Either/or thinking permeates American life. As an unrecognized form of thinking, it distorts reality, presenting false choices that constrict moral complexity and narrow the range of practical options.
As an unrecognized form of thinking, it distorts reality, presenting false choices that constrict moral complexity and narrow the range of practical options.
A Newsweek article on the Arab world illustrates the either/or approach. Newsweek reported that when U.S. diplomats have pressed Arab heads of state for expanded human rights and more press freedoms, Arab leaders have reacted that they can either maintain existing governmental policy or face a fundamentalist takeover.
Fearing Islamic terrorism, U.S. diplomats are left supporting the brutal regimes whose policies breed seething discontent and violate America’s time-honored commitment to human rights.
The either/or paradigm clearly restricts the range of foreign policy options for constructive change.
Another example occurred when Attorney General John D. Ashcroft suggested in a congressional hearing that either Americans supported the Justice Department’s anti-terrorism tactics or they supported terrorists.
“To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve,” Ashcroft said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., replied, “This is not a question of whether you are for or against terrorists.”
“Everyone is against terrorists. This is about whether we are adequately protecting civil liberties,” Leahy said, according to the Washington Post.
When the Alabama Baptist Convention refused to support a resolution affirming the public display of the Ten Commandments, the resolution’s sponsor used the either/or framework. He implied that either you are for the public display of the Ten Commandments or you are soft on the Bible.
The either/or paradigm resides as a dominant form of moral reasoning in the religious community.
Many Christians believe the either/or approach is the biblical way. After all, Moses set before the people the simple choice—either life or death.
Similarly, Revelation 3:15-16 records, “I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Such texts call for clear choices. Sometimes life is that simple. Simple ethics, like simple pietism, is a virtuous way. But it is not the only, or necessarily the best, way.
Jesus faulted the either/or perspective of his disciples when they asked about a man blind from birth. They asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents.” Jesus answered “neither” and offered another way of thinking (John 9:1-5).
Like Jesus’ disciples, we, too, yearn for simplicity. We hunger for clarity.
Within the religious community some leaders readily recognize this craving and gladly meet it with false claims. They claim to speak truth without compromise. They pitch issues in either/or terms. One sides with either feminism or family; either the Bible or secularism; either pastoral authority or the priesthood of all believers.
Truly thoughtful Christians know that life is richer and more complicated than the simple either/or equation. Like Jesus, they are willing to consider other ways of thinking.
One constructive way forward is with a both/and paradigm. For example, discerning Christians favor both women’s rights (e.g. equal pay for equal work for women) and healthy families.
The both/and approach is too seldom practiced. It offers deeper insight into reality, acknowledging moral complexity and expanding the range of practical options.
A new era necessitates new ways—ways that hold ancient truths in a changing world.
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.