All-or-nothing thinking

Several talented writers commenting on the mood of our times speak of the poisonous effects of “dualism,” which we popularly refer to as “all-or-nothing thinking.”

Much of the time we hold conflicting ideas in our minds successfully. This is how we retain a sense of reality in a complex and contradictory world.

But when the complexity becomes too great, we shift into a different gear as we search for simpler forms of understanding. At such times, we tend to characterize some people as “good” and others as “bad,” some ideas as “always true” and other ideas as “always false.”

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, formerly chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the [British] Commonwealth, in his book Not in God’s Name, describes this state of mind as one when “cognitive dissonance becomes unbearable, and when the world as it is, is simply too unlike the world as we believe it ought to be.” “Pathological dualism,” he says, is a mindset that divides human begins between the totally good and the totally bad. This makes it much easier to commit violence against other people.

But even if we don’t behave violently, most of us recognize that, when faced with opaque complexity, frustration, or deep uncertainty, we become more dogmatic and more simplistic in our thinking. Freud described this state of mind by coining the terms “splitting” and “projection.” In order to feel that we live in a more ordered universe, we split our inner reality, hanging on dogmatically to those parts that we prefer, and projecting the parts that we dislike onto others.

In our world that is so heavily reliant on the messaging of the media, we are subjected to an increasing number of assertive claims that emphasize simplistic, all-or-nothing thinking.   Along with the complex uncertainty that has entered our lives through recent crises, media-defined all-or-nothing discourse itself contributes to the frenzied, oppositional way in which things are being cast right now.

With social media determining so much of our communication, it is hard to see how this can be avoided, but it raises the question whether there are ways to capture and broadcast the complexity that offers a closer approximation of the truth. President Barack Obama attempted this on Tuesday, when he spoke at the memorial service in Dallas for the five police officers slain at Saturday’s peaceful protest. He sensitively captured the pain of black families who have been the recipients of police abuses, while at the same time honoring the vital role of the police in keeping us safe. He suggested that responding with our hearts is the way to overcome dualist thinking. His message of the heart was repeated by CNN correspondent Van Jones, in an interview with Black Lives Matter that was picked up by The Peace Alliance:

“Everybody’s got to reach deep down and find some empathy. If you cried for the brother who bled out next to his fiancée, but you didn’t cry this morning for those police officers, it’s time to do a heart check. If you cried for those police officers, but you have a hard time taking seriously all these videos that are coming out about African Americans dying, it’s time to do a heart check. We are either going to come together or come apart. There’s enough pain on both sides that there should be some empathy starting to kick in.”

If dualism is a problem, paradox is to be welcomed, says Catholic priest and author, Richard Rohr. Rohr points out that most spiritual “truth” has a paradoxical character. The dualistic mind, he says, calls things it doesn’t understand “wrong.” To understand, says Rohr, means to “stand under” and “let things have their way with you.” Understanding, says Rohr, means preparing our minds for the moment when they can discover a willingness to shift and change. This is an expansion of consciousness, a creative act, that allows us to see the world differently.

2 thoughts on “All-or-nothing thinking

  1. Excellent points. It would be better for the media or for anyone of us to refrain from commenting, than to do so with simplistic all-or-nothing remaks.


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