Not Either/Or, But Both

If you spend any time reading about current affairs, whether you read newspapers, magazines or blogs, you tend to see that issues are discussed in dualistic terms. Most authors say the matter at hand is the result of either X or Y: two oppositional explanations.

For example, in this Atlantic article about obesity in America, the discussion tends to fall in one of two camps: either X) the obese are weak-willed, or Y) the obese are victims of the US system of cheap corn subsidies and for-profit food companies with their manipulative marketing and clever chemists.

Or in this NY Times article about why the military is awarding fewer Medals of Honor, the reasons given are: either X) the nature of current war doesn’t create as much of the close-in combat that tends to lead to Medals of Honor, or Y) the military system that awards medals has become so risk averse and bureaucratic that someone in the chain rejects even worthy Medal of Honor recommendations.

I understand why authors do this; it’s easier to bundle complex systems into single narratives, and creating oppositional tension makes an article more interesting. But rarely in real life are there two mutually exclusive and oppositional reasons for something. It’s not either/or; it’s both.

Life is complicated, and in virtually all situations there are multitudinous reasons for any phenomenon. Take obesity: of course some people simply won’t restrain their appetites. But it’s equally obvious that the nexus of policies and food companies greatly increases the likelihood of people eating fattening food. X and Y. And there are plenty of other likely causes too.

This shouldn’t be a great revelation to anyone – “oh, you mean there usually isn’t one simple cause for everything?” – yet journalists and pundits continue to employ the binary analysis. Does this matter? I think it does, because popular dialogue ends up framing the debate. If all people ever hear about is either/or, then they will look for a single solution, which will inevitably be insufficient. If the public instead hears about both, then they will look for more complex solutions that can address the multiple causes, and which will be far more likely to succeed.

For example, take the ballooning federal deficit, please. Pundits and politicians would like you to believe that the cause is either too much government spending or tax rates that are too low. If the public buys into that dichotomy, then the public will assume that simply cutting spending or raising taxes will solve the problem. But it won’t. The problem involves both federal spending and insufficient taxes, and it will only be solved by addressing both causes.

Discussion matters because it ends up circumscribing actual policy. So let’s make sure our discussions are accurate, even if complicated, because life is complicated.


One response to “Not Either/Or, But Both

  1. Bunny McBunnerson

    you’re right! the gray area is where LIFE exists; not the black or white. it’s the gray area that many people (political, business, etc) want to avoid and try hard to avoid b/c it’s messy, complicated and hard to feel “right.” maybe in the gray there isn’t any right, and that’s why people hold on so tightly to one side or the other. what do we do when we can’t figure out what’s right?

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