The following essay is taken from Chapter 6 of After the Wrecking Ball: Ten Spiritually Oriented Principles for Finding Peace Amidst Conflict by Lynn Christine Fuentes.
If opposites were interconnected, then treating everything as either/or was to oversimplify, narrow and polarize so much that I would create distortions and unreal constructions. Deborah Tannen speaks of an “argument culture” which causes us to continually set up one side against another. In our defense of our “position,” we look for everything we can find to buttress our position, thus splitting apart even further. She says, “the argument culture ‘makes us distort facts’ … makes us waste valuable time … limits our thinking… encourages us to lie.” 6
Unfortunately, our entire culture is permeated with this way of seeing the world. It seems natural. We have two political parties. In court we have two “sides” to an argument. The media loves to present one view and then another that is opposite. But there is nothing sacred about this two-sidedness. Why not three sides or seven or a hundred? When we really look at a problem, we can see that there are so many possibilities that limiting them to only two obscures much of the truth of what is going on.
By dichotomizing, we create divisions where none exist, conflict where it does not need to be. For example, the issue of global warming is a very complex matter, comprised of issues of politics, of economics, of evolutionary change, of the weather, and so on. By trying to reduce analysis of the issue to an either/or (either cap and trade or not, either a rich country’s agenda or a poor country’s), we lose a sense of the whole of the problem and thus of solutions that go deeper and are more likely to lead to more sustainability.
Finding two sides can also mean trying to force a square peg into a round hole. “If you always assume there must be an “other side,” you may end up scouring the margins of science or the fringes of lunacy to find it.” 7 Says Tannen (The Argument Culture, 9). If one perspective has an 80% likelihood of containing significant truth and another only 20%, to set them up as equal alternatives makes a mockery of debate.
Drawing the line between good and bad is not as easy as it looks. Deciding what is on one side and what is on another depends on how we divide the initially unbroken whole of reality. Most of us would agree that there is a spectrum from evil to saintliness rather than two camps completely separated from each other. But where we draw the line between the least bad and the least good varies from person to person. Most of us would probably put an act of cruelty to a child on the evil side and kindness to a person dying in the gutter on the saintly side, but what about unwelcome honesty? Is it good or bad to tell people something negative about themselves?
Some of us would put most of life in the “good” camp and very little in the “bad.” Others would do the reverse. The level of optimism or pessimism we live with, the “shoulds” or the permissiveness we have been raised with, and the extent to which we want to separate ourselves from others or merge with them can cause us to draw the line in one place or another.
We can’t easily draw a line between good people and bad people either since most of us are a contradictory conglomeration of characteristics. And ideas, the things we argue about the most, are even more complex. How can we be sure we are considering every aspect of an idea when we argue that it is “good” or “bad”? How can we get enough information, how do we weigh incompatible aspects of a problem, how do we know what the consequences will be of applying our ideas?
Psychologist and humanist Abraham Maslow has said that healthy people transcend dichotomies and resolve oppositions. They are not entirely “this nor that,” and they realize the world isn’t either. “It is as if less developed people lived in an Aristotelian world in which classes and concepts have sharp boundaries and are mutually exclusive and incompatible, e.g., male-female, selfish-unselfish, adult-child, kind-cruel, good-bad. A is A and everything else is not-A in the Aristotelian logic, and never the twain shall meet. But seen by self-actualizing people is the fact that A and not-A interpenetrate and are one, that any person is simultaneously good and bad, male and [sic] female, adult and child. One cannot place a whole person on a continuum, only an abstracted aspect of a person.” 8
As we get toward the middle of the spectrum we can see how difficult line drawing can get. There is no exact place that we can slice off what is just from what is not, clump an educational program into all good or bad, pry apart a person’s happiness and sadness, or draw a line between the ocean and the sand. All Republicans are not religious fundamentalists who don’t care about poor people and all Democrats are not financially irresponsible bleeding hearts. Most people are pretty decent middle-of-the-roaders who are driven into one camp or another by people who want to win elections and don’t want to deal with the fuzzy issues. The lines are always fuzzy, moving, or jagged.
