I’ve begun to notice more and more a disturbing pattern in which ideas that don’t coincide are automatically assumed to be in direct opposition to each other. This leads to either/or thinking, often on topics that are far more complex and cannot be generalized into just two opposing camps. This is not new, but it’s only over the last few years that I’ve started to notice this pattern more and see the dangers of this type of thinking and talking.
I recently heard someone ask a group of students a series of questions—it was a harmless introductory activity and meant to get students engaged in what was happening and get their blood moving. This person asked students to stand up if they thought cats made better pets than dogs. And then, the reverse question about whether dogs made better pets than cats. This was followed by 30 seconds of hullaballoo with students vigorously arguing their preferences. Taken in isolation, this wouldn’t be problematic, but all too frequently there is an assumption that one must be either a cat person or a dog person. Since I have 2 cats, I must not like dogs. And those that dislike cats find it acceptable to be very vocal about that dislike. Rarely, if ever, do I hear anyone step into these conversations and say that perhaps one can like both cats and dogs. While I have cats now, I would love to have a dog or two in the future and honestly can’t say I prefer one over the other—yet this seems to baffle some people.
A number of years ago, there was a heated discussion on the writing forum I frequent. Somehow, the line from Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was brought up and debated: “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” It was an excellent discussion with some agreeing that in the end, actions are more important than intentions. Others, felt that inner character was more important; that had to come first and then actions could flow from that. That particular question has led to a lot of debate over the centuries by theologians, ethicists, and philosophers. Do we act out of who we are or is our being defined by our actions? Now, that discussion didn’t devolve into an either/or and so the complexity of the issue was maintained because almost everyone in the conversation recognized that there was a little of both at stake in this question: yes, our actions define our character while our characters should lead to actions.
One that I see creeping up frequently—not in open conversation but in underlying beliefs and worldview—has to do with the individual and community. This one varies quite a bit by culture as well. Are we an individual first that participates in communities? Or do our communities, our society, take precedence and then we are individuals within them? Entire political and economic theories are founded depending on where one stands. And yet, it’s a spectrum not an either/or. A good example of this is a sports team. Is Bayern Munich a team made up of individual football players, or are there players, coaches, and others that come together to make up the team? Again, I believe that this is a both-and scenario. Each player can only really be responsible for their own actions and words, yet it is as an entity that they come together to be successful in winning the Champions League.
This is not to say that there are not some arenas that really do fall into either/or. Is the world a flat disc or a sphere? Can’t be both and we’ve got enough scientific evidence that tells us it’s not really a discworld on the backs of four elephants that are in turn standing on a giant turtle. And even when it comes to things without sufficient empirical proof, there are times we must either believe something to be true or not.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned for his beliefs and actions in Nazi Germany and eventually executed, dealt with such complexities in his theological writings. What comes first: obedience to God’s call and thus believing, or believing in God which leads to obedience? Crucially, he lands on: “Only the obedient believe; only the believer obeys.” His other writings also dealt with the question of character and actions, specifically in his book Act and Being.
It’s dangerous when we automatically assume that there are only two positions on something and that they are mutually exclusive. That’s a way of simplifying and generalizing that rarely accurately describes an issue. This is why I stopped having debates in my classroom. Aside from the fact that many students had a hard time sticking to the debate frameworks, it became so much about being right, defending one side, and attacking the other, that all subtlety of the conversation around a complex topic was lost. In every instance, the nuanced, middle position was yielded to loud, blustery extremes.
Perhaps that’s why I find the study of literature so valuable. There is rarely a cut-and-dried answer. Interpretations of a single novel, poem, or short story can be as varied as the people that read them. It takes many students a while to realize that there isn’t necessarily a ‘right’ interpretation. There are ways of reading a poem that are wrong, some that are more wrong, and otherwise we are left with equally plausible interpretations and all we can do is discuss which is best supported by the text. I tell them that it is not their job to write an essay in which they tell us what the poem means; no, they must write about the poem in such a way as to best convince their readers, with specific reference back to the poem, why their way of interpreting that particular text is the most compelling one.
Maybe there’s a fear that everything will lose meaning. If it’s not one or the other, if there’s not always a right and a wrong, does that mean everything is always subjective? But as with the poem interpretation, while there are more options than right or wrong, that doesn’t determine it’s all just up to the reader. Meaning is still there; it just might be a lot less simple and ‘right’ than we might like. I think it’s this fear of being wrong, and the false certainty that comes with holding a simplistic either/or position that keeps many from digging deeper into an issue. It’s easier to set up a shield and deflect anything that doesn’t fit into the other camp.
We can have our cake and eat it too. On a literal level, a cake is simple enough that we can either have it or eat it. But once we get beyond the level of cake, perhaps that adage isn’t sufficient anymore.