "Where is the poison?" Vizzini goes through dozens of justifications and possibilities for why one would poison either one, trying to stall for time. Either way, he never considers that they were both poisoned. Vizzini pulled the fallacy on himself, since the Man in Black never said that only one of the goblets was poisoned.
  • Defied in Donnie Darko's “Life Line” classroom scene:
    Donnie: Well, life isn't that simple. I mean, who cares if Ling Ling returns the wallet and keeps the money? It has nothing to do with either fear or love.
    Kitty Farmer: Fear and love are the deepest of human emotions.
    Donnie: Okay. But you're not listening to me. There are other things that need to be taken into account here, like the whole spectrum of human emotion. You can't just lump everything into these two categories and then just deny everything else.
  • Layla from Sky High (2005), asked to demonstrate her powers, claims that the hero/sidekick dichotomy is a false one, but is cut off by Boomer declaring her a sidekick.
  • Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: Two for one, but only one called out:
    Anakin: If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!
    Obi-Wan: Only a Sith deals in absolutes.
    • Obi-Wan's own answer becomes this fallacy, because his argument is "either you do not deal in absolutes and are not a Sith (choice A) or you do and therefore are a Sith (choice B)" with no possibility of a middle ground. Since Obi-Wan's reply is an absolute statement (it lacks any qualifiers), his logic would mean he is also declaring himself to be a Sith.
  • Thank You for Smoking: Nick Naylor's career as a tobacco lobbyist runs on this, using rapid attacks of Chewbacca Defense, Insane Troll Logic, and Moving the Goalposts to discredit his opponents, thereby making himself looking like the smarter one by comparison. As he explains it to his son during a theoretical debate exercise, "I proved that you're wrong. And if you're wrong, I'm right."

    Jokes 
  • There's a standard joke about someone moving to Northern Ireland and being asked by the locals if they're Protestant or Catholic: when they explain that they are in fact atheist/Buddhist/Muslim/other, the locals respond "Yes, but are you a Protestant or a Catholic atheist/Buddhist/Muslim/other?"
    • Similar joke: an atheist is asked but is asked to clarify "...is it the Protestant God or that Catholic God you don't believe in?"
  • This joke includes one at the end. The third interviewee presumes that the prospective employer must wear contacts, as it would be hard to wear glasses without ears. Apparently, it did not occur to the interviewee that his prospective employer might not require any correction to his vision at all.
  • If you see a $5 note and a $10 note on the ground, which would you pick?
  • "That city only has prostitutes and troops!" "My mom lives there!" "She's guaranteeing the town safety."
  • At an asylum, a patient's sanity is tested by filling a bathtub with water, then asking the patient to empty it in the shortest time possible, given a choice between a cup and a bucket for doing so. A sane person would choose to pull out the plug.
  • One common joke involves a kid riding a bicycle (or donkey, in some versions) across a border with a sack of straw every day for years; a suspicious border guard stops him every time and checks the sack for smuggled goods, never finding anything. When the two meet years later and the officer asks what the kid was actually smuggling, the answer is "bikes/donkeys". The false dichotomy comes in because the guard falsely assumed that the kid was either smuggling something in the sack, or not smuggling at all.

    Literature 
  • A Sherlock Holmes sequel-by-other-hands has Holmes called upon to judge which of two violins is the one Davy Crockett played at the Alamo. He quickly identifies one as a fake, but realises that he was intended to; the owner wanted him to declare a violin as genuine, and so was presenting him with the false dichotomy of "which one's the fake?" They both are.
  • In Twilight, Bella believes she must either be with Edward or with Jacob. She also believes she must either become a vampire or grow old. Later, she believes that she must either wait until her belly is full-sized to deliver, or abort it, because no life-threatening pregnancy was ever solved by putting the babies on life-support to save the life of the mother. Bella thinks only in absolutes throughout the series. Another example would be when Edward leaves her in the second book. To her, her only options are being happy with Edward, or being miserable without him. Being happy without Edward never once occurs to her, no matter how often it's suggested to her.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Colbert Report:
    • Stephen Colbert loves this trope and takes it to the extreme, often asking questions such as "America: greatest nation in the world, or greatest nation in the universe?" When the interviewee starts to say he/she doesn't want to be quoted as saying either of those, he explains that those are the only options available: "So I'll put you down for 'world,' because that's not AS great as 'universe'..."
    • "Pick a side, we're at war."
    • "George W. Bush: Great President, or The Greatest President?"
    • He also divides the supermarket into cheese and non-cheese. Assuming that he classifies everything with cheese in it as cheese, it's a real dichotomy… but not a particularly important one. What about cottage cheese and other borderline dairy products?
  • Parks and Recreation: Leslie tried to drum up public support for building a park by phrasing the question, "Wouldn't you rather have a park than a storage facility for nuclear waste?"
  • Revolution: In "The Dark Tower", Nora Clayton gets shot in the gut by a coil gun and is bleeding out. Rachel Matheson tries to convince Team Matheson to just leave her behind and turn the power back, and Nora herself even urges them to leave her. However, Charlie Matheson intervenes and flat out states that this is not an either-or situation and that they can both turn the power back and get Nora to an infirmary. So, Aaron Pittman and Rachel go on to get the power back on, and Charlie and Miles Matheson go on to get Nora to an infirmary.

