Thou Shalt Not Worship False Dichotomies

Dear E & V,

People love simplicity.

In a world driven mad by technological and social complexity, simplicity makes navigating life easy. Good and evil, us and them, men and women, me and you, Democrats and Republicans, NATO and Russia, dogs and cats, believers and heathens, good drivers and bad drivers, criminals and victims, the list goes on and on and on. People will want you to pick sides. Or they’ll assume that if you don’t 100% agree with them, you are automatically on the complete opposite side. If you’re not an aging liberal hippie douche, you must automatically be a pissed-off white-trash redneck conservative. If you believe in some kind of gun control, you must be an anti-gun crusader who would gladly pee on Charleton Heston’s grave. If you’re not a vegan you must be a factory-farming mass-murdering carnivore.

It makes people’s lives easier to make those snap judgements about others. Our current reality (read: the 24 hour news cycle) is inundating us with more information than we can handle, so the more pre-judging we can do about others the easier it will be for us to navigate the rest of our lives. And let’s not lie, there is something satisfying about judging other people’s views. As much as I try to fight it, sometimes I can’t help the smug satisfaction I get from knowing that I am “more right” than the person I’m judging.

Having to pick between just two choices is a morally and ontologically bad way to live (I realize the irony of what I just wrote given the lesson I’m trying to teach, but bear with me). It’s called a “false dichotomy” and will cause more problems than it will solve.

First of all, only a very very small percent of people you meet will fit into those easy-to-make categories. You’ll know them when you meet them because they are ignorant, self-rightous, and very vocal. They believe everything they read from their media (social or mass) of choice and hold on so rigidly to their beliefs that they refuse to question them ever.

Luckily though, they are rare. You are more likely to meet people who don’t fit the stereotypes that black-and-white thinking portrays. I know pro-choice Republicans and gun-owning Democrats. I know Buddhist Jews, booze-guzzling Muslims, and cursing Christians. I’m against factory farming, but I love a good steak from a 100% grass-fed pasture-raised cow. I’m a good driver when I’m driving with you in the car, but I’m kind of an asshole driver when I’m coming home from work by myself. I own a gun but believe we need more controls to prevent guns from getting into the hands of the mentally ill and criminals.

We are simple creatures with complex beliefs, beliefs that are often in conflict with one another (just look at San Fransicso — they want to solve the homeless problem but don’t want to build housing for the homeless next to their own homes…). But that 1) Doesn’t mean that every other person on the earth needs to adhere to your system of beliefs 2) That you should assume someone has a core system of beliefs simply because they hold one belief, and 3) That you should judge a person’s virtue based on one belief in their entire belief system.

First of all, this us-vs-them attitude dehumanizes the other person. Small-thinkers of all stripes all justify the marginalization of a certain group of “others” with the belief that if we are right, others are wrong. Fascists, communists, terrorists, and racists use that justification to hurt and harm. Others, like Democrats and Republicans, use it to turn civil discourse into divisive politicking and voter manipulation. They stop seeing other people as people and start seeing them as opponents and enemies. They reduce the other to a viewpoint or belief, when the fact is our humanity isn’t bound by our beliefs and viewpoints.

This leads me to my second point: progress in cultural, political, social, physical, mental, etc. well-being is interrupted when we resort to dichotomous thinking because it limits what we can be in do both as a society and as an individual. If I limit my gender identity to man or woman simply because that’s what society dictates then I am limiting my options to freely choose who I am and what I can become as a human. If I limit my beliefs on gun control to gun-owning idiots and gun-free enlightened geniuses, then I am limiting the solutions with which we can solve America’s chronic mass-shooting problem. When you rationalize away a person’s humanity because “they are wrong and we are right”, then you’re further away from taking the time to enlighten them and teach them about why their position is wrong. Even if you are right, you’re not going to convince anybody to fix a problem if you refuse to treat them as humans rather than just a set of beliefs.

The funny thing is, people who resort to dichotomous thinking often end up becoming more like their opposites than they realize. Fascists and communists have more in common with each other than they do with more moderate right and left leaning political groups. Pro and anti-gun extremists often resort to the same tactics to push their agendas through legislatures. It’s a phenomena that’s been observed more than once throughout philosophical history.

Take the yin-yang for instance:

 \yin yang

Yes it means balance, but it also points to the point I just mentioned. The black dot in the thick white section and the white dot in the thick black section allude to the fact that at their extremes, one side becomes the other.

There’s also this famous quote from Friedrich Nietzsche:

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Don’t let an obsession with your own beliefs and viewpoints blind you from living a good life. There are ALWAYS an infinite amount of choices available to you. Some are more viable than others, but limiting yourself to just two will ensure that you live a thoughtless, ignorant, and stressful life. Options and the ability to find them are what will secure your success in life. The more flexible you are the more opportunities will come your way. This is true in everything from dating to real estate investing.

You can achieve anything if you have the persistence and creativity to make them happen.



P.S. You’ll be able to spot people who only think in dualities because they often fall victim to the “No true Scotsman” fallacy:

You made what could be called an appeal to purity as a way to dismiss relevant criticisms or flaws of your argument.

In this form of faulty reasoning one’s belief is rendered unfalsifiable because no matter how compelling the evidence is, one simply shifts the goalposts so that it wouldn’t apply to a supposedly ‘true’ example. This kind of post-rationalization is a way of avoiding valid criticisms of one’s argument.

Example: Angus declares that Scotsmen do not put sugar on their porridge, to which Lachlan points out that he is a Scotsman and puts sugar on his porridge. Furious, like a true Scot, Angus yells that no true Scotsman sugars his porridge.

Actually now that I think of it, it would make your life easier if you studied up on all the logical fallacies out there. Slimy sales people and politicians will often use them to convince people of things that aren’t true or are bad for them. Knowing the fallacies they use will help protect you from their unscrupulous tactics.


Ken View All →

I am a Father, Husband, Cowboy Philosopher, Volunteer Firefighter, and Professional Dilettante. I am nothing and I am everything. But when it comes to our relationship: I only wish you wonder and happiness.

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