Fallacy #15: The Appeal To Binaries

Today we’ll cover another practical application fallacy, which I’m calling the appeal to binaries. It’s similar to the nirvana fallacy, but operates almost in reverse. Nirvana was about eliminating contrary ideas, binaries is about protecting beloved ideas. Where nirvana was a sword, binaries is a shield. Furthermore, it operates differently, being based upon a different principle.

A binary, of course, is something that divides only into opposites:

    • In data signals, the binary is either 0 or 1; there are no other values.
    • In electricity, the binary is either positive or negative; there are no other charges.

We see the appeal to binaries all the time in politics. For example, I used to exercise with a group of men that were split between the two big political groups of that place and time: Democrats and Republicans. I was neither, but if I disagreed with a statement from one of the Democrats, they would reply, “You’re just a Republican!” To their minds… to their emotions… there was nothing else: either I was with them or I was a Republican. And if I wasn’t with them, my opinion was automatically garbage.

My workout pals were appealing to a binary: you must be either a Democrat or a Republican. And since I was judged to be on the bad side of the binary, they passed off my opinion as something that was not to be considered.

A more recent example came when several US states were accused of covering up their very serious errors in handling the COVID crisis. When information began to leak, they didn’t try to deny the reports, but instead called them a “nakedly partisan deflection.”

Here again we see the conviction that a claim should be ignored because it came from the wrong side of the binary. In this case the purpose was transparent: the beloved political position must be protected. We might also infer from this that the charges carried some truth, since the response was fallacious, bypassing any reference to pertinent facts.

In centuries past, this fallacy was often used by the Roman Catholic Church: Either you were a member of the Church or else you were a heathen and an enemy… and one does not listen to enemies of God.

Any tight group is fertile ground for this fallacy, of course.

How The Trick Works

This trick operates differently from others because it doesn’t really operate against you, nor does it really operate against your arguments. Rather, it works within the group that’s protecting itself, and it’s weapon is deafness.

The appeal to binaries, then, is an appeal addressed to one’s chosen group. That appeal is: Turn away from this. Don’t listen. And the reason behind it is simple: They’re not of us.

And so our analysis of how this trick works must begin with the minds of those who use the fallacy. That’s a complex subject, of course, but in nearly all cases it boils down to placing their group above examination.

Before we go too much further, I think it’s charitable to remember that our world is filled with not only contradictions, but purposeful confusion, not to mention threats. In such an environment, choosing to reside inside a structure that protects you is understandable. It’s clearly a logical error, but it can appear attractive in weak moments.

When encountering the binary fallacy, we must consider the viewpoint of the person using it. Regardless of the justifications they assemble for their stance, we should hold its origin in mind: They’ve joined themselves to their group to protect themselves from confusion and threat.

And so, by trying to talk them out of it, you threaten to rip away what’s protecting them from threats that seem huge, and which may, in some cases, really be huge.

Our arguments, then, will be taken as personally risky by the person using this fallacy… often very risky. This is really what we’re up against. We’re asking them to drop their safety and to stand naked in front of a dangerous world. We don’t see it that way, but they feel it that way.

The nasty use of this fallacy comes when you face-off against a group. In that case you become a vastly outnumbered enemy, and the crowd is likely to turn against you.

What To Keep In Mind

So, once we see this fallacy, your first objective is to step back and try to see it through the eyes of the person using it. Our go-to line (Wait… I want to understand what you’re saying here…) is a good tool to buy time, but the crucial thing is to see beyond the words, and that’s hard to do when under pressure

In one on one situations, you might say something like: Believing XYZ doesn’t mean you have to abandon your [political party, church, etc.]

Do not aim for a “win” in these situations. What you want is to help the person on the other side, and what they need is to start facing facts rather than finding refuge in binaries. Because, in the end, it’s dealing with truth that will give them real safety.

Our stance, then, is the compassionate one, because it’s what will be best for us all in the long run. It’s easy to lose compassion when you’re being attacked for your opinions, but if we do lose it, we lose the ability to bring something useful out of those conversations.

So, if you’re having trouble feeling some basic level of compassion for the person on the other side, be honest about it. There’s no shame in feeling too upset for compassion to work in you; that’s simply part of the present human condition. And if so, pause the conversation and come back to it after a few minutes. It may be best for the conversation anyway. Try to remember that they’re afraid… and that bluster is often a cover for being afraid.

If you find yourself in a situation where the crowd could turn against you, give some thought to your safety. In most cases this won’t be too big of an issue (in my exercise crew it would have meant that I was called names, but nothing more), but in other cases it could be dangerous. If you feel threat building, defuse it (“But who really knows?”) and move quietly away.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg