Before we begin covering fallacies, we should be clear on what the word means. A fallacy is a deceptive statement. It is something that is false, but is made to appear true. In other words, it is a trick of words and emotions, used to make people believe something that isn’t actually so.
But that does not mean that everyone using a fallacy is trying to hurt you. In most cases, they are doing it ignorantly, because they were deceived by the trick earlier. What they’re really doing is passing along the mistake.
So, while we want to notice deceptions (fallacies) that are thrown at us, we should remember that most of the people using them are not personally malicious; they’re acting out a malicious script that was started by others. The damage to you is the same, but their personal guilt is less.
Now, let’s move on to our first fallacy:
The either-or fallacy (also called the excluded middle, bifurcation, the false dilemma and even other names) operates like this:
A speaker makes an impassioned argument, leading to an either-or choice: Either Option A or Option B. And, almost always, they’ll apply pressure for you to pick one or the other immediately.
That is, two alternative statements are presented as the only possible options. In reality, however, many more possibilities exist.
I ran into this trick many years ago, listening to someone proposing a new environmental law, because a factory was dumping poison into a river used by several communities. (Or so they claimed.)
The speaker went through a list of horrible things that were happening or might happen to the people living along the river… and especially to the children. He went on to explain that millions of concerned people had vehemently condemned this, and concluded his argument with a choice: Either you support our new law or you are supporting the abuse being done by the evil factory; abuse that has been universally condemned.
The argument was fallacious, of course, but nearly everyone in the audience went along with it.
I say the argument is fallacious because many other options existed:
- Their law was certainly not the only law that could be written. A team of law students could probably come up with dozens of alternate versions in a day or two.
- The people along the river could bring lawsuits against the factory. If the claim of poisoning the river was true, all of these people could legitimately claim that they were being poisoned. Legal systems – already in place – were specifically designed to deal with such issues.
- If the people along the river wanted to be a bit fiesty, they could bring water from the river, hand it to the factory owners and insist they drink it. I wouldn’t suggest going much farther than this, but it would certainly make their concerns clear.
So then, many other options existed for this problem, not just the speaker’s law or poison in baby’s cereal.
The either-or fallacy, then, involves a false, deceptive and manipulative choice.
How The Trick Works
As I said, nearly everyone in the audience went along with this trick. And so I’d like to show you how it worked:
- The claim of poison was made quickly. It may have been true, but the speaker didn’t spend time proving it. Rather, he used it to stir up emotions and then moved along. This is crucial to success when manipulating people: The flow of emotions is key, precisely because emotions displace careful thinking.
- He described the effects on the poison in vivid images, chosen for their emotional impact. He particularly used children because nearly all humans have a strong instinct to protect babies and small children.
- The speaker claimed that the crime – poison in the river – had been strongly condemned by large numbers of people and powerful organizations. This, strange though it may sound, was a threat, and a strong one. What the speaker was implying (saying it without actually saying it) was this: “If you don’t agree with me, all those people and powerful organizations will hate you, and are likely to hurt you.”
- Finally, with his emotional pressures at their peak, he presented the false choice: Support this law or be a monster.
- “Choose now” is used to cement you to the choice before the manipulation wears off, as it would once you had time to think about it. If you say “yes,” however, you’ll tend to stick with it (even defend it) because anything else would involve calling yourself a sucker.
I think you can see why the trick worked so well. Emotional reactions shove reason, balance and perspective aside. In simple terms, we can describe this as turning off our thinking circuits and only using our reactive circuits. But, believe it or not, it gets still worse:
First: If others in the audience start screaming “Yes!” and “Support the Law!” the conformity pressures go sky-high. And you should be aware that serious manipulators will plant friends in the crowd to do precisely this. It works.
Second: Humans have an innate tendency to see things in a binary way. We see this very clearly in word association tests and games, where the fastest and most common answers tend to go like this:
Apparently this is primitive brain circuitry we inherited; but in any event, dropping to hot/cold, happy/sad and so on are the easiest things for our brains to do, and they involve almost no purposeful thought. That makes them perfect for emotional manipulation.
What To Keep In Mind
Simone Weil once said, “Conscience is deceived by the social.” That’s clearly true, but perhaps more to the point, conscience and reason are intimidated by the social. And the important thing about that is that you can feel when it happens.
When the peddler of emotional manipulation does his or her work, you can feel the change in your mental state: You feel less certain of yourself, more afraid, and suddenly joining with the crowd feels like a safe and desirable thing to do. This is the moment you must learn to notice.
When you feel these things, you must pull yourself away. I recommend that you physically step away if you can. But certainly you must pull away mentally. At first this can be challenging, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
Once you step away and thoughts start running through the center of your mind instead of being displaced, you should be able to find the flaw in the argument easily enough.
The crazy thing about manipulation is that once you pull your mind out of the emotional flow, the tricks they play are so stupid… so transparent… that it seems crazy for people to be suckered by them.
The real lesson here, aside from having this fallacy pointed out to you, is to step away from confusion and self-doubt. But, we’ll be talking much more about that as we proceed.
More next time.