The Limitations of Dichotomies

dichotomy poster imageI don’t pretend that this is news, for I first learned about false dichotomies in 1991, as the prequel war began in Iraq. Actually the rhetoric around that conflict gives good context for this discussion, because it was presented by the media to all of us as a fight between good and evil, the granddaddy of all dichotomies. George Bush the Elder seemed not quite the thousandth point of light to we idealistic college students, and although Saddam Hussein clearly wasn’t a benevolent leader for his country, many of us questioned the purity of malignancy that our government suggested he represented.

Friends came back from Desert Storm with nagging or incapacitating illnesses that were written off as psychosomatic, while the faces of so many dead Iraqis scarcely made the evening news. We told ourselves that it was a good thing the whole event was over in three weeks, at least until several years later when Colin Powell explained to the United Nations that this was why we needed to return and finish off the regime once and for all.

The story about the good forces in the world and its evil counterparts is compelling, certainly. It’s also got longevity in culture because its very narrative design is never-ending. Good and evil are intertwined, at battle forever. And by extension, so is every other dichotomy that has positive and negative valences. Maddona/whore. Rich/poor. Country/city. Bully/bullied.

But these either/or concepts catapult us into dangerous territory. If we take up the issue of bullying only within this “side versus side” lens, we lose a large portion of people’s lived experience in our analyses. Many individuals have been bullied and also bullied someone else. In thinking about anti-bullying policy, how would an understanding of the gray boundary of people’s behavior change how we respond to bullying wherever it is found? Last month a video of students mocking a school bus monitor–a female senior citizen, in this case–went viral, and it is a good example of seeing that bullying doesn’t necessarily always follow an expected set of actors. How, for instance, does the idea of bully/bullied unravel when we look at the Columbine High School massacre, since those perpetrators were acting out against chronic harassment from other students?

Dichotomies also don’t take into account that behavior occurs over time. Humans are more than capable of shifting their positions in culture and interpersonal relationships, using their frustration on the margins in one community and enacting it against others they perceive as weaker in another location. Such tendencies are well documented in psychology and social psychology, perhaps most famously by Milgram’s experiments on people’s willingness to hurt others when confronted with draconian authority. What was a mild mannered person in one moment, before sitting down at a machine that would deliver electricity to another person, becomes, over a series of moments that desensitize that person’s conscience, an abuser. If bullies aren’t “born” but are created through perverse motivation and circumstances, why continue to give the dichotomy credibility? Why are we willing, in the face of empirical evidence that the dichotomy is impoverished and wrong, to go about using it when setting anti-bullying policy?

Perhaps it’s not politically possible to write policy that understands that children can occupy either position, or vacillate between those poles. Or maybe we’re not comfortable with discussing how teachers, administrators, supervisors, and school board members exacerbate bullying. I suppose it’s hard to take on issues of accountability in communities where everyone knows each other and have history with each other. But for the sake of our future generations, don’t we owe it to them to try?

While we’re at it, crafting new ideas about how bullying occurs  and what consequences it has for the individuals affected by it, how about we also eschew other dichotomies? I’d like to start with these–innocent/guilty, and oppressor/oppressed. Okay, okay, I’ll give them their own proper posts.

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Categories: ponderings, Pop Culture


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3 Comments on “The Limitations of Dichotomies”

  1. July 9, 2012 at 5:42 am #

    Bullying makes a good example of how the simplicity of the dichotomy misrepresents the complex nature of many human interactions and other situations.

    “There are two sides to every story” my friend said, as if that was some sort of enlightened statement. “Actually there are AT LEAST two sides, generally a lot more.” I replied. “No, there are two sides to every story. It’s one thing, or it’s another.”

    Over the next hour or so we explored the most basic differences in our perceptions of reality, of where in our thoughts the “truth” might lie.

    It came down to the idea that he saw situations as being a short line between two points while I see things as usually falling somewhere on a three dimensional curve, a great deal of which is diffused into fog-like particles of being requiring extensive consideration of each individual situation to ascertain where perhaps “truth”, or at least the most advantageous outlook, may lie. It might also have to do with the fact that he’s essentially a Concrete-Sequential and I’m essentially more Random-Abstract, though of course neither of us is exactly either of those things. That would be too dichotomous (or is it hippopotamus?)

    He finally threw up his hands and exclaimed “if you stop to look at every little thing that way a) it’ll take forever, if ever, to decide, and b) You’ll go nuts!”. “Yup. That’s the breaks if you seek for the Eldorado of truth, Bud. Besides, somebody’s gotta do it – if only just for “the record” (Oh, You know, The Record – that database that God, Allah, The Goddess, Great Spirit, Cosmos, Atuan the Great Sky Turtle, or perhaps The Big Tree is making of the collective human experience)

    We at least came to understand that he and I just perceive things a lot differently, despite being good friends.

    I’m glade to see that someone else has thought about this. I’m not surprised it was you.

    Thanks Ev, this is a fine post.

    • July 9, 2012 at 5:45 am #

      D’oh! Glad. I’m Glad to see someone else thinking about this. If I was a glade, well, that would be COMPLETELY different. 😉


  1. The Problem with Passing Privilege | Trans/plant/portation - July 16, 2012

    […] said before that most dichotomies are impoverished, inaccurate, and lead us into supporting the status quo instead of deconstructing it. Human beings […]

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