Horns of Dilemma: Using a False Dichotomy to Create the Illusion of Choice

Whichever way you turn, you get gored

“A man is an angel that has become deranged, Joe Fernwright thought. Once they — all of them — had been genuine angels, and at that time they had had a choice between good and evil, so it was easy, easy being an angel. And then something happened. Something went wrong or broke down or failed. And they had become faced with the necessity of choosing not good or evil but the lesser of two evils, and so that had unhinged them and now each was a man.”
― Philip K. Dick, Galactic Pot-Healer

Philip K. Dick’s description of angels’ fall from grace could just as easily be describing the progression of American capitalism.

Now, in elections, marketing, commerce, education — everywhere you look Americans are all falling victim to the exact same con. If you want to trick an American into doing whatever you want, simply offer them a couple of choices where the options are only superficially different.

A great example of this is the airline industry. As of 2019 about 70% of all domestic flights are conducted by just four major airline holding companies: American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines Holdings. Anyone who has flown these airlines knows that the differences between them don’t go far beyond the superficial. These four airline holding companies (who have been subject to investigations for collusion and price-fixing) continually cut flights in non-profitable areas, cram more seats onto already over-crowded planes, and — despite getting less for your money — seem to keep increasing prices. And yet Americans will swear to their loyalty for Southwest or Delta. Especially so when they have the prestigious status of getting to board slightly before the other passengers — only to be just as cramped and uncomfortable as everyone else once they sit down.

This illusion of choice is called the Horns of Dilemma. It’s a manipulation tactic that was well described by Robert Greene in his book “The 48 Laws of Power”, which catalogs the 48 most effective tricks and manipulations that people can (and often do) use against one another.

“The best deceptions are the ones that seem to give the other person a choice: Your victims feel they are in control, but are actually your puppets. Give people options that come out in your favor whichever one they choose. Force them to make choices between the lesser of two evils, both of which serve your purpose. Put them on the horns of a dilemma: They are gored wherever they turn.”
— Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power

The Horns of Dilemma have long been employed to great effect in the American two-party political system where one candidate is demonized to force people to vote for the other. This is happening right now for the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Left-leaning voters are being told that they must vote for Joe Biden, not matter how they feel about his policies, because the alternative is a continuation of the Trump presidency. Do any of these sound familiar?

“Vote blue no matter who.”

“Every vote that is not for Biden is a vote for Trump”

“Anyone criticizing the democratic party is a Russian troll”

“If you don’t vote, you don’t get to have an opinion”

As Lauren Martinchek eloquently explains in her article Where “Vote Blue No Matter Who” is Taking the Democratic Party”, there is a tremendous danger in choosing to pick one impaling horn over the other simply because the other is worse.

Oftentimes those with even the best of intentions who argue for “vote blue no matter who” insist that we must just vote the democrat in to office because “obviously they’re better than the alternative”, and pressure them on policy once they’ve won their election. The thing is, if voters already agree to vote for a candidate anyways simply because they concede that they fear the alternative, how is a candidate going to be pressured at all knowing their base will just vote for them anyways? What leverage do you have to ensure a candidate listens to their voters when the next election comes around, and they know they’ll be elected simply because they’re a democrat, and the “vote blue no matter who” argument inherently erases any accountability for their record or platform?
— Lauren Martinchek, “Where “Vote Blue No Matter Who” is Taking the Democratic Party”

She’s right. The dichotomy that is created removes any leverage that voters have over the candidate that is supposedly on their side. You don’t win a negotiation by agreeing to everything the other person wants in the hopes that they will remember that and help you later. Being forced to choose the lesser of two evils gives us no power over either of those evils.

“Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.” — Jerry Garcia

But this failure of human rationality is not new. It was just as well established in ancient times. This same dilemma was known in ancient Greece as the choice of Scylla and Charybdis. The reference comes from Greek mythology as written by Homer.

To pass through the Strait of Messina one had to sail either close to the Italian mainland, or close to Sicily. As the mythology goes, if one passed near Sicily they would get pulled into a whirlpool called Charybdis. But if they passed close to the Italian mainland, they would get attacked by a six-headed sea monster known as Scylla. Thus anyone who wanted to pass through the Strait of Messina had to make the choice: Scylla or Charybdis.

In Homer’s depiction, Odysseus was advised to choose Scylla since the sea monster would only take a handful of his sailors. Whereas if he risked the whirlpool he could lose the whole ship. [1]

Odysseus also had AAdvantage Executive Platinum status with Scylla and got to enjoy a free beverage as the sea monster tore the limbs from his sailors.

Outside of the mythology, the phrase Scylla or Charybdis became a colloquial way of describing a situation where someone must choose from two options that are both bad.

Anyone who came up through public education understands the logic of a multiple choice test: first you eliminate the ones that it absolutely cannot be, then the answer must be among whatever is left. But what if they are all wrong answers? Then you are force to pick the least wrong answer and the person who wins is the person who wrote the test.

Whether it’s airlines, the upcoming election, whirlpools and sea-monsters, or multiple choice tests, we don’t truly have a choice unless we are able to take part in deciding what options are available.

We the people are our society and we get to decide how it operates and what the options are. Passively choosing from the limited options presented to us hands our autonomy and power over to others while doing a theatrical performance of participation. As long as someone else gets to choose the options for us, we are slaves in a game of someone else’s creation.

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