“Do you want to eat your peas with a fork or a knife?” is a well known false choice that parents use with kids. In either choice, hopefully, they will eat their peas.

False choices are a particular type of frame. They are used a lot with both climate and COVID-19. In our bumper sticker world, we are so overloaded with messaging that only those messages that are short or metaphoric, bypass our filters to get through. One of the ways to accomplish this is through framing, particularly the false choice.

With framing we activate physical circuits and paths in the brain that resonate within a pre-established narratives. Clean coal is an example. The frame associates the word clean with the word coal. Clean represents purity and health, and is a positive metaphor. The combination with the word coal, which is dirty and black, is then cleansed to be positive. Scientifically and consciously, we know coal is dirty. But it really doesn’t matter when the phrase clean coal is repeated over and over. We are unaware of the circuits being activated. The frame becomes more entrenched the more we repeat it or argue against it, until a majority now believe that it is true. The narrative for clean coal is an economic one. We serve the economy when the economy is personified. This fits with a worldview where the values of strength and dominance are predominant.

The false choice is one of the most insidious ways to frame. Where a frame simply slides into our minds and activates a mental metaphor or story, the false choice makes us unconsciously complicit. By presenting an argument as a choice, albeit, one-sided, it appears we are deciding or in control. It also appeals to and creates an identity in the process.

I was walking today when I saw a bumper sticker that presented a false choice. It said, “If you don’t stand behind our troops, then try standing in front of them.” If I wasn’t sensitized to framing, and if those are my only two choices, my reaction would be… yes, I guess I’ll stand behind our troops. In making this choice, I have reinforced a subtle identity. The one that sides with the values of strength, individualism and security.

I did not reason or think about the roles of intelligence or diplomacy in creating a strong, secure country. But my identity is now linked to those values because I have made a choice. It is now harder for me to change my mind, not because of other options, but because it would require me to question my core identity. In this way, the false choice is stealthier than the direct frame.

Our country is now being framed with two huge false choices. The first is to stay safe with physical distancing or reopen the economy. There is no discussion of other options. Progressives have already lost this battle because the country has accepted a worldview where other’s lives don’t matter. For example, immigrants, as in those seeking refuge at our borders, or blacks, as in those that are unarmed and killed by police. We now discount the lives of those that die from COVID-19, especially those that are more vulnerable: blacks, Latinos and our seniors. We now blame them for holding us back.

The second false choice is between economic growth or slowing the climate crisis. We are presented with this false choice as a cost or time-based dilemma. We need to save the economy first, and then we can work on climate because it will cost too much to do both. As climate activists, we have already lost the narrative battle around the economy. Thirty years of promoting the economy as personified, i.e. someone we sacrifice for, or work for, can’t be overcome easily. The economy wins every time compared to the climate which is distant and abstract. It should also be noted that as climate activists and progressives, we  have lost the most recent round of the battle, which is bailing out fossil fuel companies.

It remains open whether we can create the messaging to build back cleaner and stronger with renewable energy, clean jobs, and electrified transportation.

The first step in resisting a false choice is to become aware of when you are being manipulated. Are you hearing just two extreme choices or are there other options?

The main way to counter a frame is to ignore it. This doesn’t always work with false choices. The first message that gets entrenched is often the one that survives and propagates. To win in the false choice battle requires several steps.

  1. The first step is to point out how our universal values are being violated.
  2. The next step is to point out who and why the false choice is being presented.
  3. The third step is to pivot to an aspirational vision of our world and underscore that with an appeal to our values.

Here is an example of how this process works for the countering the false choice between the economy and solving the climate crisis? Try this instead.

As we emerge from the current pandemic crisis, Americans will have a choice. Either try to return to an unfair system that no longer works, or build back cleaner and more just, because we care for each other. By building back better, we can create good fair paying jobs, a healthier world, and slow the climate crisis.

But for too long, we have let a few fossil fuel executives tell us we can’t build a strong society and fight climate change. These fuelish execs and their paid politicians want to pollute our air, water and land just to pad their profits… and now they want you to pay billions in bailouts.

Regardless of the color of our skin, where we come from, or what’s in our wallets, we must come together to create a world where clean renewable energy allows us to restore the world and keep our children safe. Where good jobs are created without blackening our air and poisoning our water. Where we don’t sacrifice for the economy, but the economy serves us, not just a few.  

This is a time when we can stand together because we care for each other, and the earth. Tell your representative to stand with us by creating bills for a cleaner, stronger America. Because it’s the right thing to do.

This message acknowledges the false choice, exposes the violation of the values of caring and fairness, and calls for us to stand together. Of course it is too long. But my intent is to show how the process works. At its shortest, the message could be; Let’s build back cleaner and stronger because we care for each other. Any other way is bankrupt from the start unless it supports all of us, not just the few.

So we have a choice. We can create our messaging with a knife or a fork, so long as we are aware of the false choice.

‘We are all connected. Savor the Earth!’™


L. Hobart Stocking
Facebook: @SkyWaterEarthConnected
Twitter: @SkyWaterEarth