The trap of  ‘either/or’

When presented with two possibilities, we often make it binary, assuming the two choices are mutually exclusive. But the fact is, the best choices are often “both/and.”

Jorge Silva/Reuters/File
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar walk toward refugee camps in Palang Khali, Bangladesh, in October 2017.

Last week, I was away at a media workshop and heard an idea that struck a deep chord. It came to mind again as I read this week’s cover story package. The idea is that humans can be prone to “either/or” thinking. When presented with two possibilities, we often make it binary, assuming the two choices are mutually exclusive. There is also a tendency to do something even worse: Overlay that choice with a “good/bad” bias.

You can see where this is going. That kind of thinking is rampant in the political polarization we’re seeing across the West. It makes sense for politicians (who want to be elected, after all) to set things up as binary choices and then demonize the other choice. We can be complicit in this unless we push back.

The fact is, the best choices are often “both/and.” Take this week’s cover story package on migration around the world – from Africa to Europe, from Central America to the United States. Let’s distill the four stories to a list of action items. In other words, what do the stories tell us about what we can actually do to address the challenges presented by migration?

1. Dictators don’t help. People flee dictators, and dictators are generally bad partners in trying to fix problems that run beyond their own narrow self-interests. 

Action item: Be very careful about tolerating dictators. It can backfire, big time.

2. Safety matters. If people feel their loved ones are in danger, nothing will stop them from fleeing. 

Action item: Help make people feel safer where they are.

3. Migration is about mind-set. You migrate because you can’t see a future where you live now. A sense of personal safety is the most obvious example. But a lack of freedom or economic opportunity can also have a powerful effect. 

Action item: Help give people the possibility of a promising future where they are.

4. Mass migration can spread political turmoil. There’s a significant body of research suggesting that the core value of a democracy is not that it breeds high-minded civic ideals but that it maintains law and order without giving any one group an unfair advantage. In other words, it maintains a sense of control without reverting to authoritarianism. In Europe and the United States, migrations have led some to fear that things are spiraling out of control. 

Action item: Make sure that processes are in place to clearly demonstrate the presence of law and order amid mass migrations.

Those action items are only a fraction of the practical lessons learned we can take from the past few years, but they’re a start. And they’re very much a “both/and” list, whether it’s using foreign aid to build economic opportunities abroad or reinforcing border security. That’s the danger of overlaying any line of thinking with a “good/bad” bias. There are good ideas out there everywhere, and none of them hew exclusively to any one person or party. The biggest “bad” might be the rigidity of “either/or” thinking itself.

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