Western thinking has a very strong tendency to encourage either/or positions. In either/or thinking a situation is divided into two position, for instance realist or idealist, and then people take one position or the other. Once one has taken a position, he or she tends to collect mainly the positives of that position and to perceive mainly the negatives of the opposing position. Thus either/or positions tend to become more entrenched over time. Behind either/or thinking, presumably, there is a strong belief that the mind is capable of readily understanding the situation and thus making a definite judgment upon it.
An alternative form of thinking, called here “Both/And” recognizes the complexity in situations and that generally there are a multitude of possible positions, not just two. It recognizes that there are positives and negatives, reasons to believe and reasons not to believe, the various positions. Both/and thinking does not have faith that we can readily comprehend the situations of the world, and thus does not think it wise to take a strong position one way or the other. It thus keeps an open mind to alternatives.
That I not just fall into another example of either/or thinking here, let me note that it is not a matter of a simple choice between these two types of thinking, but that both of them have their place.
The politics of modern America is a particularly vivid example of either/or thinking. On one side we have republican, conservative, individual freedom, economy, national unity, etc. On the other side we have democrat, progressive, the community, the environment, diversity, etc. I think it should be fairly obvious that a healthy society is a kind of dynamic interaction, and seeking for balance, between such terms as the individual and the community, the economy and the environment, tradition and progress. A healthy thinking about politics would recognize that we need to address both sides of the issues. Yet, people tend to dig there mental feet into one side or the other, and our political system is a kind of tug-of-war.
Politically, I consider myself a radical moderate. Moderate, because I believe that a good political system is finding a middle ground between these kinds of dichotomies, “radical” because I don’t come to moderation as a kind of wishy-washy position.
Freedom is a particularly interesting issue from the viewpoint of a radical moderate. On the one side, freedom means a lack of restraint on how we behave. But it also means the protection that we are provided from the behavior of others. As an obvious example, the demands of the second form of freedom place restraints on the first form of freedom -- we have laws to protect us from criminal behavior. These laws restrain the freedom of our individual behavior, but enhance our sense of security. We come to take these for granted, until we hit one of the gray areas. For instance, my neighbor may want to party all night and play loud music. I want to sleep, which my neighbor’s behavior is impeding. My neighbor’s freedom is imposing on my freedom. Ultimately it is the challenge of a civil society to be able to resolve issues such as these. In a truly civil society neighbors could sit down and talk and come to an agreement.
Unfortunately, increasingly ours is not that kind of society, and we have to resort to laws. Also, increasingly, the politician who make these laws have dug out positions for themselves to either fight for freedom of behavior in the first form, or the freedom of peace and security of the second form. The position of the moderate would be to recognize the good of each and look for a solution that would be reasonable to both parties.
Either/Or thinking extends well beyond politics. Theism/Atheism, Wholism/Reductionsim, Scientist/Artist, Unity/Diversity, emphasis on the general/emphasis on the particular, etc. The philosopher Aristotle defined beauty as unity in variety; beauty is the joy of Both/And. The experience and creation of the beauty recognizes the whole in the part and part as gateway to the whole; explores the universal through the particular; unites imagination, emotion, the discipline of craft, and clear-sightedness of true intelligence. The experience of beauty is a coming to a form of knowledge, yet an engagement with the deeper mystery. It brings transcendence through immanence, unites matter and form, soul and spirit.
A most apropos term for the politics of our time is “ugly.” I suppose that politics has always been ugly, but it is enjoyable to imagine what beautiful politics might be like.