When I was in high school and first discovered dichotomous keys, I couldn’t have been happier. Of course, growing up with sports-loving boys and men in my house, I already knew about playoff brackets – those visual aids used to whittle the pool of teams down to just two, eliminating half of them every time until you got to the final championship game. I found them stark and calming, clear and concise. But I was interested in life sciences in school, so learning that I could key out any plant or animal using a very similar method gave me chills. (Yeah, I know – total geekdom.)
I went around gleefully separating plants in my neighborhood by simple or compound leaves, evergreen or deciduous, flowering or non-flowering. Occasionally I came across a question I couldn’t discern the answer to, either because I didn’t quite understand the distinction or because the plant’s characteristics lay in somewhat of a grey area. In such cases, I tended to blame my own ignorance, assuming that there was a definite category in which everything belonged that simply eluded me. I forgot one simple thing: humans created the dichotomous key to make our own lives easier and more understandable. The key was not a Real Thing to which the laws of nature adhered. It was a false construction that was somewhat helpful but not absolute. No matter how hard I tried to force a particular organism to fit into my perfect notion of what it was, there would likely still be outliers and things I couldn’t account for.
I have found it helpful to remember that fact in my daily life. Here are just a few of the false dichotomies I have encountered in my Facebook feed in the last 48 hours:
- Is Richard Sherman (cornerback for the Superbowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) a cocky a**hole or not, as evidenced by his comments immediately following the end of last Sunday’s football game?
- Does refusing to vaccinate your child put everyone else on the planet at risk for contracting sometimes fatal diseases such as measles and mumps?
- Is breastfeeding better than formula feeding?
- Is marijuana more harmful than alcohol?
- Are employees unions ruining our economy?
Not long ago, I engaged in some correspondence with an acquaintance, and threw up my hands at the notion that they presented that everything is black and white – or right or wrong. Thank you for this! I tried to make a similar point, but was no so eloquent. I get fatigued at the notion that of this notion that something is entirely right or wrong. There are nuances to pretty much anything and as long as we behave as though there aren't, progress, as you say, will be slow.
Well said! I think everything is on a continuum/spectrum, and it's a matter of yes/and, not either/or.
I think this is such an important piece and wish that it could get a wide readership. I imagine, though, the giant internet publications that foment so much "discussion" wouldn't bother to print your suggestions. I've long struggled with the vaccination issue, feeling physically ill every time I see the vitriol on both sides of the issue. If I say anything at all now, I generally cry out about the lack of complexity covered in the "debate," and am inevitably shouted out by someone or other. I think in the future I will point to this post. Thank you.
Dear Kari, . . . and what is that "incredibly complicated" issue going to be for the conversation you will catalyze? We seem today to be surrounded by such issues. Your posting is an entry into the frame of mind we need when conversing–the willingness to look beyond dichotomy and to seek options and possibilities.
Recently I was in a discussion with a friend and there seemed to be only two options in the discussion: to work on the Bronze Age Greece novel or to work on a memoir. And suddenly I said, "Why can't I do both?" and then beyond me lay possibility! Peace.
I love your ability to synthesize something I think about and believe in a way that allows me to expand my understanding. Teaching writing this year is allowing me to offer the possibilities of gray to my fifth graders. All the rules we teach, every single one, can be broken to great effect. Many contradict themselves. If our own language cannot be learned in black and white, why should we expect anything else to be? Great post, as always.