Monthly Archives: January 2004

Neither “Either/Or” nor “Both/And”

The other morning I was talking to one of our classes about complexity in congregations, in theories, in pretty much everything — and I birthed an idea that had hitherto only been toying with me, awaiting the occasion to pop out of my mouth. “We know that we can’t deal with people on an either/or basis,” I allowed; “there are always shades, nuances, hybrids, unanticipated subtleties. ‘Either/or’ is the mode of modern effectiveness: ‘Don’t bother me with the details, we have to get this thing moving.’ Modernity thrived on compartmentalization, on analysis, on deciding which differences made a differences and which didn’t (from a dominant-culture perspective, which operated as the natural or necessary or obvious way of thinking).
“But after decades of modernity, we see that lumping people together into categories based on dominant-culture thinking doesn’t pan out. The category ‘colored’ worked adequately for White cultures, for a while; but ‘colored’ people aren’t all the same, and — surprise, surprise — white is a color, too. Either/or logic fails us and effaces the differences that make us interesting, indeed that make us who we are.
“But ‘both/and’ doesn’t solve our problems. Although this is the easiest and most prominent alternative to either/or, both/and simply occludes the necessary distinction-making that constitutes real behavior in the real world. When leaders start talking both/and, I keep a close eye on what they’re trying to distract me from noticing: the exclusions and privileges that inevitably permeate jolly, inclusive, both/and thinking. At least when the system’s working on either/or logic, one can point out ways that particular cases disrupt, defeat, the system of categorization; when both/and rules the system, there’s no explicit categorization in place against which one could push.”
So if not either/or (on one hand) or both/and (on the other), what? I proposed an idea that had been flitting through my thoughts intermittently: “both/but.” (That’s “but,” not “butt.”) In other words — and I hope we’re not locked into using “both” and “but” in every example of this sort of thinking — we can operate from a principle of openness, but since we’re always about making distinctions all the time anyway, we’re practically distinction-making creatures, we follow our gesture of inclusion with explicit reservations about the distinctions we’ making. We begin by acknowledging that there’s probably something to be said on both sides of an apparent impasse — but since we can’t have all of both options, we’re going to have to work out some alternative that, ideally, derives strength from the best of both proposals.
It’s not a revolution, but it’s a way of resisting modern binary thinking, allegedly-postmodern indifferentism, in the name of working together toward something else. And if someone like Seth Godin or Rick Warren writes a best-selling self-help, business-guru book out of it, I’m claiming prior art right here.
DRMA: “Burning Down the House” by the Talking Heads; “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” by Bruce Springsteen (Pippa used to think this was “Devil in the Freezer”); “Stop in the Name of Love” by the Supremes; “The Long And Winding Road” by the Beatles; “Penetration” by Tom Verlaine; “Souvenir From A Dream” by Tom Verlaine; “Wichita Sutra Vortex” by Philip Glass; “Plastic Man” by the Kinks; “Everything” by Ben Harper; “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley; “Nothing Is Easy” by Jethro Tull; “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” by Wilco.