From Cigarettes and Grammar to Refugees and Veterans


“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” the ad sang out from our televisions. When people started correcting the faulty grammar of using “like” instead of “as” (“tastes good AS a cigarette should”) the company struck back with a new ad asking us which we wanted, “good grammar or good taste.” Huh? How is such a choice to be made when the two options are not alternatives?

There we have the false dilemma fallacy which I’m calling the phony choice method for misleading people by presenting them with an either/or decision that is contrived and fake. How would correcting the grammar of the cigarette slogan have worsened the taste of the cigarette? Is poor grammar a flavor booster? As correctness of grammar goes up, does cigarette flavor go down? Of course not. So how could the phony “which do you want?” question have succeeded in helping promote the product?

I have chosen a trivial example just because the phoniness of the choice is obvious, which is not always the case, but let’s stay with the trivial example a little longer. I suspect that by criticizing the advertisement’s English, the proponents of correct speech hooked into the resentments of many who have had their English grammar and usage corrected. In American society, there is a bias against people who speak too properly, but there is also a corresponding resentment within people who have been shamed by having attention called to their grammatical flaws.

Would you like it if someone corrected your English in public? Imagine the situation, and put yourself into it. You are telling a story your listeners appear to be enjoying with increasing interest in the outcome. You have them. Suddenly, someone interrupts you to point out that you have wrongly used the word “lay” where “lie” was correct. The group’s interest in your story is broken. Attention has shifted to your faulty English, but something deeper has happened inside you, something of which you may not even be aware. You wanted and expected to finish your story, enjoy the group’s reactions, and maybe share a good laugh. Instead you’ve been blind-sided by criticism, triggering your shame affect. How big a deal is that? The answer depends upon your self-confidence and your personal history with shaming. You may brush off the person’s rudeness as you would flick away a fly and go right on with your story. If, however, your personal history makes you sensitive to such corrections or to public shaming itself, then the feeling may be worse than mere annoyance and your response more intense. If you are deeply susceptible to such shaming, you may even erupt into anger, complete with the name calling and profanity which saturate Facebook comments.

Let’s consider a more serious and less obvious example of the phony choice method for fooling people. This one sets its hooks into something more dangerous.

Should we care for Syrian refugees or our own homeless veterans? Phony choice. We could care for both, and there is no opposition between the two, nothing that makes one cancel out the other, but the deception of this phony choice works its malice upon a significant number of Americans. How? Are they stupid? Incapable of logical thought? Or just so uninformed about federal spending that they really believe we can do only one or the other, that caring for refugees takes care aware from veterans? No, I don’t think stupidity or ignorance is the answer, and I’m quite sure calling people stupid or ignorant will worsen the problem, further dividing our nation and stiffening opposition to receiving refugees. Dismissing people as stupid in the name of respect and compassion for all is also blatantly hypocritical. We are in deep trouble as a nation in significant measure because we keep treating each other as disgusting or laughable enemies.

The phony choice between refugees and veterans works because it hooks into fears and prejudices while offering a way to make those fears and prejudices look and feel like patriotism and benevolence. It makes something shameful feel commendable. The phony choice sounds good to people who resent being told that if they were good people or, perhaps, good Christians, they would feel sympathy for the refugees. So the phony choice empowers them to say something like this:

No, we’re not the bad people, and you bleeding hearts that want to bring in those refugees are not the good people! We are the good people because we want to protect our country from terrorists and help our own veterans!

There is no legitimate reason to choose between refugees and veterans. Not only are the two concerns unconnected, but the goal of employing the phony choice method of deception is not to help either the refugees or the veterans. The goal is to inflame fears and resentments or (when the other side derides the fallacy) snobbery and contempt so that divided we can be conquered by those seeking power.

My purpose in writing this piece in not merely to promote awareness of a logical fallacy, but rather to remind us all of how easy it is for people seeking to manipulate public opinion to hook into our fears and resentments or into our pride and snobbery. How easy it is to polarize us, turning neighbors and even family members against each other. The phony choice method is only one tool in the manipulators’ kit.