Distrust Binary Thinking

One of Phillips’ alums who follows my work posted a response to one of my musings, to the effect: “Be careful about creating an either-or, two-option scenario when there are more possibilities. There is no need to divide into two every time, as if “two” is the maximum number of options.”

Caution appreciated and accepted.

How many times are we presented with a binary choice?

  • Are you Red or Blue?
  • Is religion the source of most violence? Yes or no?
  • Are you pro-life or pro-choice?
  • Are you a racist?
  • Do you support or oppose the death penalty?
  • Do you support the Second Amendment or not?
  • Are you a patriot or do you hate America?
  • Do you believe the Bible or do you reject it?
  • Are you male or female?
  • Do you favor government regulation or free enterprise?
  • Do you support or do you want to de-fund the police?

In reality, many of us are sick of being cast into national binary narratives. Some years back, a reporter called me about the person just appointed bishop in my United Methodist Conference. For all my effort to bend the story toward the important, everyday stuff of a bishop’s life—clergy deployment, conflict, board meetings, public presence, and clergy-acting-badly—the reporter wanted to know only one thing: will the bishop abide by or work to change the rules regarding sexual identity and the clergy.

I know, and in a few ways I am among, Purple people.

  • Religion is the source both of violence and hate, love and compassion.
  • The majority of Americans support a woman’s right to choose, up to a certain point in time.
  • Since we live in a structurally racist society, the right question might be: “What kind of a racist am I/are you?”
  • One can oppose the death penalty in nearly all cases but still support it for “abominable crimes,” such as murdering school children and their teachers.
  • Owning a rifle to shoot a rattler or a feral hog represents a very different rationality than the urban dweller who stockpiles semi-automatic weapons either to inflict a reign of terror or allegedly to defend against such.
  • Critique is a valid form of patriotism.
  • The Bible is a book of books, with several kinds of literature, that requires interpretation; one does not simply accept or reject.
  • There are more choices than male or female.
  • A positive business atmosphere should not mean no one is watching the impact of business on the environment or the honesty of that business with consumers.
  • One can support police to serve and protect, to come home alive and well, and also believe it is way past time to develop and implement practices to distinguish the criminal from the mentally-ill and treat each fittingly.

I am hopeful the Hispanic/Latino/Latinx demographic may be a force to break up the false binary of Red-Blue. Survey research indicates persons from Spanish-speaking countries, or whose ancestors came from such nations, living in the U.S. do not widely use the term “Latinx.” Some three-fourths do not accept the term “people of color” as applied to them. While there is not a stampede away from the Democratic Party, there is a channel to the Republican Party. Persons from Spanish-speaking cultures who are Protestant tend to be evangelical and Republican. Those who left Catholicism and dwell among the “nones” tend to be Democratic.

The old narrative of “If you are XXXXX, that means you must be XXXX” is, thank God, cracking. Evangelicals working for systemic racial justice and climate change, liberals working as victim advocates, religious professionals who still gather around interfaith tables, and past partisans who venture into No One’s Land between warring factions in order to do the work of governing also contribute. Three cheers for all of them.

Do you want to contribute to de-polarizing families, congregations, and civic spaces?

“Seek simplicity and distrust it,” cautioned philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Some matters are simple. Some are not. How do we distinguish? Not by imposing binary constructions.

The truth is often more nuanced, complex, and messy than the media and our brains allow—until we make the effort to investigate the binary, see the humanity of The Other, and resist simple categorization. Getting closer to the complex, messy truth often means moving from a comfortable mental construction to a less comfortable one.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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