I see it all the time. Modern western society must push back Islam. Islam must push back modern liberalism. Feminism is antithetical to men. Men’s rights are antithetical to feminism. And so on. In a lot of modern movements and streams of thought today, tendencies run high to think exclusively – when so often they don’t have to. Purely oppositional thinking wrecks progress – and anybody who has taken a good look at such issues knows that it isn’t so simple as either-or.
But it’s not just in religion and politics that we fall into the trap of either-or thinking. We also tend to do it under very personal and intimate circumstances.
The whole concept of jealousy, for example, is built on this notion – that what person A enjoys while person B is not present somehow means that person B is entitled to get angry that person A is enjoying themself, given that person B is not experiencing the same enjoyment. Jealousy as a momentary feeling is quite understandably human; once accepted as a legitimate long-term state of mind, it is a destructive cancer.
The “either-or” mode of thinking is very good at turning people away from positive, open-minded thinking into negative dogma. If you truly accept that there is no room for both you and those unlike you to benefit at the same time, then negative attitudes are suddenly justified.
When you’re angry, it’s very easy to throw blame around. It’s often a lot harder to propose a constructive alternative. But such constructive thought – collaborative, forward thinking – is what is key to getting unstuck and moving on to the next level. Much of the time, we go looking for something or someone to blame, when the truth is that there are a multitude of people and factors that have caused a problem – and there are also a multitude of possible alternatives.
Yes – there are times when something needs to be opposed. We can all think of examples. But the vast majority of the time, the real effort needs to be centered around what alternatives should be considered. Often, unity in opposition to something falls apart when it comes time to talk about what comes next. Many problems that should have been solved a long time ago stick around, because when somebody is told not to do something, it’s not as motivating as if you tell them what to do instead. It may feel easier to deploy one’s energy in the context of restrictions rather than in the context of forward action – but once you are looking forward, the reverse is true; it becomes much harder to restrict doing something without providing some kind of alternative course of action.
I try to live by the thinking that, if I am going to criticize something, I should at the very least reflect beforehand on what alternative I wish to propose. And when other people come at me with vicious criticisms or putdowns, I make a habit of turning things around on them and giving them the responsibility to provide a constructive alternative. Too often, we let people throw mudballs without making them take responsibility for the negativity they cause. And just so we’re clear, this does not at all mean putting the mudball-thrower down or anything like that; the whole point is to escape the cycle of negativity. What I’m talking about here is simply continuing to pose the question: “what alternative do you have in mind?”
If you are somebody that is used to operating out of fear, unfortunately it becomes very easy to see things in black and white, either-or, one or the other. It can be hard to avoid this mode of thinking, if this is what you know. That’s ok. We’re human beings, and we are allowed to have feelings. The point is to be able to be conscious about those feelings, as well as our ability – our right – to choose the course of action that comes afterward.
Don’t fall for the trap of trying to answer somebody’s desires that you join them in naysayer-land. By raising the level of debate and discussion to a point at which people are made more aware of their responsibility to contribute if they are going to criticize, people with purely negative agendas can be marginalized – and this applies just as much to the Internet as it does to real life discussions and intimate relationships. The more you and I, and the people around us, encourage better, more constructive habits in discussion, the more time we can spend on real issues and problem solving, as opposed to perpetual debunking and devaluing.