Americans culture is based on binary constructs – either/or, male/female, white/ black. Our legal and political systems are binary- either you win or lose; you are a Republican or a Democrat. No significant third parties, spaces in the middle or shades of grey. If we want to get a little more sophisticated about this problem we can say that American cultures has a tendency to categorize and rank everything and everybody. Categories tend to be mutually exclusive. You are either in or out. We rank students by their grades in school. We rank corporations by how much money they report on their balance sheets. We rank people and their human integrity by their similarities to our idealized “White” person of northern European descent. Our lives are often dominated by competition and the accolades for highest ranking are usually well-defined.
All of this brings us to the slogan, “America Love it or Leave it,” which has had far too much press lately because of the incumbent in the White House. Thinking in binary terms limits us in more ways than we can mention. The biggest limitation is the inability to understand the subtleties of the human experience and the dignity of our complex human lives. We are therefore limited in our ability to respect each other and listen to the realities of the lives of people outside our self-defined group. The United States of America, as it is currently configured, was created by white men at the expense of the inhabitants already on the land these men had invaded. The mental gymnastics it took to kill or exclude Indigenous People included categorizing them as non-human and uncivilized which made treating them as equally worthy human beings unnecessary and permitted mass murder without remorse. This practice of dehumanizing people who occupy space that the dominant group wants to occupy (either physically, psychologically or financially) continued through slavery, incarceration of Japanese people in WWII, impoverished people today, women who are pregnant and do not wish to be, Jewish people, Muslims and members of all other groups that are disrespected in our country.
Social justice movements are essential to the remediation of this flaw in American thinking, but they cannot solve the problem without “inner work,” introspection and serious thinking about our either/or national mind. The first step in any war is the process of dehumanizing the enemy so that members of that group can be killed or imprisoned without any moral misgivings. Black Lives Matter is one example of challenging the current war that uses the criminal justice system to dehumanize and exclude people of African descent. Bend the Arc and its demonstrations at incarceration centers re-invokes the dehumanization of the Jews by Hitler and refusal to permit the American government to conduct the same atrocities. The defunding of family planning centers is an example of a war on women, under the pretense that women can get pregnant without men, and that men are not equally responsible for the consequences of their behavior.
All of us need to explore our own binary minds and find places where we are afraid to confront complexity and our fear that we may lose our rightful place in the human universe if we elevate the value of some other group of people who we believe are challenging our group. Facing complexity and exploring equality does not exclude or demean anyone. It simply expands the universe of humanity. As somebody said recently, “Human rights are not like pie. If I get mine that doesn’t mean you lose yours.” Binary thought has its uses – at places like traffic lights and ice cream shops. Right now we need rise above our limited thinking and challenge the people who create categories of hate and exclusion. That means standing up to a public official who tells another public official to “Go back where you came from, ” and refusing to “take the bait,” of inflammatory, hateful and misleading rhetoric from the White House. Name calling is deplorable. Disrespecting people is deplorable. We all deserve better and we all need to do our part to stop this destruction of our national values and our personal sense of decency.