    Newspaper Comics 

    Tabletop Games 
  • RPG game Paranoia: if you aren't a fanatic supporter of the oppressive totalitarian regime, a loyal servant of The Computer, you are a death-dealing commie mutant traitor. This one is notable because everyone in Paranoia is a commie mutant traitor at heart, so instead of there being more than two possibilities, it turns out there's only one. Well, some of the commie mutant traitors do love the Computer.
  • Many, many debates about alignment in the D&D game have arisen because of assuming every possible action must be either "Good" or "Evil", while overlooking the existence of "Neutral" as an alternative. This frequently comes up for the paladin class, because the phrasing of their code of honor implies that even tolerating any act of evil or chaos can cost them all their class features.

    Visual Novels 
  • Part of a trick played on Kyousuke in G-Senjou no Maou, which is especially amusing because he just saw it pulled on his idiot friend. The trick pulled on his friend was the question "Which river is the longest in the world? A. the Amazon B. the Yangtze C. the Edo?"note  while it was never stated that it was actually a multiple choice question, and thus the answer is the Nile. The trick played on Kyousuke comes immediately after, where he gets asked, "Will you go on a date with Mizuha at a classical concert or somewhere else?" and he accidentally picks option one before realizing that 'don't go on a date at all' was also a valid choice, but is too proud to back down now.

    Webcomics 
  • In Edition Wars: Invaders from the Fourth Dimension, a story in The Order of the Stick book Snips, Snails, and Dragon Tales, the Fourth Edition version of Haley is able to knock out Durkon by stabbing him in the foot, because nowhere in the rules does it say that she can't knock him out by stabbing him in the foot.
    4E Elan: Then that means you used—
    4E Haley: Yes. I used the power of abandoned verisimilitude!
    4E Elan: Anything is possible when you don't care about what's actually possible!
    • A straighter example is the conflict to begin with. 4E Roy believes that people can either play 4th Edition or 3.5. Eventually both teams Take a Third Option by attacking other types of gaming.
  • Called out in the Fantasy theme of Irregular Webcomic!: When one of the Player Characters asks the DM "Would you rather have campaign progress or character development?" the DM promptly replies "It is not a dichotomy!" In the accompanying rant, it is commented, "Of course not. In a dichotomy, you do get one of the options."
  • Averted in this Mountain Time comic in the form of the battle cry of the Rally for More Options.

    Web Originals 
  • Extremely common in a Flame War. In fact you can test this yourself; go to any wikia based site and bring up a commonly held but non-verifiable belief, you won't have to wait long to see this kind of argument show up.
  • The Love It or Hate It trope. There is a group of middle-of-the-road viewers/readers/players, but they are generally ignored. (However, the reason it's a trope in the first place is because that middle-of-the-road group is far smaller than for most fandoms.)
  • A popular joke on YouTube is to comment on a video by reciting the number of "dislike" ratings the video has at the time of commenting and accusing all of them of something; common examples include "[X] people missed the 'like' button," "[X] people had no childhood," "[X] people are Justin Bieber fans," or some kind of threat. Such comments tend to be found in the highest rated comments, but luckily, subversions and parodies are replacing them in that spot (a common version referencing something in the video or relevant to it).

