By Russell Johnson
Political discourse is plagued by false either/ors. While there are sometimes mutually exclusive options (e.g., should we pass this law, or shouldn’t we?), people typically whittle complicated issues into simple dichotomies that distort more than they clarify. We often find ourselves in debates that aren’t about mutually exclusive options at all—Should we change abortion laws, or support would-be single mothers to make abortions less common? Should we protect free speech, or resist bigotry? Should we make sure everyone has access to good schools, or allow parents to choose where their children learn? I mean, why not both, right?
That having been said, saying “Why not both?” always feels to me like a bit of a cop-out. To simply acknowledge that there are good points on both sides of a debate, or to insist that competing plans aren’t mutually exclusive, can be a lazy way of avoiding the difficult questions that give rise to the debate. “Why not both?” can be an excuse to stay on the sidelines, self-satisfied with one’s own enlightened detachment from any particular solution.
I think “Why not both?” is important to remember, but not if it’s used to dismiss the need for commitment. It has a place in the conversation, but it can’t be the last word.
One way to go beyond false dichotomies and beyond “why not both?” is to think in terms of the many factors that go into solving any complex problems. We have to think algebraically.