So often nowadays we are urged to subscribe to an either/or sort of philosophy: yes or no, black or white, straight or gay, on or off, left or right. If you’re not with us you’re against us; marry him or marry me; if we don’t bomb them we’re supporting them; love him or loathe him.
Those that vaccinate accuse those that don’t of not caring about their own children, and of endangering those of the immunising majority by reducing herd immunity. Those that don’t accuse those that do of blindly following the herd at the cost of their children’s health, and of contributing to everything from the rise in ASD to the propagation of auto-immune diseases and syndromes. Couples who elect not to have children are called selfish, because they choose only to take their own wishes into consideration, whilst those who do have children are called selfish because they propagate their own genes in spite of over-population and the need to conserve the earth’s resources. If you choose one of the caring professions, you’re a fool, because they tend to be poorly remunerated and under-appreciated; but if you set your sights on a career in a well-paid industry, you’re greedy, having sold out your principles for mere money. If you subscribe to any right-wing ideologies, you’re willing to promote your own well-being at the expense of empathy for those less fortunate, whilst any left-wing tendencies are seen as fostering shiftless relying on the state.
Seeing every issue as a dichotomy is part of a tribal mentality that is, I feel, outdated and dangerous. There is nothing wrong with a sense of belonging, with feeling at home in an area we know and love or with people with whom we have a shared history, but the divisive attitudes I have described above go far beyond this. Such either/or thinking is all about excluding the other, with shoring up our own self-worth by derogating those who do not “belong”. Validating our own beliefs or opinions by disrespecting the right of others to think differently is as best unkind, and may be downright offensive: if we believe that we should be heard and our views respected, but do not accord the same courtesy to everyone else, we are also hypocritical.
Besides, surely we should be viewing any difficult topic as at least a one-dimensional continuum, rather than as an on/off switch? Most issues are not as black and white as an either/or approach implies; there are gradations, a sliding scale between the two extremes. In fact, I believe this is the very least we should be considering: a reflective weighing up, an attempt at understanding what different positions on the scale look like, and an awareness that there are more than two ways of looking at an issue. Better yet is to approach problematic subjects as if they have two, three or even more dimensions. A political compass with two axes, representing an economic scale and a social scale, is more accurate and interesting that a single left-to-right scale, for example. And it is not inconsistent to believe that the principle of immunisation was an exciting medical breakthrough which has saved countless lives and much suffering over the years and continues to do so, and yet to have grave reservations about the political and financial motivations of many who are promoting it, and about the scale and timing of the immunisation schedule in many countries.
If we start to imagine tricky topics in this way, as a two- or three-dimensional graph where we can measure several relevant factors simultaneously, we start to see interesting possibilities, and areas of agreement between groups of people who at first glance have nothing in common.
But even more interesting is the search for a “third alternative”. This involves transcending the dichotomy that characterises so many human interactions by seeking a path that is not that of either of the conflicted parties, that focuses not on differences but on similarities. Rather than single out bottle-feeding versus breast-feeding as a defining characteristic that allows us to re-affirm our own choice by denigrating that of others, for example, this approach involves placing our attention on the commonalities of parenthood which, after all, are so much more than this difference.
Critics of this approach point to the trivial nature of such an example, and suggest that it cannot work when the characteristic that divides people is one that is part of their core sense of self. However, no human being can be defined by a single trait, even one as big as religion, nationality or whatever other passion guides a person’s course through life. It is thus possible to find a stance that focuses on common ground. For example, there are few issues that have been as intransigent as the antagonism in the middle east over the past sixty years, but Daniel Barenboim chose to focus not on all the religio-political issues that divide Israel and the Arab world, but on his own passion: music. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will never solve the problems facing the region, but hundreds of men and women over the years have made music and travelled the world together with their emphasis on what unites them rather than on what divides them. They have seen each other as human beings, and have been able to discuss their backgrounds, aspirations, families and countries while respecting those of their colleagues. What is more, hundreds of thousands have seen and heard their concerts and recordings, appreciating a harmony that is not only musical, and being inspired by the realisation that joint Arab-Israeli ventures are possible and productive.
Besides, turning our attention away from an uncompromising dichotomy and placing it instead on common characteristics, collective history, or shared passions, removes power from confrontation, and feeds instead a more flexible, benevolent outlook that recognises and celebrates our common humanity. This transforms not only our own experience of the issue, but also the work that we can do to heal it.