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.
Think, for example, about the prevalence of school shootings in America. The likelihood of people dying in a school shooting (X) is the result of a number of factors. Let’s say that an oversimplified version of the equation looks like this:
A x B x C - D = X
A = availability of lethal weaponry for the shooter
B = mental and emotional issues that can contribute to violent tendencies
C = cultural factors that promote antagonism
D = protective measures in and around schools
Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but let’s say that one person wants to make it more difficult for potential shooters to access lethal weapons, and another person wants to address bullying and social ostracism within school cultures. These people, though they support different initiatives, are both working toward the same goal: fewer fatalities.
This is a “Why not both?” moment. But the conversation doesn’t have to end there. It’s possible that research shows one of these factors is much more significant than the other three. If that’s the case, we’re not back to an “either/or,” but rather to a discussion—informed, hopefully, by experts—about where we should focus our energy, and how we can ensure that all the relevant factors are being addressed. (See point #2 here.) “Why not both?” isn’t a shrug to end the conversation, but can be a helpful way of reframing the question about which initiatives—plural—we ought to be supporting.
It’s no surprise that we can think of success algebraically, too. The factors that go into whether a person is successful (Y) go something like this:
P x Q x R x S x T = Y
P = talent
Q = hard work
R = opportunities
S = the courage and will to take advantage of opportunities
T = social factors outside an individual’s control
Now, from this, it’s plain to see that a person can overcome a lack of natural talent and win success through hard work and dedication. It’s also possible for a person to work hard and be talented but be denied opportunities within her society and not be able to thrive. Depending on the society, one of these five factors can significantly outweigh the others.
As the equation shows, these five factors are all relevant to some degree. The discussion we should be having isn’t an “either/or,” but rather “how can we ensure that there are opportunities for all people, and that they have the character and dedication to take advantage of them?”
On this equation, American conservatives tend to emphasize hard work and will power, and are more likely to think that a person’s or group’s success is reflective of their character. American liberals tend to emphasize opportunities and social factors like structural inequality, and are more likely to think that a person or group’s success is reflective of the prejudices, institutions, and history of a society.
Both liberals and conservatives already think algebraically about how people succeed. But each side has caricatures of the other side that impede them from recognizing this. To liberals, conservative economic rhetoric all sounds like “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” which blames the victims of a structurally unequal society for their poverty. To conservatives, liberal economic rhetoric all sounds like “We need to give out handouts!” which foolishly ignores the need for individual diligence and perseverance.
There is a grain of truth to these caricatures, but they impede collaborative thinking and cooperative problem-solving. When making an argument about economic policy or an assessment of economic culture, follow these steps:
1) Concede that those who advocate other solutions has a point, that the factors they emphasize are indeed relevant,
2) Make a factually-based assessment of the situation in American society. We don’t live in a pure meritocracy nor a pure aristocracy, and some factors are more salient than others in explaining a person’s success or lack of success.
3) Make a case for your plan of action, not as one side of a grand dichotomy, but as the most realistic way to help people succeed once we take into account all of the factors and their comparative salience.
Inclusive, algebraic thinking helps us get beyond past false dichotomies and the easy detachment of “Why not both?” and into the difficult work of helping people live better lives.
by Russell Johnson
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