Because we don’t want to deal with all these complexities, we end up using examples at the extremes and polarizing ourselves around them. Ken Wilber suggests four windows through which we can look at any issue – the internal subjective (e.g. psychological, spiritual), the objective exterior (scientific, analytical), the inter-subjective (cultural, interpersonal), and the inter-objective (systemic, institutional). Most of us focus on only one of these “partial” perspectives.
For example, I may be interested in how my community treats senior citizens. I can look at the service systems (institutional window) in place and call our community response good. Someone else might conclude that the elderly are treated disrespectfully by other people (cultural window) and call our community insensitive. Said in another way, perhaps the system in place might be sound and proper but the people working the system might be not good at interpersonal relationships. Both can be right, but, more often than not, people holding these two perspectives will get in an argument without realizing they are talking about two different issues. Being aware that my perspective is only comprised of what I think is part of the problem can help me to widen my thinking and realize I might have more to learn from others.
Another example might be an office situation in which the boss is focused on the bottom line (objective exterior) and an employee is focused on whether or not the job has personal meaning to him (internal subjective perspective). Someone else might be concerned about how the office works as a team or how the group interacts with client organizations. Having discussions in which all parties can see the importance of all of these perspectives can help to resolve misunderstanding.
Fisher and Ury point out that “using ‘I agree, and. . . “ instead of “I agree, but …“ opens the doors to much more fruitful dialogue. This comment helped me to see that truth is more likely to come from addition instead of subtraction. Taking on more perspectives is more likely to yield a full picture of the situation. Limiting myself to two is more likely to limit my understanding.
There are areas of life where we are beginning to get away from this kind of limited seeing. In mediation, for example, disputes do not have to have a right/wrong outcome. Solutions other than the exchange of money, the usual outcome in a legal battle, are possible. Mediation is a process that invites the “whole story” into the discussion. Instead of asking who is right and who is wrong, the questions are more about what will work. In order to know what will work, one needs to inquire into things like the emotional state of the parties, the relationship the problem has to other people not present, the potential for future relationship between the parties, etc. The whole story might include a person’s medical condition, what his wife said to him that morning, what his intentions were. Seeing this larger story about what has happened leads to many more possibilities for healing the relationship between disputants.
If we welcome paradox and contradiction, we are taken to a place deeper than rationality where we have access to intuitive and inspirational thinking and knowing. Paradoxes often express truths that logical thinking miss. In the same way that a writer of a novel includes many characters and perspectives within his novel, so can we contain contradiction and paradox within ourselves. As Crum points out, “a willingness to accept another’s sense of the truth does not invalidate our own, no matter how contradictory it appears.” (105)
If we accept that all our truths are limited and partial, we can come to appreciate the value of others’ points of view. A story is told in which there were six blind men who came upon an elephant and began to argue about what it looked like. The one near the tail described it as a like a rope, the one near the leg thought it was like a tree, the one near the trunk thought it was a snake, and so on. The story has spread widely because it graphically illustrates a fundamental truth – we each only have a piece of the puzzle. When we put all of our ideas about reality together, we can build a better picture of the elephant.
The same is true of map-making. If we have access to the maps of ten explorers, we can combine them and get a better picture of the territory rather than relying on only one who may have made errors, seen only part of the terrain, or focused on a particular feature (rivers, mountains, etc.)
And what about seeing things in one perspective – or aperspectivally – instead of in two or more? We can choose to highlight our interconnections and shared needs. One of my favorite quotes is this one: “The truth lies not between but above the extremes,” from Andrew Bard Schmookler. This statement is really a kind of koan. Contemplating it leads us to a wider perspective in which we take in the whole of a line from one extreme to the other at once.
Integrating the whole – – many internal voices, the opposites, and ultimately the world outside of myself – was a many years work which is still in process. But despite having developed a more integrated body/mind, I still kept running up against the question of who I was in the world. And what it was that I should do? The next principle offered me a look at this issue.
6 Tannen, Deborah. “How to Turn Debate into Dialogue.” USA Weekend. Feb. 27-March 1, l998, pp.4-5.
8 Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc. l962. p. 37
From After the Wrecking Ball by Lynn Christine Fuentes. Reprinted by permission of author.