It’s Called “Grey,” People!

We are a nation, maybe even a world, of “either-or:”
Coke or Pepsi?
Chocolate or Vanilla?
Import or Domestic?
Yankees or Red Sox?
PC or Mac?
Winner or Loser?
Friend or Foe?
Us or Them?
Liberal or Conservative?Support the Troops or Hate America?
Labor or Management?
Reformer or Defender of the Status Quo?
Charter Schools or Traditional Public Schools?
Standardized TestinOverload or No Accountability?
Black or White?
With Me or Against Me?

My Way, or the Highway!

This polarization has become so pervasive in our society that we don’t even debate issues anymore: we just stand up and shout our side’s talking points, as if they automatically counter the other side’s, and refuse to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, there’s a middle ground. One need only read the comments section of an article on a news site or watch one of the Sunday morning talking head programs to see this in effect. Why is this?

My theory is that people are either too lazy to perform the critical thinking necessary to synthesize their point of view with an opposing one, or that we have become so territorial and competitive that the recognition of validity of an opposing viewpoint is seen as weakness.

But the reality is that many of these are false dichotomies: it is possible for unionized schools, with tenured teachers, to be fantastic schools; Charters offer programs and choices for parents and students that traditional public schools don’t, but aren’t automatically better than traditional public schools; It’s possible to offer both a rigorous STEM curriculum and physical education, art, and music.

Until the folks on both sides of these issues are willing to stop shouting and start listening, though, no lasting change is going to happen. While one side may have temporary control, as soon as the winds shift and the other side gains the advantage, everything will be undone, whether or not it was working, because it will be the promise of undoing that will sweep the other side into power.

I don’t mean that people should abandon their principles or that we shouldn’t believe passionately in anyt

hing, nor do I mean to imply that there is never a time when compromise is wrong. There are times when one side of an issue/conflict is clearly without merit; why anyone would be a Yankees fan is completely beyond my understanding, for example. But the world around us is not like the world Jonas inhabits in The Giver but instead is a world filled with a rich diversity, and clinging blindly to our own point of view is to ignore that richness.

4 comments so far

  1. Roderick Vesper on

    Is it possible that the reason we see this so pervasively is because we are being brought up in an educational system that focuses on giving students the right answer?

    • middleschoolap on

      Certainly, there are some curricular areas where there is just a single answer to a question (math and spelling are those that come to mind, although you will find exceptions in both), but by and large the teachers with whom I’ve worked have tried very hard to get students to go beyond the simple, “What’s the answer?” mentality and find deeper meaning, alternative approaches to problem solving. Having spent my career with middle schoolers, I’ve found that they’re often not ready, developmentally-speaking, to do much of that, but we try.

      I think it’s more likely that our schools “focus on giving students the right answer” (and I’m not convinced that they do) because schools reflect the society they serve, one that demands one “just give me the bottom line” solution. We tend to be a people that aren’t satisfied unless we have a concrete resolution to our questions. (Maybe that’s why soccer is less popular in the US than in other parts of the world- too easy to end in a tie.)

  2. Roderick Vesper on

    I hit “Post” to quickly on that last one. Also, have you read any Jaques Derrida and his deconstruction of language and it’s basis on binary oppositions? I think that he would argue that this is a predominately Western condition.

    • middleschoolap on

      I’ve not read Derrida, but from what you describe it seems plausible. Maybe it’s a biological tendency to lean towards a binary system: we have 2 arms, hands, legs, ears, eyes, etc.; we come in 2 genders (primarily) and form couples, and so on.
      However, I’m no linguist or anthropologist, so there’s a distinct possibility that I’m way off here.

      Thanks for the comments!

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