Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Digital Strategist. Rhetorician. All Around Swell Guy.

The Power of (Splitting) Dichotomies

A dichotomy is an equal split, taking a subject and saying, “There is THIS or THAT. The end.” Implied in the dichotomy is choice. Choose one side of the dichotomy or the other because choosing both would be a contradiction.

True dichotomies follow two criteria:

  1. Everything you’re discussing fits into EITHER one side of the dichotomy or the other.
  2. Nothing you’re discussing fits SIMULTANEOUSLY in both sides.

Violate either principle and you commit the logical fallacy of “false dichotomy.” Not cool.

For instance, if Joel claims that all food is either sweet or sour, he violates the first criterion since some food is bitter, savory, salty, etc. He also violates the second criterion because some food is both sweet and sour at the same time. BOO Joel.

Legit dichotomies can be rhetorically powerful as tools for framing debates. But the greatest power in dichotomy is breaking one. Let’s discuss:

The Choice Is Clear

The rhetorical power of dichotomies comes from the clarity they give an audience. It’s hard for people to hold complex arguments in their head. Even if people earnestly and carefully listen/read, at the end of a speech/article it can still be difficult to discern what the arguments mean in “the real world.”

Enter dichotomies.

Using a dichotomy to concretize what an argument means in terms of audience choice can be rhetorically effective and memorable.

For example, I’ve been reading a lot about the “paleo” or “low carb” diet lately. One dichotomy that I see repeated is the difference between something that’s edible and something that’s food. To expand the dichotomy: We can consume many things with little or no harm (dirt, paper, Legos, etc.) but that doesn’t mean that everything we eat provides the nutrients our body needs.

This isn’t the end of the argument, of course. Paleo or low carb scientists are attempting to show that common foods like rice, wheat, oats are edible but not food. And the dichotomy is aimed toward someone like me, an unsophisticated reader of food science. You can see from this example that the dichotomy is both an excellent way to concretize a conclusion but also a way to frame the debate from the beginning.

The more clear and stark you can make the choice, the more powerful the dichotomy will be. But make sure your dichotomy is true. Otherwise…

Two Roads Diverged (Take the Third)

“Cake or death?”
– Eddie Izzard

I guarantee that most people you argue with have not thought through their dichotomies. Most use repeated phrases they heard from Rachel or Megyn on cable news. Clichés abound: “You’re either with us or against us,” etc.

In each argument you’ll likely have a golden opportunity to wow your audience and stun your opponent by splitting their dichotomy. In short that means: “A or B? I choose C.” In doing so you’re not only showing that your opponent has presented a false dichotomy but likely presenting a point of view that your audience hasn’t heard of.

Splitting a dichotomy is, foremost, an appeal to logos. It’s showing a flaw in your opponent’s logic, something they did not consider or may be evading. But don’t discount how much a split dichotomy can boost your ethos. It demonstrates that you’re a thinking rhetor, someone who doesn’t accept convention, someone who can present a true argument instead of a popular one.

A popular dichotomy as of late concerns the NSA collecting citizens’ metadata and phone calls. That is, “Either we accept these NSA procedures or we risk increasing danger from terrorist attacks.” This is actually a restatement of the classic dichotomy of freedom and safety. It was famously presented by Ben Franklin:

“They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Smart rhetors who want both liberty and safety have suggested that this is a false dichotomy, that true safety comes not from violating our liberty but by properly investigating and pursuing crime. Amy Peikoff of the Don’t Let It Go blog presented an outstanding argument for this alternative view: “Don’t Tread on My Metadata.”

I’ll let you read the argument and decide if you agree, but regardless Amy’s article is an excellent example of splitting a popular dichotomy with a new argument. Rhetorical powerhouse.

* * * * *

Framing debates and concretizing conclusions are important elements of rhetoric. Successful rhetors can achieve both by using proper dichotomies. But to achieve a slam dunk in an argument, try to split an opponent’s dichotomy and show your audience something new. Doing so will increase your logos and ethos, making you a better rhetor.

Happy persuading!