I don't know if the tendency to think in all-or-nothing, black-or-white terms is peculiar to American culture (since I'm not a member of any other national culture, I'm not qualified to speak to anything else). It does seem, however, that in America we do an excellent job of perpetuating the belief that there are always only two choices. We also do an excellent job of careening from one extreme view to the next, without ever stopping at a midway point.
Take sex, for instance. I still remember viewing the puritanical outrage over Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction" (an old story, I know), then scrolling through my TV feed, with seven or eight stations devoted to crudely titled infomercials for sex toys and no way at all to hide those from my children because parental controls don't work for infomercials. Really? Are there no options between "show it all" and "freak out completely at the slightest sighting of a private part"?
Or take alcohol. Too often we discuss drinking as though there are only two options: out-of-control consumption that leads to tragedy, or introducing yourself by first name only every Thursday night in a church basement.
Or so many other things. As if we have to choose between accepting the unjust and horrific police shooting of a black man with a busted taillight, or accepting the unjust and horrific shooting of police officers. As if we have to choose between eating healthy food 100% of the time, or eating all our meals at a fast food joint and supersizing every single one. As if we have to choose between going $200K into debt for an Ivy League college education, or fifty years as a minimum-wage slave. As if we have to choose between approving of every declaration of war our leaders make, or supporting the troops who must fight them. As if we have to choose between treating women as fully competent and worthy beings, or despising men. As if we can't distinguish between those who follow a particular religion, and those who subscribe to an extremist and violent world view that they have attempted to justify through a twisted interpretation of a particular religion. I could go on and on with examples.
So often, our public conversations are framed this way. So often, we find ourselves internalizing these false dichotomies, too. Perhaps in the case of America, this tendency is rooted in our Puritan heritage, a theology in which there are only two choices--heaven (our way) or hell (everyone else's way).
I was raised in such a world, so I know from experience that that kind of mindset has its temptations. If we buy into it, it certainly makes life feel a whole lot simpler and making decisions seem a whole lot easier. Given how ridiculously complex our world seems to be growing, the prospect of simplicity is tempting. And given our society's obsession with endless choices, it's perhaps not surprising that many of us experience what psychologist Barry Schwartz called "the paradox of choice." Having too many options can feel paralyzing. Let's simplify things. This, or that? Right, or wrong? With me, or against me? Deciding quickly can feel like a relief.
Furthermore, developmental psychologists also tell us that black-or-white is the way younger children see the world, and we all know that during times of stress, we tend to regress. Each of us still harbors an inner two-year-old, capable of being unleashed under the right circumstances. (For some people, unfortunately, those "right circumstances" seem to be all of the time.) During tough times, it's tempting for all of us to revert to the black-or-white, this-or-that way of thinking.
Most of the time, let's face it: black-and-white choices are wildly limiting. And I'm not going to jump into the cliche of saying "truth lies in the gray area." It isn't gray you find in between black and white (gray is just a paler shade of black). What you find in between extremes is the entire spectrum of color. That's where the richness lies. That's where the beauty is to be found.
And yet ... despite the fact that I can deliver a pretty solid lesson plan on false dichotomies and how to avoid them in one's writing, for the past few weeks I've been contemplating the fact that there may be times when there really are only two choices. Alcohol is one example: moderate and responsible alcohol consumption is certainly possible for many, perhaps even most of us. But for those whose bodies or psyches simply can't tolerate alcohol usage, they must avoid it altogether if they are to stay healthy and avert tragic consequences. Similarly with food choices: while middle ground might be possible for a lot of us, if you've got a food allergy or a religious commitment, there's no in between.
Much of the time the question of when to adopt an all-or-nothing stance is highly individualized. It's vital that each of us know ourselves well enough--physically, emotionally, morally, socially, spiritually--to realize where the hard lines need to be drawn, and where flexibility might be in order.
It's also vital to know the difference between the dichotomous choices we must make for ourselves, and the necessity to attempt to impose those choices on someone else. Much political misstep, I believe, happens because some people who made their own choices--with every right to do so--then made the mistake of believing what's right for them should be imposed onto everybody.
Yet for all that, I've become vitally aware over the past few weeks that even in the broader public arena, circumstances sometimes arise when there truly are only two choices, perhaps neither one of them ideal (depending on one's viewpoint). And it dawns on me that if we make a categorical statement like "Binary thinking is always a bad thing," we've just posed another binary. If we say "dichotomies are always false," we've uttered a false dichotomy.
Sometimes we are forced to choose. Sometimes there are only two choices.