How to Move Beyond "You're Either With or Against Us"

“Remove people from your life whose beliefs, ideas, and values aren’t aligned with yours. Make no compromises here.” Wow. That passage from a book a local businessman had written and asked me to read stopped me cold.

As that position was opposite from mine, I wanted to explore his view in more detail. From his perspective, however, there was nothing to discuss. So, true to his beliefs, he removed me from his life because I was unwilling to accept the rightness of his position.

In scanning the business and political horizon, I see too much of this exclusionary polarization happening:  the proverbial wagons are circled within a “tribe” of believers. Once circled, everything is reduced to black and white or right and wrong, and it’s either “you’re with us or against us.”

“The human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our capacity to imagine other people is very small.” ~Elaine Scarry, Teaching for a Tolerant World

Uniformity and conformity are comforting. We know what to expect. We know where the true, right, and proper boundaries are because we’ve defined them. However, given that we all have our own definition of reality and individual way of sense-making, expecting or demanding homogeneity in a highly connected world full of big differences feels unfeasible. Doesn't such an orientation promotes discord, not unity?

Different ways in which we believe

Shouldn’t heterogeneity be the new normal? Increased interaction and connection shine a brighter light on the many realms in which our thinking can be different:

  • Moral beliefs—our code of conduct for welfare and justice in how we treat one another
  • Conventional beliefs—our expectations for appropriate behavior
  • Psychological beliefs—our understanding of ourselves and others
  • Metaphysical beliefs—our faith and spiritual views

In our empty nest home of two, hubby and I bring yin and yang to most everything we do. While there’s the occasional conflict, we’ve come to love the serendipity associated with differing thoughts, opinions, perspectives, and preferences. Perhaps my hope is naive, but I'd love to see the balance we've worked out practiced on a larger scale.

In a world populated with 7.4 billion people and as many opinions, wouldn't a more realistic expectation would be to anticipate a smorgasbord of differences rather than uniformity? As technology has reduced the six degrees of separation to four, I’d love to see intolerance for differences replaced with respect and acknowledgment.

Moving from homogeneity to heterogeneity

To appreciate differences and avoid the blind spots, prejudice, and hate that can accompany polarization, it’s necessary to replace our paradigm of homogeneity with heterogeneity and move from preferring sameness to accepting difference. Making that move requires determination, resilience, and grace. Because what we believe to be true might not be so, there are two tools we can use to keep our minds and hearts open.

One is reflective thinking. Educator John Dewey introduced the concept in 1910 and defined it as the “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends.” Reflective thinking is a form of critical thinking in which we think about our thinking. It involves evaluating our thought processes and what happened, looking to assure that we’ve moved the unexamined to the examined, i.e., did we let assumptions, pre-conceived beliefs, or stereotypes unconsciously color our decisions? Without reflective thinking, we can fancy ourselves being tolerant yet still be prejudiced.

The other is building a tolerance for ambiguity. Lest we inadvertently fall victim to confirmation bias and narrow mindedness, we need to nurture our capacity to accept deviation and uncertainty in what we define and believe to be the truth. Building this thinking and acting muscle requires a willingness to forfeit a measure of certainty and control. Because sometimes there is more than one right answer, objectivity in assessing if our values about what ought to be are in conflict with the facts comes in handy. We want to be skilled in both doubting and believing. (If you want to assess your tolerance for ambiguity, here’s a questionnaire for doing so.)

Sadly, I’ll never know what motivated that businessman to adopt his position and defend it so fiercely. Was it dogma? Bigotry? Fear? His polarized view and refusal to engage only leaves me guessing.

If I had enough pixie dust, I’d spread it across the world and enable people to replace their fear of not knowing or being right with unconditional positive regard for themselves and others.

“At the end of the day, we are all different and it comes down to unconditional love and acceptance.” ~Lenny Kravitz, singer-songwriter

I’d tell them that holding unconditional regard doesn’t require that they accept someone’s differing viewpoint, but simply that they acknowledge without judgment everyone’s right to believe and think differently. Kind of a golden rule about thinking, doing, and being that makes room for everyone.