False Dichotomy Fallacy

My favorite college graffiti: “There are two types of people in the world. People who believe there are two types of people in this world and people who do not.” Of course, that statement is a tautology – it relies upon itself for its own proof. But an internet search for that initial statement garnered 143,000,000 hits. Apparently, there are lots of ways to divide the world into merely two types of people.

The current racial tensions in the USA have tended to divide people into two camps. E.g., building on the work of Ibram Kendi in How to be an Antiracist, many have said that if one is not antiracist, then he/she must be racist – there is no middle ground, no grey area. (This notion strikes me as ironic, given that biological sex is clearly dual, but gender is increasingly “non-binary.” One variation of the graffiti I quoted above is this: “There are 10 types of people in this world. Those who understand binary, and those who do not.”)

My fear is that much of the acrimony in our current political debate is due to this false dichotomy fallacy. One must choose between two starkly opposite extremes. No other range of options is presented. One is either racist or antiracist … period.

Examples of false dichotomy fallacy abound. Congress seems incapable of discovering a middle ground on legislation; choose the Democrats’ bill or the Republicans’ but make no effort to reconcile the differences. Antifa/BLM or Proud Boys/QAnon – one side’s good the other’s evil; what about “both are extreme and do not represent the views of the vast majority of Americans”?

It is my view that this false dichotomy fallacy threatens a proper understanding of Biblical theology. In the realm of good and evil, there is a real distinction made between the two. When choosing a path to follow, obedience to God stands in contrast to disobedience. These are real, not false, dichotomies.

Psalm 1 draws a picture comparing the godly person to the unrighteous one. Joshua (Joshua 24:15) and Elijah (I Kings 18:21) both challenge Israel to choose to follow God.  Jesus draws a contrast between those who are saved and those who will be condemned (John 3:16-17). 

Followers of Jesus face some challenges of discernment. One is identifying the difference between good and evil in an age of relativism, avoiding the beguiling appeal of evil that masquerades as good. Another challenge is confining our moral outrage to only certain kinds of evil.

Evangelical Christians have tended to focus their attention almost exclusively on abortion and LGBTQ issues in their political advocacy. Such staunch support often contrasts with ambivalence, even disdain, for addressing social ills that keep some classes of people under oppression. The Salvation Army has a rich heritage of advocacy in this arena and we are still fond of quoting William Booth’s “I’ll fight!” speech.

My appeal is to be certain that we maintain a Biblical view of good and evil, taking care to avoid the false dichotomies that the political world presents to us. Let’s preach the whole Gospel, including “good news to the poor, … freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, [and releasing] the oppressed.”

Blessings to you as you “go about doing good.”

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