What is a false dilemma
A false dilemma presents a choice between two mutually exclusive options, falsely implying that there are no alternatives. It is characterized by a lack of choice. Usually, some choices are purposely left out.
False dilemmas tend to complicate compromise, as there is no grey zone where opponents can find each other. They polarize. You have to pick sides. This is, of course, not always possible or ideal. Your position may be more nuanced.
A false dilemma is an informal fallacy. It is a variation on a false equivalence. When three choices are presented while more exist, it is called a false trilemma.
After the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the then-President George W. Bush famously said: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists, in the fight against al Qaeda.
Understandable as that sentiment was, it was a false dilemma that left no room for neutrality. It was, after all, possible to be standing by the United States after this attack, while not supporting every single policy choice that was made in response to the attack.
Forcing a choice between two selected options.
How to spot a false dilemma
The most obvious false dilemma indicator is the yes or no choice. In most cases, a simple yes or no won’t do, because that leaves no room for nuance. You may want to agree, but only under certain conditions. Politicians rarely give a straight answer to a yes-or-no question. They’ll just maneuver their way out of that trap.
Alarm bells should also go off when the words either, or are used, and you’re presented only two or three options. If none of these choices appeal to you, it’s good to stop and think what your own opinion is on the matter. You may end up somewhere in the middle after all.
Another giveaway is use of the phrase would you rather: “Would you rather pursue your passion or be stuck in a 9-to-5 job?”
How to deal with a false dilemma
You can reply: “Well, this is a bit black-and-white for me” – and proceed to share your own position. Ideally, you can point at issues in both opposing options that you agree with. It that case you have created a middle ground, and room for compromise.
False dilemmas in politics
The COVID-19 pandemic brought us another false dilemma: “We either protect the public against the coronavirus, or we protect the economy”. Health versus economy. It is possible to do both, though: protect the public against a health threat and minimize the negative economic effects of a worldwide pandemic.
Other examples of a false dilemma that are not particularly helpful for unity are: If you are for gun control, you are against individual freedom and You are either a patriot or a globalist.