    Western Animation 
  • South Park
    • "Gnomes" is about Harbucks Coffee threatening the existence of Tweek Bros. Coffeehouse. Mr. Tweek gets the public on his side to oppose the larger corporation and a proposition is soon presented that would determine whether or not Harbucks would be allowed to stay. An ad is soon presented by "Citizens for a Fair and Equal way to get Harbucks Coffee kicked out of Town Forever".
    It's time to stop large corporations. Prop. 10 is about children. Vote yes on Prop. 10, or else, you hate children. You don't hate… children… do you?
    • Spoofed in "The Death of Eric Cartman":
    Mrs. Stotch: I don't know whether to ground him or call a doctor.
    Mr. Stotch: I think you should call a doctor. I'll ground him.
  • In the episode "Screwed the Pooch" from Family Guy:
    Lawyer: Mr. Griffin, which of the following two phrases best describes Brian Griffin: "problem drinker" or "African American haberdasher"?
    Peter: Uh, do I-I guess problem drinker, but that's uh-
    Lawyer: Thank you. Now: "sexual deviant" or "magic picture that if you stare at it long enough, you see something"?
    Peter: Well, sexual deviant, but that other one's not even, eh-
    Lawyer: Thank you.
  • In King of the Hill, Hank Hill and his friends can't wrap their head around their neighbor Khan Souphanousinphone not being either Chinese or Japanese, even after he corrects them.
    Hank: So are you Chinese or Japanese?
    Khan: No, we are Laotian.
    Bill: The ocean? What ocean?
    Khan: From Laos, stupid! It's a landlocked country in South-East Asia between Vietnam and Thailand, population approximately 4.7 million!
    Hank: (long pause) So are you Chinese or Japanese?
    Khan: D'oh!
    Dale (whispering about Khan): He's Japanese.
    Cotton: No he ain't! (inspects Khan) He's Laotian. Ain't you, Mr. Khan?
  • In Dragons: Riders of Berk, Hiccup must choose between beating Snotlout at The Thawfest Games or letting Snotlout win, with it being shown that if Snotlout doesn't win, he's in for hell from his father (of breaking the family streak) to the point of Snotlout outright panicking when he thinks it'll happen. It's never brought up that maybe Snotlout's dad is taking this too seriously, shouldn't have his love for his son based on a game, or anything of the sort. It also doesn't help that Snotlout is an obnoxious winner, not even realizing that Hiccup threw the race for him, when part of Hiccup's dilemma was if he was just winning to be a jerk (he Took a Level in Jerkass so they could wonder that, too) instead of helping out a friend.
  • In the American Dad! episode "Son of Stan, pt. 2", Stan and Francine argue over whether the proper way to raise Steve is to be totally strict, or totally permissive. Stan settles the matter by cloning Steve and letting Francine raise Steve her way, while he raises Steve-arino (the clone) his way. It turns out that neither way is correct: Steve ends up becoming a disrespectful slob, while Steve-arino becomes a psychopathic killer thanks to Stan's oppressive parenting.
  • The 1967 cartoon The Bear That Wasn't (based on the book of the same name) has a bear told by factory managers that he's not a bear but a silly man in a fur coat that needs a shave. They tell him this over and over, but the clincher comes when the factory's president is brought in. The president takes the bear to the zoo and explains that bears belong in the zoo. Since the bear was not in the zoo, he could not be a bear. The bears in the zoo even agree, saying that a real bear would be in the zoo with the other bears!
  • In Over the Garden Wall, the Deal with the Devil the Beast operates under is actually one of these. He told the Woodsman (and later Wirt) that their only choices were to keep their loved one's soul lit in the Dark Lantern or let them die. In reality no such choice exists, as the Dark Lantern doesn't actually contain the soul of the Woodsman's daughter; it contains the Beast's soul and he tricks people into keeping it lit because if it goes out he'll die. Take a wild guess what happens when Wirt finally figures out the trick and gives the Woodsman the lantern...

