Sitting In The Tension Of “Both / And”

“Do you think [politician or leader X] is a racist?” How often have you heard versions of this question in interviews, political debates, or press conferences? If you’re like me, the question results in an eye roll. Of course that person is a racist. We are all racist. But that in itself is not the complete story. I’ve been in a number of conversations recently revolving around the issues of the “either / or” mindset, which this question presupposes. Either someone is one thing or they’re not. But this is simply another way of saying “us vs. them,” creating division, and supporting – it can be argued – a culture of power and white supremacy.

Typically the “either / or” mindset gets talked about in terms of identity. But it’s rare in life that any part of our identity – or our actions – is truly binary. The culture we’re living in can lead to someone being ‘cancelled’ for something objectionable that they’ve said or done. One day we might look up to someone as a hero, or an icon; the next as someone awful to separate from and forget. For a variety of reasons, this response might be absolutely appropriate. But it’s easy to fall into the binary “either / or” mindset on a personal level. While doing that, I wonder if we lose the ability to hold any nuance about others – and about ourselves. And if we’re constantly labeling ourselves and others in “either / or” ways – categorizing all the ways someone else is either like us or different from us – building bridges between those categories can be challenging at the best of times, and almost impossible at other times.

I said earlier that we are all racist. Regardless of the country we live in or grew up in, this is inherently built into our system, passed down through many generations and embedded in the system in which we live and work. To borrow David Foster Wallace’s metaphor, this is the water we’re swimming in. And yet, it’s not the totality of who any one of us is. We can be both racist and working on being anti-racist. We can be both flawed human beings and working on improving ourselves. We can be both 100% who we areand moving towards becoming something better.

Switching to this “both / and” mindset takes effort. As I’ve mentioned many times before, our brain takes in 11 million bits of information per second, but we can only consciously process 50 bits per second. So our brain makes millions of short cuts – biased decisions – every second. Our brain can subconsciously use the “either / or” mindset to make categorizations; training your mind to consciously intervene and switch to “both / and” may require lowering the amount of information you take in each second. So how do we do this this week?

This Week’s Tips:

  1. Lower your level of sensory input. Turn off notifications; unplug; put away your devices whenever you can. Take breaks from devices and interruptions as often as possible.
  2. Consider the nuances in your own story. Most aspects of your own life experience aren’t binary “either / or” cases. Consider your family and cultural history, and pay particular attention to the nuances and the factors that break through the “either / or” framework. Where do you see “both / and” in your own life? What are the labels you’ve put on yourself that might feel different if you looked through a “both / and” lens?
  3. Pay attention to your “either / or” categories of others in your interactions with them. Ask yourself – in the moment if possible – what a “both / and” mindset could provide instead.

If you try this week’s tips, let us know how it goes in our Facebook group – we’d love to hear your experiences.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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