We live in an either/or world, and it might just be the end of us. I really don’t see a way out.
Either you’re a Republican or Democrat. To be more specific, you either support Donald Trump or you hate America. Conversely, you either think Donald Trump is an idiot and a bully or you are a completely unenlightened redneck. This right-wing or leftist, progressive or conservative dichotomy isn’t new, but it is intensifying.
It is an either/or world, and it might just be the end of us. It’s the world we live in. In no other venue is this truer than in politics.
I went to high school with a member of the United States House of Representatives. Not too long ago, I wrote a column in my hometown newspaper about when he and I posed for a picture in our yearbook. We were both doing the YMCA at a barn dance or something. It was a goofy picture. He was a friend then. I haven’t talked to him in years, but if I saw him today, I’d still want to know how he was doing. Not how Washington was, but how he was.
He’s a real person, you know — with fears and insecurities and failures and beliefs.
You know what is also true? I don’t agree with everything he says. Or how he says it. I follow him on Twitter. Lately, he’s pounded out content that is really loaded politically. There is posturing and finger-pointing. You know the drill. You’ve seen it elsewhere. I’m not sure how much of it he believes and how much of it is just doing his part. But he’s a politician and he’s politicking. And I may not like it, but I understand it.
We live in a world where if you don’t like something, you’re not even supposed to make an effort to understand it. It’s part of the either/or playbook.
This playbook leads to the very problem facing all of us in various corners of our lives these days — because of disagreement, many people simply write others off. Take my old friend, for instance. (His name is Jason, by the way). When he unloads on Twitter, he stops being the guy that did the YMCA at a barn dance. He stops being the guy I laughed with in high school. He stops being a person, in a way, and simply becomes an object of scorn. But he’s not an object. He is a person.
But you see, it’s not natural for us to turn all our vitriol and anger on other people. That doesn’t feel right to us, deep down. So before people can be pitted against one another, we have to make them seem less like people. There’s a lot of that going around these days.
I may strongly disagree with my high school friend on a variety of issues. Indeed — I do! But we also could sit down right now, eat a cheeseburger together, and laugh. I really think we could.
It is increasingly popular to frame everything as either/or, us/them, for/against. I’m not saying we should not have convictions. I have them, and if we started outlining all of mine in this space you wouldn’t agree with all of them. But if we met I would hope we could still speak kindly to one another. I think we could be charitable.
I even hold to the thesis that we could be close friends.
And yet this isn’t so, not if you believe what the vast majority of our society seems to think. The either/or playbook is different. Pick a side. Defend it strongly. Gravitate only toward those who agree. Objectify, disparage, and de-value anyone who holds a different view.
I don’t think this is very wise. I don’t think it is right. I also don’t think it works.
You can’t keep score of who is “us” and who is “them.” The second you do, things break down. It’s not how it is supposed to be.
I had liberal teachers in high school and conservative ones. I had very conservative church leaders and pretty open-minded mentors in other spheres of life. I had Christians and non-Christians speaking into my life. What I grew up understanding, and if I didn’t get taught this on purpose it was a most fortunate accident, is that we were all “us.” There was no “them.”
I still don’t think there is a “them.”
I think including beats excluding any day.
I think both/and beats either/or any day.
I think most of the other labels we’ve concocted are inventions intended to pick communities apart. That goes for small towns, religious communities, countries — even all of humanity. That’s what I mean when I say we live in an either/or world, and that it might just be the end of us.
If we don’t start looking at each other as people again instead of objectifying one another to achieve our own preferred version of the future, I don’t think we’re going to like the version of the future we end up with.
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A version of this article first appeared in The Salem News Online.