The Problem with “Or”

You would not think a large portion of the ills of society could be solved with one simple word, but follow me on this. You just might find you agree.

We in the west have inherited this tradition of dualistic, dichotomized thinking. Everything is either/or. No middle ground and certainly no “and.” Whatever you believe, there is no room for the in-between. In America, our politics, religions and beliefs about the environment slowly push us further into two different camps. Many lament the perceived erosion of common ground in the public consciousness and discourse. Tribalism seems to be the word of the day.

This could be down to how we use our conjunctions. This is the difference between “and” and “or.”

Growing up nestled in the firm grip of a broadly modernist Protestant Christian worldview, I was warned against the dangers of “and.” Men like Ravi Zacharias and others stick in my mind as being bastions of the modernist conception of the universe, bulwarks against the rising tide of postmodern moral and social relativism. Cleverly crafted phrases were plied again and again to show how ludicrous it was that people could believe two competing truths at once, as only one could obviously be true. Raw logical arguments about A and B being mutually exclusive by their very existence were drawn out into condemnations of whole swaths of the intellectual landscape. It was, in essence, the glorification of “or” brought out from a few claims of Christ and painted in broad strokes over the whole world. Christ was the Savior or he was not, and thus all things were either true or they were not. There was no in between.

This was, at best, a poor reading of the concept that Christ stands at the center of all theology and thus all truth in Christian worldview beginning at the Cross. While that concept is true as far as it goes inside the Christian worldview, it is like saying a wheel starts at the hub, and therefore there can be no such thing as a spoke … there is only the hub.

The excitement with which American Protestants grasp at clearly defined sides can be tied in part to this kind of thinking. For those who wonder where the ceaseless eagerness to draw lines, mark them off, put down boundaries and place labels comes from in much of conservative America, this love affair with “or” is certainly a strong root.

But what if it wasn’t really that way? What if “and” really is lurking right there beneath the surface after all? What then?

Consider, for example, climate change. This is currently one of the most inflammatory issues on the table for many people. Evidence continues to mount that human impacts on the environment, both large and small, exceed the limits of the natural world to absorb our presence. Despite this, many on the right side of the aisle continue to cling to the assertion that initial research which kickstarted the debate may not have been accurate, or in the minds of some, was outright faked. For many on the right side of the aisle, it is an issue of “or.” Climate change is real or it isn’t, and if some research was faked, then it can’t be real.

What if both are true? What if it is possible environmental research from a few scientists many years ago was proven not to be accurate and the effect humans have on the natural world turns out to still be destructive? Is such an “and” possible? If not, why not?

These questions hinge on the important distinction of whether two claims are or are not actually mutually exclusive. In the case above, they may not be.

In many cases, it ceases to be about the actual beliefs or the politics. It is about whether there is an “or” to find, claim and put a stake in. So many of us run around in a game of moral “capture the flag” looking for these markers, hoping to find a way to define our boundaries. There is comfort in the “or.” It keeps us from having to understand, to ponder or to question. It lets us comfortably be us rather than looking out to see whether we were right to take the stance we have taken. “Or” helps us know that once something has been established in our minds, it need never be moved.

Undoubtedly there are clear lines which can be defined. As a society we determine where a few of these are, agree on a small list and then fight about the rest. Many of us want more “or”s to happen, and believe in a utopian calm that will one day reign when all questions are put to rest and all items can be known and identified. (Here lies the beginning of a rabbit trail about Christians believing that going to be with God in heaven is the end of all questions rather than the true beginning of deep mystery.)

Technology has made manufacturing better goods cheaper and it has replaced jobs. Cellphones allow us to communicate like never before and they disturb our sleep and social lives. The rapid pace of phone upgrades that supports our “throw away” technology habit is appallingly wasteful and it allows for rapid advances in miniaturized technology which puts medical tools in the hands of care-givers in impoverished areas for a fraction of what traditional solutions cost.

Keeping this “and” in view is like holding two similar ends of a magnet together. This gets harder as you get closer to things people feel strongly about. Fracking did truly help increase American energy independence over the last few years, which helped cause a global crash in crude prices, thus disrupting the balance of power between OPEC nations and their customers. AND it may have led to the political collapse of Venezuela, and evidence mounts that fracking is responsible for earthquakes in Oklahoma and Texas and for poisoning of aquifers and streams across the country.

It is a simple, deadly subtle shift. Obamacare may well have been fatally flawed from the beginning … and … Republicans in Congress have been combative and outright obstructionist in their treatment of it since the day it passed. As time goes on and accusations fly, it becomes harder and harder to assign blame or clearly define where the initial proposal and the later defunding of the resulting policy caused the current state of affairs.

What matters is not so much where it started but whether here, in the middle of it, we are willing to start saying “and” a little more often. No one is comfortable living in this messy, but very real“and.” It can be alarming as it softens the hard lines we prefer to draw. It admits that some truths overlap or wind around one another in intricate patterns not easy to untangle. For some people this can feel like a tumor growing around the healthy tissue of a clear truth. To others this is a more accurate picture of the reality we live in.

For me I would encourage everyone to leave some room to practice a bit more “and.” I believe it is essential to our common survival, to our common dialogue and understanding of our shared identity as Americans and as humans. I fervently believe there is more “and” in the world than many of us believe and are comfortable with. It is crucial we start to recognize it, or things are only likely to get worse.