Thursday, June 04, 2009

From Either/Or to Both/And

After listening to and reading through the transcript of President Obama's speech in Cairo today, I have to say that I was very impressed. Perhaps this is not much of a shock, since I identify as a Christian Progressive and tend to like Obama (even though I don't agree with all of his policies). What really impressed me was not so much the policy positions he put forth as what the speech reveals about the way he thinks and approaches complex issues. It is a way of thinking that I think is largely shared by most people, and yet is tragically absent from our public discourse.

This kind of thinking could be labeled as "Both/And" thinking. It is the kind of thinking that rejects the idea that all problems have only two solutions, and that these solutions are the polar opposite of one another. I supposed you could call this other type "Either/Or" thinking. "Both/And" thinking can see and appreciate many perspectives, and is not afraid to talk about the merits of postions with which they disagree. "Both/And" thinking's primary concern is not proving why one's position is always correct and the opposing position is always wrong. Instead, it attempts to put different strands of thought in dialogue with one another to achieve the best possible result.

President Obama's speech strikes me as an impressive display of "Both/And" thinking because it actively rejects the polarizing, "Either/Or" nature of the way our foreign relations were conducted during the last administration (as an aside, just as I don't agree with all of President Obama's positions, I didn't always disagree with all of President Bush's positions). In addressing the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, President Obama acknowledged that both Israel and Palestine have done wrong and caused suffering to the other, and that both sides have to make compromises for lasting peace to be achieved.

I don't think I've heard an American President ever criticize Israel in public remarks. I seriously doubt that all of the Presidents since Truman have thought that Israel never does anything wrong, but I believe they were keenly aware of the "Either/Or" nature of most political discourse and were afraid of what would happen if they ever dared challenge such polarizing thinking. Uncritical "Either/Or" thinking is largely responsible for many of the moral disgraces of the last decade, especially the use of torture against enemy combatants. One either unquestioningly supported the Bush administration's prosecution of the War on Terror, or they were unpatriotic and didn't love America.

Perhaps in another post I'll talk about how I see "Either/Or" thinking's destructive power at play in religious dialogue as well. For now I'll just say that regardless of our political affiliation, I hope we can all look to President Obama's speech today as a great example of "Either/Or" thinking and how it demonstrates a positive way for us to move forward and work out our differences together.

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