    Real Life 
  • The "debate" between religion and science is itself an example. Putting aside the fact that religion isn't even a single thing, it isn't actually at war with science. The whole concept is outright bizarre when you consider how many famous historical scientists were priests (and a good number of modern ones), the papal bulls protecting free inquiry, the funding of science, the many historic universities with religious founders, and the fact that the Vatican itself has a science department (the Pontifical Academy of Sciences), along with several labs. Even if the Theory of Evolution were disproven, Creationism would not automatically take its place. These aren't even mutually exclusive as species may be created but still evolve over time, otherwise known as Theistic Evolution
    • Similarly, Science vs. Art, ignoring that many prominent scientists appreciated and/or partook in artistic pursuits, and vice-versa.
  • "America - Love It Or Leave It" is a popular false dilemma in the USA, though it's not exactly unique to them. The dilemma suggests that a true patriot must embrace everything ever done by America, or become un-American. However, since America as a nation was founded on the concept of respectful political dissent, one must doubt the premise of this false dilemma very seriously.
  • The concept of False Consciousness is this in spades. It assumes that anyone who doesn't share the views of the user's worldview must be stupid/brainwashed/mentally ill/evil/a sellout/etc.
  • "Homophobia" vs LGBTQ support. Either you support gay marriage because you're gay yourself, or you're against it because you hate gay people. There's quite a good deal of in-between groups that rarely get heard from, such as "unionists" who believe gay marriage is wrong, but should not be banned because marriage is an intrinsic right, or straight people who have no problem with gay marriage, and some gay people who don't want gay marriage because they consider the institution historically flawed or because they would rather take political action against issues like LGBTQ youth homelessness and find the marriage issue insignificant.
    • Law & Order vs Oppression : It all depends on if you agree with the law or not.
    • Rebellion vs Revolution: It all depends on who wins. If the government wins, it was only a rebellion. If the not-government wins, it is a revolution.
  • Conspiracy theorists frequently commit this. Either you accept that their conspiracy is true, or you're a mindless sheep who believes whatever the establishment says. Obviously, it's impossible for one to believe the establishment lies sometimes, but they happened to be telling the truth this one particular time.
    • Even this is a false dichotomy, as some of the most outlandish conspiracy theories (such as reptoids secretly controlling the earth via the Illuminati) can be rejected by someone who believes the establishment is always lying.
  • Political Correctness vs Unfortunate Implications. Implies that anyone who criticizes PC thought must be a racist/sexist/homophobic/bigot of some form, and conversely implies that anyone who is ever offended by anything or tries to raise a discussion about whether something is offensive is an overly sensitive PC person trying to censor everybody.
  • People tend to treat reason and emotion as mutually exclusive.
  • Abused by anti-vaccine advocates. Either vaccines are completely safe or they are too dangerous to use. Cost-benefit analysis is rarely used. Ignoring medical cost-benefit analysis is often abused in more sensationalist media coverage. For example, hysterical news articles about how Ritalin (or many other drugs, usually psychiatric ones) may be damaging the patients prescribed it in some vague, undefined way, or pointing out some of the nastier potential side effects, and calling for its use to be stopped on that basis... while ignoring that for at least some patients, these short term side effects or potential long term risks do not outweigh the benefits of the drug for them.
  • Pro-life vs. Pro-choice. A substantial number of pro-lifers, including the Catholic Church, would allow abortion for extenuating circumstances, such as if the mother is at risk of death from childbirth or the pill if it's needed to control an irregular cycle. Some are also not opposed to contraception, which is preventing conception from occurring (such as condoms), while abortion is post-conception. Inversely, many pro-choicers may in fact dislike or even oppose abortion, but still do not think it should be banned or carrying to term presented as the only option. That is why it's called "choice" after all. There's also the question of if abortion should be allowed only in early stages of pregnancy, versus at any time against never at all.
  • Right-handed vs left-handed, ignoring the possibility of being ambidextrous, which still ignores the possibility of being cross-dominant.
  • To hear some people talk, parents who don't believe in spanking are not disciplining their children at all, and are letting them run the household.
    • While the other side of the debate often claims that anyone who spanks their child is automatically a psychopathic abuser. Both sides tend to ignore that what works or is necessary for one child may not apply the same way to another.
  • The court of public opinion. In many trials or investigations into a hot issue, such as the Zimmerman/Martin case or the Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown, debates on the topic usually insist that you either believe the shooting was racially motivated or that you are a racist yourself who believed the victims deserved to die because of their skin color.
  • United States health care.
    • According to proponents of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) the choice is between Obamacare or no health care at all. Therefore, you either support the ACA or you want people to be without coverage and die in the street of preventable conditions.
    • Conversely, opponents of the ACA frame it as a choice between the unfettered free market, which will naturally make everything more efficient through competition, or a government-run monopoly that will destroy the nation's health care system.
    • The ACA is actually between the two extremes, setting up exchanges in which consumers can shop around for plans from different companies, regulations and subsidies intended to make the private-sector insurance industry more equitable, along with a mandate for insurance coverage to ensure that there are no free riders who don't contribute to the system. Ironically, it was originally proposed by the conservative Heritage Institute as a counter-proposal when Bill Clinton had proposed universal health care in the early 1990s.
  • My Real Daddy vs. Only the Creator Does It Right: A work can have two (or more) integral creators.
  • When something popular gets cancelled, people will jokingly say the company hates good things and/or making money. Inversely, when something unpopular continues on, people say the company loves things that suck.
  • It is saidnote  that the Library of Alexandria was burned down by 'Amr ibn al-'As on the basis that if the scrolls were in agreement with the Quran, they were superfluous, whereas if they opposed it they were blasphemous. This of course ignored the vastly more likely possibility that they had no connection to it at all.


Alternative Title(s): False Dilemma, False Dichotomies

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FalseDichotomy