The Tyranny of the Either/Or


So much of what we’ve seen in public policy for at least three decades offer us stark choices between extremes. Welfare or workfare? Pro-choice or pro-life? Regulate or deregulate? Liberal or conservative? Democrat or Republican?

The problem of the “tyranny of the either/or” (thanks to Liz Lanier, my first chair of the Ohio Board of Regents, for sharing that phrase with me), is that best answers are often in the middle: the “both/and” solutions. More recently, Jim Collins embraced that view in Built to Last.

The extreme positions – and those who advocate them – often want to keep us from seeing the reasonableness of the middle-of-the-road positions. This situation is particularly troublesome since so many Americans haven’t developed the ability to think critically. (While the term “critical thinking” is much in vogue in higher education circles, it’s rarely defined. I like Bard College’s Susan Gillespie’s succinct definition: “an ability … to understand diverse points of view.”)

We’re all so busy and under so much pressure! It’s so much easier for me to accept a good-sounding proposition without having to think about it. Let me just pick my tribe and I’ll stick with them wherever they go.
Alas, this attitude has given those with extreme, passionately held positions inordinate power. It’s also just this situation that our Founding Fathers feared and so they stressed the importance of educating the populace as the means of preserving our free and democratic society. But education must go beyond the ability to understand differing points of view. To defend a democratic way of life, we also need the disposition to understand differing points of view.
Living here in the Heartland of America, I see most of my friends and neighbors are not extremists, but moderates by disposition. Are there tools that can help make it easier for us think and act more critically? I believe there are – and I’ll share some in upcoming entries.
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One thought on “The Tyranny of the Either/Or

  1. The extreme positions are important and helpful, because without them the middle-of-the-road potions cannot be defined. A beautiful picture is defined by countless gray levels between the two extremes: black and white.

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