The Problem with Dichotomies, a Guest Post by Julia Smucker

The Problem with Dichotomies, a Guest Post by Julia Smucker October 27, 2011
Several years ago in college, I heard a representative of the organization Evangelicals for Social Action speak on the need to get beyond “either/or ministry.”  It was at that time that I was introduced to the word “dichotomy,” of which he gave several examples, mostly related to ministry and missiology: word or deed, physical needs or spiritual needs, the earth going to hell in a handbasket or the kingdom of heaven being brought to the earthy, and such like.  In his final summarizing point, he used a memorable analogy: just as a one-sided coin would be counterfeit, so would a one-sided gospel.
I had no idea, sitting in that classroom on that day, the extent to which the message I was hearing would shape my thinking from then on, but something struck a chord with me.  I began seeing dichotomies everywhere – head vs. heart, theory vs. experience, tradition vs. innovation, in-the-world vs. not-of-the-world, to name a few – and the more dichotomies I noticed, the more I became convinced that the vast majority of them are artificial and unhelpful.  Naming and transcending false dichotomies has remained an ongoing obsession of mine to this day, as any of my current grad school classmates can attest.  A few of them have called me the “anti-dichotomy queen,” a title I have willingly adopted as a badge of honor.  This may partially explain my attraction to the study of systematic theology in the first place, which I often describe in terms of seeing connections between things; not to mention my particular fixation, as a Mennonite Catholic, with the connections between sacraments and discipleship.
What underlies the pervasive temptation to dichotomize, and what underlies my personal mission against all these either/ors?  I haven’t found a clear answer to these questions, nor can I always be sure of the right alternative to every false dichotomy.  Sometimes the answer is a both/and, sometimes it’s a neither/nor, sometimes it’s somewhere in between – and perhaps, on very rare occasion, it may indeed be appropriate to come down on one side of a dichotomy over the other.  But such cases should be the exception, by a long shot.
Whatever is at the root of it, I do not think it an exaggeration to say that false dichotomies are not only a hazard to clear thinking but a poison to society.  It almost feels like a cliché by now to point out the toxicity of the polarized political climate that currently prevails in American public discourse, but only because this is the most glaring example of the sort of damage that such polemics can do at the societal level.  And the church, to our shame, is not doing noticeably better.  When we should be demonstrating a better way, bearing with each other in love (which by the way is serious business, not fluffy stuff – I’m talking about the long hard work of dealing with our differences, not about a naïve pretense that they don’t exist), we are split along the same politicized lines as society at large, with a few ecclesiological polarities thrown in to boot.  Something is wrong with this picture.
The problem with dichotomies is that they force us to oversimplify.  It may be a case of setting up a false choice between two things that need not be opposed, or of limiting ourselves to a pair of equally inadequate options, or of jumping to extremes while being blinded to any middle ground or happy medium.  In any case, any either/or should raise a yellow flag.  What we should be doing is finding ways to be more discerning, to get beyond dichotomized thinking.  That’s not a panacea or a quick fix for all our personal and social ills.  But it’s a good place to start.
Julia Smucker
October 2011
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  • Part of me tends to believe our tendency to dichotomize is part of the nature of our country’s Protestant imagination. The Protestant imagination, as Flannery O’Connor once remarked, is traditionally dialectical. Kierkegaard is a good example of this in his “Either / Or,” the Apostle Paul uses dialectic when he writes “the Letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” On the other side of the coin, the Catholic imagination is more traditionally analogical, allowing for what Karl Barth (according to a poster on this blog a few months back) once called the “damn Catholic ‘and.'” (Faith AND works, meal AND sacrifice, etc).

    Dialectic can be, of course, a valid rhetorical tool… yet the U.S. since its founding has always been a land of “U.S. vs. them.” Discernment is certainly a good starting place, but until we enable a new set of eyes for the culture, be they analogical or some other kind, I fear there won’t be much change.

    How do you change the way an entire culture thinks?

  • Mark Gordon

    Julia, maybe you can help me with what has always seemed to be a fundamental flaw in the logic that privileges non-dichotomous thinking. Put simply, if you are saying that it’s either “both/and” or “either/or,” haven’t you erected another dichotomy? On the other hand, if you are saying that it is both “both/and” and “either/or,” then isn’t dichotomous thinking as legitimate as non-dichotomous thinking? Of course, the same question could be posed in reverse to those who traffic in dichotomies.

    For the record, in my professional capacity I work with the practical application of something called “whole-systems thinking,” which is much more aligned with the point of view you express here. So I don’t raise the question as an objection, simply as an apparent problem to be explored.

    • The “dichotomy” created by “both/and” (non-dichotomous) and “either/or” (dichotomous) is objective, rather than subjective. It isn’t a limiting of reason because we aren’t restricting critical thinking and the ability to consider merit in all views, it’s simply a classification, because logically speaking, nothing could conceivably fall into the area of both dichotomous and non-dichotomous.

  • Mark

    I think the problem is what Julia said is “false dichotomies,” where a false division is made when such a division should not be made (like social justice and morality should not be seen as two separate things). It is a feature of the human language to divide, to atomize, but sometimes in doing so, we ignore the integral relationship and break things apart to an unreal presentation.

    The real issue, however, is when the human mind finds itself in a paradox, when the both/and must be supported, even if it seems that one side or the other cannot hold together with the whole. Think of Jesus as God and man — this is the ultimate overcoming of division and dichotomies while also showing how it is, for the human mind, a paradox. But this does not mean there will be no divisions, no “this or that.” It, however, a reminder that we often divide what should be unified. And I think you would agree with this.

    The Catholic “and” is a powerful and, though you are right, it must be understood and followed with proper caveats.

