"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Adaptability
July 22, 2020

Either/Or Thinking

Either/or thinking implies that for many problems, the solution is a choice between two alternatives. It’s popular at the moment. But this wasn’t always so.

It’s been a very long time since I graded academic assignments. It must be different now. I remember the piles of paper. Staples in every top left corner. Footnotes at the bottom of each page. A red pen in hand as I scanned the double-spaced text, looking for the strengths and weaknesses in each student’s ideas.

One sure way to lose marks back then was to display any sign of what we called either/or thinking.

Either/or thinking, or binary opposition, was considered to be a sign of weak research at best and deceptive argument-making at worst. Because most things in the world are not simply a choice between two, and only two, possibilities.

Pepsi or Coke feels like the classic example of this. Of course, there were always more flavours of cola on offer, if you were curious enough to look.

In philosophy this is called a false dilemma or false dichotomy. It’s also called binary thinking: presenting a choice between two ideas, A or B, when there’s another choice, C, and maybe D and E as well.

In order to arrive at either/or you must bring into play some logical sleight of hand. You leave out alternatives. You eliminate subtle differences. You reduce or hide complexity. And you present some reason why it need not all be included, usually by reference to an abstraction that is hard to refute, such as the alternatives being complicated or impractical.

In a similar way, either/or thinking can be used to avoid thinking deeply about complex problems. When there are only two choices, you can go with your gut instinct, picking the one that feels right to you. But as soon as other possibilities are considered, deeper thought is required.

Ultimately, either/or thinking lets you divide the world into simple categories. Like good or bad.

Or divide people.

The Alternative

The obvious alternative is to resist the temptation to present only two choices when there are more. Stop suggesting there are two sides, two ideas, two choices, or two competing ideologies when there are many.

The more radical alternative, especially in our moment in history, is to embrace the many.

Both/and thinking tries to do this. It’s a different approach to truth. Because the answers we need might not even exist yet. The seeds of the future could be contained within competing ideas.

The conversational reflex of both/and is to begin with a yes.

Yes, and…

To be inclusive, generative, open-ended, and hospitable in dialogue. Because if our truths are to reflect reality, then they must reflect something that is intricately complex and beautifully interconnected.

We Need Hope

Our world is troubled at the moment. There are signs of hope amidst the chaos. But it feels like we need to reset the way we talk to other. To change our preferences. To reconsider how our language shapes our ability to find sustainable solutions to the problems we share.

It’s time to drop the either/or and bring back the both/and.

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