newspaper article

Here’s the text of an article I wrote for the local newspaper in response to an op-ed piece where a city leader vilified those of the opposing political party. To prevent polarization, among other things, we must pause when considering our responses to others.

Humans have a desire to fit complicated issues into simple narratives. We resist complexity and nuance, especially when it comes to the big issues in life, because considering alternative viewpoints or grey areas challenges the safety of worldviews and closely-held beliefs. Technology makes it easier than ever to surround ourselves with those who think like us and avoid those who don’t. The result has been extreme polarization. As author Tish Harrison Warren recently wrote, “The cultural pressure to sort ourselves into ideological pure and homogenous cliques is strong…and it’s eroding our ability as a society to seek common ground and friendship.”

Binary thinking, to which humans are prone, is the polarity encompassing a dimension of choice where there are two mutually exclusive options. This perspective forces us to categorize important topics—and ultimately ourselves—into one side while deeming the other “wrong.” Psychologists have found that when the brain processes in a dualistic way, it leads to quick, irrational decisions and behaviors. This is compounded when the issues at stake are foundational, like religion or politics. As we observe in today’s society, disagreement can quickly lead to contempt when we believe our side is the enlightened and moral one, making the other not only wrong, but evil. We tend to avoid interactions with those seemingly unlike us, out of fear, disdain, or self-protection.

I’ve observed how pervasive binary thinking is, especially around politics and race. We put people in boxes with labels and make assumptions based on categories alone. For instance, during the past year I’ve participated in a community group called Bridge the Divide, whose mission, among others, is to bring education, empathy, and peace to black-white tensions in America. Interestingly, both Republicans and Democrats who know of my involvement with the group assume I’m a Democrat. Because of how issues are typically viewed by party line, social justice concerns are reserved for “those liberals.”

I actually lean conservative and generally vote Republican, mostly because I prefer smaller government and lower taxes, among other concerns. Is being conservative and working towards racial reconciliation incompatible? Can I vote Republican and also acknowledge that even though slavery is in the past, systemic racism continues to plague institutions in ways we don’t always see? Can I both respect law enforcement and want fair policing for people of color? Only if binary thinking isn’t the framework, these aren’t mutually exclusive issues.

I’m as guilty of binary thinking as the next person, but I’m learning to value the positions that cause me to recoil at first blush—to understand that there may be more than one reasonable answer, and often dilemmas needn’t be resolved in favor of one alternative or the other. When we seek to find points of rationale in positions outside our traditional ways of thinking, and weaknesses or biases in our own, neurological development is promoted. When we embrace tension through exploration and differentiation, our brains learn to resolve binary dilemmas by finding a third mediating element.

Though I’ve mentioned racial justice and political affiliation, we can consider any of our hot button issues and ask ourselves the hard questions: are we dedicated to our traditions and ideologies more than we are to listening to, to learning from, and ultimately to loving others well? In Everybody Always, author Bob Goff observes, “Loving people means caring without an agenda.” So few of us can approach others without our personal agendas dictating our actions—why we cling to the safety of binary ways when considering our ethics and politics.

How do we begin to think outside boundaries and practice nuanced thinking for the sake of community and non-contemptuous relationships? A good start would be the next time you’re having a conversation with someone who holds an opposing viewpoint, make a conscious effort to keep their humanity in the forefront of your mind. Do conservatives need to boo Democrats bold enough to walk in local parades or vilify them in op-ed pieces? I have found my friends of the “opposing” party to be thoughtful and smart, with equally heartfelt concerns about the problems of our country. Neither people, nor most large issues, should be put in a category as right or wrong, there are too many complexities. 

We must not forget the ultimate goal. Is it to be right? Is it to be in power? Is it to keep things from changing? In his book Anatomy of the Soul, author Curt Thompson observes, “We have failed to see that this need to be right, to be rationally orderly and correct, subtly but effectively prevents us from the experience of being known, of loving and being loved, which is the highest call of humanity.” 

We can’t make progress regarding polarization until we think beyond the binary options—not just about a few things here and there—but about long held beliefs. Again the wisdom of Tish Harrison Warren, “When we embrace a [middle] approach to politics and ethics, we recognize that truth is preserved in extreme positions but reject the falsehoods that arise out of those extreme positions.” Let’s hold our views, not with indecision, but with humility.