In early November, I took a day trip to New York City with some of my closest friends. We saw things you’d expect the typical New York City tourist to see: Times Square, Central Park, and so on.
What we didn’t expect to see, though, was a massive Free Palestine protest on 42nd Street. Thousands took to the street, peacefully chanting, “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!”
Not all participants offered their support for Palestinian independence. Running alongside the main protest block, a group of college-aged men live-streamed the event while carrying an Israeli flag. As they ran past me, they said several things to their camera, but one phrase stuck with me in the days after the protest.
“You can’t be pro-Palestine without being anti-Israel. If you’re pro-Palestine, you’re pro-Hamas. All of these people behind us support terrorists.”
Since hearing those words, I haven’t been able to shake the “ultimatum mindset” that those men and so many folks on my timeline have. The blatant commitment to ignore people who are suffering weighs on me.
When my heart is heavy, I sometimes cope by letting my brain take over. In this case, my brain has settled into the comforting blanket of queer theology. Queer scholarship consistently pushes us beyond binary thinking.
Binary thinking is the false perception that everything can be boiled down to “either/or:” hot or cold, young or old, and so on. This creates a false ultimatum– if something is not A, it must be B.
Take temperature, for example. Binary thinking would claim that if something is not cold, then it must be hot. But our lived experience reveals alternatives to both hot and cold: lukewarm, tepid, warm, cool, room temperature, molten, sub-zero. By looking at temperature holistically, we see that the binary of hot/cold provides a limited and inaccurate description of the reality of temperature.
Temperature is one of many trivial examples we can use to understand the pitfalls of binary thinking.
But the danger of binary thinking is most evident in conflicts like the war in Gaza. It clouds our judgment and makes us believe if someone supports Palestinian independence, then they must be anti-Semitic.
We can see when binary thinking is clouding our judgment by evaluating the language of the media we consume about war.
In 1991, American linguist George Lakoff published a powerful essay on the metaphors of war President Bush used to justify the Gulf War to American civilians. We’ve seen many of these repeated in the decades since, including in coverage of the war in Gaza.
While various leaders and media outlets have collectively used all the metaphors Lakoff describes, one stands out most prominently: the fairy tale of the just war.
According to Lakoff, the fairy tale of the just war waters down conflict to three components: a hero, a villain, and a victim.
Depending on the circumstance, the hero and the victim can be the same person, like America during the Revolution. For this metaphor to work, the hero is painted as inherently moral and the villain as inherently evil.
The villain in this framework can’t be reasoned with, as they have no capacity for good. So the only way to defeat the villain is to annihilate them. There is no room for the hero to have faults or the villain to have redeemable qualities in this “Disneyfied” version of the story.
I call it “Disneyfied” because Disney has watered down stories to make them less complex and gruesome so there is a clear hero, villain, and victim: Cinderella, Pocahontas, etc.
When our leaders use the fairy tale of Just War to justify their actions, they do the same thing. They strategically leave out or water down details to craft a story with a clear plot that motivates the viewer to support the “right” character.
Even though there are three characters at play, it still becomes a binary of “good” versus “evil,” and we are expected to pick the “right” side. We root for the “hero” because we are conditioned to want them to win.
All nuance is removed from the narrative.
Complexity can feel overwhelming, which is why we are attracted to “Disneyfied” narratives. We can wrap our minds around stories with a clear villain and hero.
The simplicity of a “Disneyfied” fairy tale also requires significantly less emotional bandwidth, especially when our empathy is running on fumes. But just because something is simple doesn’t make it true.
Right now, we are being peddled a fairy tale narrative to support the U.S. funding Israel’s violence along the Gaza Strip. In this fairy tale, the victim is Israel. The villain is Hamas, who, in this fairy tale, speaks for all of Palestine. And the hero is the U.S. helping their buddy Israel (who also plays the hero every now and then, depending on which media outlet you watch).
In this fairy tale, there is no room for the Palestinian Jew living along the Gaza Strip or the Israeli Muslim praying for the violence to cease. Everyone gets shoved into an ill-fitting box or erased to maintain a simple plotline.
A “Disneyfied” rendition of the conflict may be easier to understand, but it is merely a facade. A hard truth makes it no less true, and this war is filled with many hard truths.
One hard truth is that Hamas and the crimes they committed that sparked this powderkeg in early October are absolutely, unequivocally evil. But also, Hamas does not represent all of Palestine.
To say that the Palestinian people deserve to be free is not a statement in support of Hamas or their actions.
To conflate support for Palestinian independence with supporting Hamas reveals the binary through which some view the conflict. It presumes the only choices are to be pro-Hamas or pro-Israel.
The loss of life beyond the binary is too painful, so they use the binary to bypass that pain. Instead of holding that grief, they look for a reason for all Palestinians to be responsible for the bombardment they are under. The easiest way to do that is to believe that the actions of a terrorist group represent the actions of an entire people group.
This “Disneyfication” makes all Palestinians the villain, and as Lakoff’s metaphor indicates, you can’t rationalize with a villain. You can only win through annihilation.
Another hard truth is that the Israeli government has a right to protect its people from terrorist attacks. And, at the same time, it has a duty to refrain from bombing civilian areas in retaliation, especially civilian areas where the population is more than 50% children.
Holding Israel accountable to the standards of “just war” (if war is ever just) is not a statement of slander against Judaism, especially considering the number of Palestinian Jews who call the West Bank home.
To conflate holding the Israeli government accountable with anti-Semitism is to also force the conflict into the binary of pro-Hamas or pro-Israel.
Some can’t fathom a “righteous” world power slaughtering thousands of children, so they look for justification. They “Disneyfy” the situation by making Israel the hero incapable of doing wrong because, as Lakoff’s metaphor explains, the hero is inherently moral.
In this line of thinking, anything the hero does to annihilate the villain should be supported.
A third hard truth is that by sending financial aid to the Israeli government, the U.S. is funding the carpet bombing of the Gaza Strip. They are using our tax dollars to build, transport and drop the bombs that have taken and will continue to take innumerable innocent lives.
Not exactly the behavior of a hero, is it?
A final truth is that if we cannot make room in our spirits to hold the complexity of this situation, we will allow the relative comfort of the binary to paralyze us into inaction. Thousands more innocent people will die as a result of our collective disengagement.
So what can we do?
Faith leaders across the world are calling for a permanent ceasefire to save as many innocent lives as possible. We can join them in that call. We can write our representatives. We can educate ourselves on the history of the Gaza Strip.
We can also call out our local and national media outlets when they use the fairy tale of the just war and the other metaphors Lakoff describes to manipulate us. We can report misleading posts on social media, clogging the flow of misinformation.
And, perhaps counter-intuitively, we can hold our leaders accountable to the binaries that are always true.
When it comes to war, there is one binary that isn’t a logical fallacy: when to take innocent life or when to preserve it. Taking innocent life is always wrong– always.
It was wrong when Hamas did it in early October, it was wrong when the Israeli government bombed innocent civilians, and it will be wrong no matter which character does it next.
There are no shades of gray when it comes to killing innocent people.
This conflict isn’t going away anytime soon, even if more temporary ceasefires are granted. We must remain vigilant if we are to be the peacemakers Christ calls us to be.
A bivocational pastor, writer and spiritual director based in Atlanta, Georgia, she currently works as a Spiritual Director at Reclamation Theology. Cawthon-Freels is the author of Reclamation: A Queer Pastor’s Guide to Finding Spiritual Growth in the Passages Used to Harm Us (Nurturing Faith Books), and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.