    • Mark Gordon

      This is helpful, Henry. Thank you. I suppose what I reject is the categorical rejection of dichotomies, which I grant is not what Julia is doing in this piece. I guess what underlies anxiety about the subject is its application to morality and ethics. It seems to me that at least some acts – intrinsic evils, for instance – require an assessment that is rigorously deontological and therefore necessarily dichotomous: It is either always immoral to take innocent human life or it is not always immoral to take human life. To say it is both immoral to take innocent human life and moral (or at least morally neutral) to take innocent human life is relativism, which the Church condemns, and which it seems to me is manifest in ethical approaches like consequentialism, social context, etc.

      • Mark

        I think the traditional approach to the Catholic “and” here can be seen in just war theory — especially the more traditional view which said soldiers might be justified in killing someone out of necessities beyond their control AND they are still tainted with a kind of guilt which requires penance. It goes with the reality of the world that sometimes, all options include a kind of association with evil, and sometimes in that, we must try to do the least evil we can do and do penance nonetheless. It goes with the notion of David and why he couldn’t build the temple and yet was seen as a friend of God. It’s not relativism because it admits the evil, but it point out that life in the world sometimes makes it near impossible not to sin in some fashion (and isn’t this, in part, what original sin tells us?). But you are right, when it is used to ignore the evil, to ignore the violence, to try to say it’s ok, and no need to try to prevent the necessity, that is wrong. But do you see how the both-and can be found in just war theory?

        But you are right, it is important not to let this become relativism and not to let us accept evil without sorrow. The fact that we sin each day should be a thing of sorrow (though we should not go Jansenist and to the other extreme, which makes for a loss of hope).

      • Mark Gordon

        Thanks, Henry. Your frequent disclaimers and caveats themselves amount to a rejection of the notion that dichotomies are to be rejected categorically, which I again acknowledge was not Julia’s point in this excellent piece.

        • And that’s what the Catholic and is about — the disclaimers and caveats 😉

  • John ODonnell

    The Catholic and Mennonite traditions call us to live in the between.

  • To answer Mark’s original question: on one level, insofar as the juxtaposition between dichotomized and holistic thinking is itself a dichotomy, I would say this is one of those rare cases in which the dichotomy is valid and one must simply take a side (which, I maintain, is done much more frequently than is merited). But I am already allowing for that. Because often the choice is not even as simple as “either a both/and or an either/or”: it may be an either/or, or a both/and, or a third option or in-between truth that is being overlooked. And I actually have noticed a few cases in which accusations of dichotomous thinking (for example, cultural overgeneralizations about “the west” vs. everyone else) have turned out to be false dichotomies themselves. A good reminder to the anti-dichotomy queen not to presume herself immune to those same pitfalls.

    As for the moral example of taking life, the consistent life ethic is exactly the sort of corrective that’s needed against the temptation to dichotomize life issues. To say that it is wrong to take innocent life in the case of abortion but permissible in the context of military operations, or vice-versa, is a false dichotomy of the deadliest kind. And in light of Catholic Social Teaching, this category should be expanded even further to include taking the lives of the guilty (does not our church also condemn capital punishment?) as well as any violation of human dignity even if it stops short of killing.

    • WJ

      I’m tempted to reply to this thread by invoking Dante’s representation of Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure in the fourth level of paradise in the Paradiso. In those representations, it quickly emerges that Franciscan spirituality requires for its continuance and sustenance Dominican distinctions, while Dominican distinctions require a connection to the Franciscan ethic of poverty and Franciscan charism if it is not to devolve into arid logic-chopping. Dante thinks the two famous mendicant orders need each other if each is to reach its full potential.

      In other words, I think Julia and Mark are both right, and both need the other. Henry’s right about this, and his counsel amounts to a reformulation of the scholastic dictum, “never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish.” I think that someone has said this before, but the adoption of “both/and” as a pragmatic approach to questions that appear to require absolute “sic” or “non” answers can never, really, get you into trouble. Reality is messy. If you’re asking a question that appears to demand a binary and absolute answer, there’s a good chance that your question is not refined enough.

      This is, by the way, why I don’t agree with Julia’s last point about the equivalence (if she means to assert that) between the unintentional killing of civilians in warfare, the execution of criminals by the state, and the intentional killing of innocents by private persons. I want to say to her, it’s not a question of EITHER killing is an evil OR killing is not morally wrong. It’s BOTH “killing is an evil” AND ALSO that “killing, in some circumstances at least, is not morally wrong.” My sense is that she is in this case applying the dichotomous thinking she has earlier warned us against.

      • Actually, yes: if you assert that killing is both an evil and sometimes morally permissible, this is one of the few cases in which I will absolutely insist that you can’t have it both ways. This is true precisely because human dignity is universal and inviolable, which by the way is a fundamental axiom of Catholic Social Teaching. On that note, Gaudium et Spes 27:

        “Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on the body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.”

        It is vital to recognize the affront to life and human dignity that is the underlying thread connecting all such “infamies” if we are to avoid dichotomizing “life issues.”

        I am not, as Mark has pointed out, categorically rejecting all dichotomies as such, because basic logic informs me that there is indeed such a thing as a false both/and; it’s called a contradiction. You can’t have both p and ~p. Ergo, a direct contradiction (killing is both wrong and not wrong) is not defensible simply by virtue of its not being a dichotomy.

        • John ODonnell

          Traditional Catholic moral theology and social teaching regards “murder” as intentional taking of human life without justification whereas “killing” is a broader concept and includes nin-intentional taking of human life through accident or negligence and where justified as in self-defense or in the conduct of a just war. Killing can be both an evil and sometimes justified but murder is always an evil. Gaudium et spes uses the term “murder” not killing.

  • These deadly semantic games are exactly why our church’s tradition needs the consistent life ethic. Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, pray for us!