The Destructive Nature of the Either/Or False Narrative

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You’re either with us or you’re against us.

Is it really that simple?

If I’m being perfectly honest, the 2016 election was emotionally and sometimes spiritually draining. I could see something happening to people I loved, something I was helpless to stop. I did my duty and voted in the primary, I diligently researched and posted article after article, I made sure everything I wrote came from credible sources, and then I made my final plea. But that final plea didn’t matter. Too many people across the country, ignoring their high school civics education, decided that the fate of the country rested on whether one of two candidates won, and our country will never be the same.

In the October 4 episode of Pantsuit Politics, Beth Silvers commented that the vast majority of Americans have been sold the lie that we have a binary choice. In 2016 it was Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump. Until the impeachment inquiry started picking up steam, it appeared that in 2020 our country would be fighting over a choice between any Democrat and Donald Trump, completely ignoring the candidates – such as Independent Mark Charles and Republican primary challengers Bill Held, Joe Walsh, and Mark Sanford – that are still building campaign runs on the wings. During the course of my 40 years of life, I have seen an increasing fear of the “other” in American politics. Instead of holistically looking at each candidate for each local, state, and national political office, we are choosing to enter our comfortable social media echo chambers and vote straight ticket, regardless of the potential effect that particular choice may have on our fellow citizens.

The either/or fallacy is one of the most basic and easily understood fallacies. Because we’re social creatures who long for belonging and acceptance, it is incredibly persuasive. Why? Because the either/or approach appeals to our sense of decency. It appeals to our values and moral center and is often most effectively used by those with whom we typically agree. They convince us that since we are normally “with” them on a given issue then we should be “with” them on their current issue of choice because if we’re not “with” them we’re somehow “against” them.

This adolescent view of global (not religious) morality, the black and white with no room for gray, turns the most complicated debates that face our country today into a constant binary fight for our nation’s soul. It doesn’t leave room for a person to learn from another’s experience or to admit when they may been wrong because they are expected to pick a side from the very beginning. And when we seek collaboration and moderation in the discussion, we are accused of not understanding the gravity of the situation.

I’m not saying that all sides on every issue are equal. But when it’s us vs. them, the “losers” turn around and start looking for ways to escalate the issue until they get a chance to beat the “winners” at their own game. This escalation and retaliatory “over-correction” has lead to political stalemates surrounding health care, abortion, welfare, gun control, and many more issues that are having a very real impact on millions of Americans.

This binary view of our fellow citizens is helping to only widen the gulf between us and our family members and neighbors.

You either love America or you hate it.

You’re either a capitalist or a socialist.

You’re either for abortion-on-demand or against all abortion for any reason.

You either support the police or you believe in a lawless society.

You either support the troops or you believe they are just a bunch of lawless killers.

You’re either for the environment or you want to destroy it.

You either love all animals and don’t want to see them harmed in any way or you don’t care what happens to animals as long as you still get to eat meat.

You’re either for building a wall or open borders.

You’re either for legalizing all drug use or you believe all drug users should be in prison.

You’re either for religion or believe that anyone who believes a religion is mentally disturbed.

You’re either for science or suspicious of it.

You’re either for social justice or you don’t believe it’s necessary.

And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.

And while those binaries may seem ridiculous when we read through them all written out in front of us, the reality for many is that those are the moral and ethical choices they are handed by their family and peers all the time. There is no room for discussion. There is no room for nuance.

There is no room for us to be human.

In A Faith of Our Own, Jonathan Merritt writes, “Ousting is a typical culture-war tactic. We take someone who has different thoughts or convictions and declare them anathema. We cut them off. Then we chop off anyone who likes that person. Then anyone who likes the person who likes that person also has to be cleaved. The result is an insulated group in an isolated echo chamber where conservatives become more conservative and liberals become more liberal. No one has permission to think for themselves.” This is particularly a problem for Christians who are charged with ministering to all people. In American culture, Christians have become known for what we fight against as opposed to what we are fighting for, which is not the message that we want to be sending to those with whom we disagree.

In church recently our pastor discussed the history of the symbol “&”. The ampersand is “a ligature of the letters E and T (et being the latin word for and).” In fact, it used to be the 27th letter of the English alphabet, coming right between Y and Z. Now it is a symbol that is not only used to add clarity to a sentence, but it makes two things co-equal, such as two writers who have worked collaboratively on a single work.

Perhaps, instead of continuing to adopt a practice of either/or, we should be embracing the power of &.

I am a mother & a teacher.

I am a Christian & I believe in treating those who do not believe as I do with respect.

I believe in personal responsibility & I believe there are those who, by nature of their birth or life circumstances, need assistance to succeed in our country.

I believe that competition and innovation are the best parts of capitalism & I believe that we need regulations to keep human beings honest about how they treat their employees and consumers.

I admire anyone who is willing to put their life on the line to protect my family & I want to see a recognition of and correction for bias in the criminal justice system.

I am pro-life & I will vote for a pro-choice politician if they plan to implement policies that will lower the number of abortions and improve the lives of those who make the difficult choice to have their babies despite the challenges ahead of them.

I believe that we can take much better care of our planet & we can continue to responsibly pursue human progress across the globe.

I believe that as a country we can help our homeless population and veterans & we can welcome and effectively resettle refugees and asylum seekers looking for a fresh start.

My “&s” are never-ending.

It doesn’t make me a victim of some twisted Orwellian double-think; it means that I understand that the world is sinful and complex and that it takes multiple viewpoints working together to find solutions to the problems that plague us.

Perhaps if we refuse to accept the idea that people and issues are more complicated than “either/or,” we will be willing to challenge our friends, family, neighbors, and politicians to stop making it about us vs. them and just make it about all of us.

It is the kind of mindset that just might help us to heal generational wounds and thrive as a nation.

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