A quote often misattributed to Aristotle (long story) says, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

It seems to be a rare ability these days.

Especially in today's polarized political and social climate, many people would have us believe that there are only two positions someone could possibly have on any issue:

  • You support X (whatever that might be) wholeheartedly, loudly, and unapologetically.

  • You're against X and therefore part of the problem because you're bigoted, ignorant, cowardly, greedy, insensitive, or whatever.

I don't blame anyone for being angry about the awful events of the last week or so. What happened to George Floyd was wrong. My heart aches for his family and for all the people who've been traumatized by this event and its aftermath. I'm angry at those who've used all this as an excuse to loot, vandalize, threaten, and kill. I'm disheartened that after thousands of years of humans having different skin colors, some people still insist on using that as a reason to mistreat others. More and more, I realize that even though my parents taught me to treat everyone with respect and kindness, not all people grew up that way.

Amidst all the commotion, I've noticed a concerning trend on social media. Many people have been posting things that effectively convey this message: "My response to these events is the right one. Any other response is wrong, insufficient, or complicit." 

These people are displaying a logical fallacy called false dichotomy. In their minds, the only two options are (a) responding in their chosen way or (b) being part of the problem. 

But the older I get, the more I realize that there are almost never two and only two possible positions on an issue. Nuance is perhaps the one infinite resource on Earth. Especially when it comes to divisive topics, people have a range of views. For example, if you polled people about abortion, you could probably find at least one person with each of these opinions:

  • All women have the right to an abortion with no questions asked.

  • Abortion is wrong in all circumstances.

  • Abortion should be legal only when the mother's life or health is in danger.

  • Fathers deserve just as much say as mothers in a decision about abortion.

  • Etc.

In one of my favorite books, Crucial Conversations, the authors make several important points about situations in which people passionately disagree:

  1. Most people are decent, rational, and reasonable.

  2. We frequently think of our emotions as being caused by others' actions (e.g., "She made me mad"). What really happens is that we see others' actions, give ourselves an explanation about what's behind those actions, and then feel something as a result of that explanation. This happens so fast that we don't even realize we do it.

  3. The problem is that we can't read other people's minds, so the stories we tell ourselves are often inaccurate.

  4. Whether our stories are accurate or inaccurate, when we get hyped up on strong emotions, dialogue crumbles and we don't make any progress toward making things better.

Disagreeing is okay. In fact, it often leads us to look for common ground and discover the best solutions. The problem comes when people cling so tightly to their views that they refuse to even consider that any other approach might have some validity to it. 

For instance, many people have joined in protests over the last few weeks. Many others haven't. By the logic of some people on social media, all these nonparticipants are part of the problem of racism.

However, people can support the sentiments of a protest and choose not to participate. There are a variety of legitimate reasons for this choice. Some people have young children whom they can't bring along. Some people can't take time off of work. Some people believe that protests aren't an effective way to bring about change. Some people have significant ideological differences with a protest's organizers and thus don't feel right about participating. Some people have deep concerns about their own safety and/or mental health. And so on.

As writers, especially when we write nonfiction, we need to make sure we avoid falling into the false-dichotomy trap. It's easy to do, especially when we feel strongly about our topic. But using a false dichotomy undermines our arguments and credibility, and it can fan the flames of division. We don't have to acknowledge every possible viewpoint (that would be impossible), but we do need to treat even conflicting views respectfully in our work. Most people have reasons for thinking the way they do, and those reasons can give us new insights, suggest new and better approaches to the problem, or even lead us to change our own opinions.

Remember this:

Just because someone responds to a situation differently than you do, it doesn't mean they don't care. 

Be just, be kind, and write on,


(Thanks to Marl Clevenger for sharing their work on Unsplash.)