Ever notice how often people frame things in dichotomous terms, like leader/non-leader, performer/non-performer, manager/subordinate, winner/loser, have/have-not, producer/moocher or us/them? Why is this so prevalent?
Because of the society’s operative paradigm it’s what we’ve tacitly learned to do, and thankfully it makes for much simpler decision-making. In a world where self-interest defines the boundaries of right action, thinking in dichotomous terms is a perfect fit—if it’s good for me it ought to be. It reduces complex situations into a straightforward choice between two alternatives, between good and bad.
In business either/or thinking is quite prominent since it aligns with management-by-exception or management by the numbers. This is why the use of variance reports, merit pay and pay-for-performance systems are so popular. Accordingly decision-making is reduced to a good/bad or gain/loss judgment based on whether a quantified result exceeds an arbitrarily set threshold—a threshold usually set by those on the favorable side of the dichotomy.
However the tendency to dichotomously frame things is not confined to business. While business management seeks to decide on issues of performance versus nonperformance, in society people coalesce in service to their self-interest thus creating us/them factions. In other words for most the go-to dichotomy is us/them. It is so universal and covers so many situations! Not only does viewing everything in this way make for uncomplicated decision-making it fits quite nicely into our general self-interest maximizing desires, as required by our socio-economic system.
Furthermore, when everything seems to be going badly, blaming them—ya know those who are not like us—for the mess we likely had a hand in creating is the easiest thing to do. Turning ‘them’ into something other than one of us—into an ‘other’, an object saddled with a dehumanizing label—not only elevates us above them, it makes it so much easier for us to take action against them.
Justification Rests on Belief Not Fact
It not only makes it so much easier to act upon them for what they are, it fortifies the belief that these actions are just. Obviously us getting ours’ is only right, so to hell with them __________ (fill in the label)! Of course the action is just, simply look at those __________ (fill in the dehumanizing label) we are dealing with!
Justification is also fortified because of the (dichotomous) value judgment associated with the initial either/or distinction. For example, winners and performers are valued thus making non-winners (i.e. losers) and non-performers valueless and worthless. Also, because of society’s belief that people are independent individuals it goes without saying that those who are winners or performers have become winners and performers fully on their own. Horatio Alger stories are not simply stories they re-present the true reality. Accordingly winners and performers are truly outstanding individuals who embody the rugged individualism society values.
But in justifying actions against ‘them’ the tricks of mind one must play become quite a tangled web, confusing even the best among us. In these situations the fact that justification is a function of belief and not of fact is ignored. In essence, truth and facts become irrelevant—they get in the way. Unfortunately only to the critical thinking mind is this mind trick evident. No wonder when challenged the explanations from ‘us’ often don’t quite measure up to the scrutiny of critical thinkers. To the critical thinking mind, the gaps, inconsistencies and logical fallacies comprising the justification can’t be overcome.
Simple But Revolting
A dichotomized world is a simpler world but it is also a dehumanizing world. The more we structure things according to egoic self-interest, with self-interest coalescing into special interest alliances, the more we dichotomize life in society and the more society becomes a dichotomy of winners and losers. What we create is a battleground where injustice succeeds at the hands of the winners.
In a society following the precepts of an egoistic economic system, us/them translates into a have versus a have-not—ya know winners and losers. In such a society the haves expect others to honor them and to aspire to be counted among them, and if those others don’t then they are considered lazy losers.
Moreover, in such a society support and investment goes to the winners, the losers get the boot—just what they deserve. So society throws support towards and invests in the high performers (e.g. schools, departments, people) and low performers get no help, just exhortations to do better—this is the real crisis.
Lost in all of this dichotomous thinking are the arbitrariness of the classification and the dependence of one on the other. A coin has two sides, it is one coin; we can’t have a top without a bottom; we can’t have an inside without there being an outside; we can’t have an above average without having a below average.
In society, the one coin, we the people, is bifurcated creating us/them. Consequently there is no we the people; there’s me, and people like me—that’s ‘us’—and there’s ‘them’, those others who are not like us. Unavoidably, elevating us over them objectifies them and can never equate to just conduct and lead to a just society. How could morality flourish in a society when there is so narrow a concern? Eventually an us/them world leaves ‘them’ little choice but to revolt.