Complexity is In. False Dichotomy is Out.

A couple months ago, I received feedback on an academic paper I had written from the professor who was the faculty evaluator for that assignment. To begin the feedback, she said “Michael, I really like what you’ve done with this paper and I think there’s some more work to be done.”

I suppose I could have made this post about receiving feedback; I was inspired otherwise, though, by the word choices my professor made.

I think many of us have been warned about how we used the word “but” to not come across to others like we’re just trying to sugarcoat something negative:

  1. “I like your hair, but…”
  2. “I agree with you, but just to play devil’s advocate…”
  3. “I’m all for protesting, but…”

It’s been said that you can effectively disregard anything that comes before the “but” in sentences like this. I don’t know if that’s true, but statements like those above come across a bit passive aggressive (see what I did there?)

You’ll notice, my professor did not use the word “but;” she used the word “and.”

I like your paper AND there’s more work to do. Providing feedback like this prevents the recipient from interpreting the statement as either all one way or all another way. It is possible for my writing to be good and also to need some improvement. This feedback eliminated the possibility of the recipient perceiving a false dichotomy.

While dichotomies do exist in nature and in social structures, false dichotomies are when two options are presented as being the only two options, when in reality, there are more than two options. I make the case that false dichotomies are created when, either intentionally of unintentionally, we fail to acknowledge the complexity of situations and/or people.

Consider that:

It is possible for someone to love America and also protest police brutality.

It is possible for someone to protest during the national anthem and also have a valid message to convey.

It is possible for someone to hold conservative values and also not be a Nazi.

It is possible for someone to hold liberal values and also not be a Communist.

It is possible to be an American and also be oppressed.

It is possible to disagree with someone and also to have a meaningful conversation with that person.

It is possible to disagree with someone and also love and respect that person.

These are just a few timely examples; of course, there are many more. We are complex people living in a complex time. Nobody has all the answers and our not knowing makes us uncomfortable and sometimes afraid. To avoid that feeling, sometimes we attempt to reduce the complexity and we oversimplify matters of great importance.

The path to reducing our dependence on false dichotomies as defense mechanisms includes being open-minded, actively seeking different perspectives, acknowledging our own biases, and gaining a real understanding of why the prospect of being wrong is so painful to us.

I hope there is food for thought for people from any walk of life in this post. There are many ways that I could conclude. Here’s where my heart is:

I’m thinking specifically of a White person who hears the plea of Black America in the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” and feels compelled to counter with “All Lives Matter,” my question is, why are you so willing to misrepresent this idea? This is not a Them vs. Us issue; it’s an American issue; it’s a human issue.

All lives should matter, but all lives don’t matter until Black Lives Matter.

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