All-or-nothing thinking is a common problem in logic and rhetorical debate. It refers to thinking that sees no middle ground in an argument or person, only bipolar or extreme positions.
An example is the concept of good versus evil. Few people or situations are entirely evil or entirely good. Most are somewhere in the middle, a blend of multiple personality traits and life experiences that results in sometimes contradictory actions and beliefs in the individual.
Other examples might be seeing life as “hopeless” or “perfect,” but not including awareness that life has elements of both perceptions. This black-or-white thinking tends to use words that are opposite in meaning and excludes descriptives that represent the many shades of grey. These extreme viewpoints make compromise, perseverance, and tranquility difficult. They promulgate an extreme approach to living that can make, to use another expression, mountains out of mole hills.
When we only permit ourselves to see limited alternatives, we deny ourselves the many choices and possible solutions of more rational thought.
In logic, the creation of a false dichotomy (also called false dilemma, either-or fallacy, fallacy of false choice, fallacy of the excluded middle) is limiting to discussion. Its opposite is argument to moderation.
Sometimes the characterization of an issue as “either-or” is intentional. It distracts an opponent in an argument from seeing that other options exist. This is seen in many sound bites in media and political phrasings. For instance:
- “If you aren’t for us, you’re against us.”
- “Either you’re progressive or you’re conservative.”
- “If you don’t go to church, you aren’t spiritual.”
- “You always do that. You never listen to me.”