stubborn binaries, killing us softly

In honor of election day fast approaching, and the political frenzy it brings, this week’s essay is a repost from about a year ago, when I challenged the death grip binaries had our thinking and acting in the public sphere. Sadly, we still seem to love binaries, so much so that instead of loving our enemies we love to have enemies. As long as we continue to assume we all fit only on one side or the other, we are part of the problem. I hope this reminds us that there is a better way forward.

 People love to say our country is divided, and it certainly seems to me that it is. The more interesting observation for my money, however, is on the nature of that divide. I’m sick of the old ones—and they don’t seem to fit anymore anyway. Democrat/Republican, urban/rural, public/private, rich/poor, Christian/all-the-others, progressive/conservative, yuppie/hippie, dominant/minority, those who “get it”/those who don’t…they’re all examples of binary thinking that strike me as rather simple, and frankly, as evidence of unexamined thinking. 

 And yet, I have whole-heartedly rolled around in such binaries for the last politically-crazed year like my dog in freshly laid mulch: with a relish that is both nauseating and a little baffling. So why? Why do we refuse to bring our life experience, which is most definitely un-binary, to bear on the way we describe the tensions we feel with each other? Why do we pretend that all who kneel do not respect those who served our country, while all who stand do not care about those marginalized by injustice? The answers lie in understanding the foundational ways in which we relate to and contextualize each other. 

 Our tribal instincts are exacerbated by our immersion in segregated communities.  While most of us live, play and worship in racially and economically segregated spaces, almost all of us connect online in politically segregated arenas. Our ability to respectfully approach others with curiosity is severely hampered when we only hear attacks about “them.” The dependence many have on social media to connect with others and validate their own value tends to be—at best—equal parts sincere engagement and performative pandering. We know this, and feel it in our souls even as we compulsively check our feeds for extrinsic encouragement. There is a place in each of us that understands we are complicit in participating in this bullshit exchange-space, and this is the place from which our cries for authenticity arise, even as we exchange our own experience of ambiguity for binaries that exclude others and comfort us. 

 That for many, President Trump’s shoot from the hip style is refreshingly authentic is hilarious for some and devastating for others. Some of us know him as an honest and authentic outsider, unsullied by the “swamp.” Some of us abhor him as a fundamentally selfish and unethical hypocrite, amazed daily that others can’t see through the show. The former group, despairing in the inability to feel heard and respected by society, celebrate the President as embodying the authenticity they crave. The latter group think Trump’s election reflects a great mistake, a blip in our otherwise just and thoughtful democracy. Absurd as it is, the alienation they felt in the last eleven months overwhelms any notion of connection they shared with fellow citizens. Instead, they buy into binaries. I sometimes resonate, feeling the fabric of society had been torn, and that I no longer belong to, or even understand those who live on the other side of the lines we draw between us. 

 For some who allow binaries to define their views of community, they now gravitate toward a new view: that the President exactly reflects the reality of the sentiments held by voters. In short, Trump is America—or should I say, ‘Murica—and we deserve him. This may very well be true, and there is certainly daily evidence to support such a claim. We are hateful and mean, consumed with self, entitled victims.  We are, in fact, bad at taking care of each other. But we are also really good at it, and my contention is that binary thinking prevents us from recognizing both of these facts. Thus, viewing the era of Trump through such extremes is insufficient and, frankly, does not offer an analytical framework nuanced enough to understand this moment. Could it be that we are all selfish jerks and compassionate neighbors? Could it be that we are all presenting lovely masks of ourselves and taking strides toward authenticity? 

 This brings me, with great pleasure, to the person and persona of Josh Tillman, aka J. Tillman, aka Father John Misty. A folk singer/songwriter/rocker, Tillman presents the most interesting tableau of meta-authenticity I have come across in a spell. While creating and performing critically and popularly acclaimed music, Tillman is loathed by many who dismiss him as a self-obsessed crackpot philosopher who waxes poetic about the nature of performance in America today. Yes, maybe. But his awareness of self, his self-mockery, his ease with conflicting ideas even as he articulates them passionately, makes me a fan. He deconstructs society’s impulses even as he deconstructs his own drives, all while acting boldly on those drives!  It is hilariously refreshing to hear him think out loud. For Tillman, the notion of binary thinking is outright absurd, a shoe that does not fit any foot in the kingdom. 

 Reading about and listening to Tillman, where ambiguity and nuance organically infuse every thought, offers a clear juxtaposition with destructive and ill-fitting binaries. In processing through this last year, it is evident that we have, as an American culture, adopted what I call a binary cycle, in which our basic notion of self worth arises out of belonging to one side, and this becomes the rubric by which we judge others as well. Our thinking about others, and, importantly, about self, is dictated by binaries. Extremes certainly helped elect our President, but they have also reduced us to thinking almost exclusively in terms of us and them. Tillman is a reminder that these binaries, and the biases to which they give birth, are, in fact, the foundation of our fractured society. This is why American society has fallen with no means to get up.

 (But there I go again.) No we haven’t. Our society is not defined primarily by our binaries.  We demonize “them” all day long, but we are also a compassionate people who often care sacrificially for others. In Nashville, TN, in the midst of the travel ban on majority-Muslim countries and the halting of refugee resettlement, agencies who work with immigrant and refugee populations were flooded with volunteers and donations. Also in Nashville, gun violence has risen dramatically in parts of the city inhabited mostly by minorities. While many people with power seem oblivious to this crisis, some of us are starting to notice curiosity among those who heretofore have refused to link gentrification, education and development policies to the displacement, disruption and despair of many marginalized communities. I see evidence everyday that we all have a capacity to care about “them.” We the people are totally selfish and greedy, and generous and compassionate. We are not a binary, and when we think of ourselves and others through a binary lens we lose sight of ourselves and destroy the very fabric of society that still holds us together.

 So this is my call, in honor of  those who kneel and stand, and in thanks to our dear Father John, to invite more of us to join his conversation. Can we begin to recognize how binary thinking dehumanizes ourselves and others? Can we reject totalizing statements and replace them with curious listening? Can we create new habits of recognizing our commonalities before only seeing divides? Can we endorse candidates whose policies and rhetoric suggest we all belong together, as we vote for people to represent us, rather than down a party line? Paying honest attention is a good antidote for thinking in simple binaries.