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Refusing Partisan Thinking in a Black or White World

Partisan thinking leads to more problems than answers.

Often when I hear questions like the following they give me pause:

  • "What's better 'A' or 'B' ?"
  • "Is that right or wrong?"
  • "Are you a Democrat or Republican?"
  • "Is that a good or bad thing?"
  • "Who's your best friend?"
  • "Chocolate or Vanilla?"
  • "What's your one all time favorite food/movie/book?"

Black and white thinking, bifocal thinking, polar, partisan - call it what you will - this mindset of having to choose one or the other is ingrained in our culture and it limits our thinking. My psychologist friend says: "You're trying to choose between this OR that, why can't you choose this AND that?

When asked, those of us who can't pick just one best friend or favorite color from the rainbow feel stumped and are then seen as wishy-washy, non-committal, and indecisive. But what purpose does it really serve to assign such absolutes? I find myself falling back on the same three responses when cornered with limited choices:

1. "I like so many, I can't possibly pick just one."
2. "One's not better or worse, they're just different."
3. "I don't know."

Choosing a best friend in school- where did that get us? Inevitably, with one endorsement and another very disappointed runner-up. And as for choosing that one favorite food/movie/book? Well, that just begs for people to peg us into a narrow category. "So, you say your favorite movie is Titanic? Hmm... I see."

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Partisan thinking, in particular, is very 'hot' right now. Are you Democrat, Republican or Tea Party? You can't vote for 25% of one and 75% of another, so which is it? Have you ever had the guilty sensation of hearing a Republican say something that rings true with your Democrat sensibilities? Similarly, just about every media outlet now has interactive polls that ask for an A or B answer, followed by a tally of nationwide thought. From that, we make a snap judgement about our culture. You get no fill-in-the-blank option when taking an online poll, so which is it? Israel or Palestine? Pro-choice or Anti-choice?

When we're pushed into a corner and forced to choose we become frustrated, exasperated, or angry. Reduced. Dumbed-down. Certainly there are times when we do have to choose. When we step up to the ballot box there isn't an essay section. Is it even possible nowadays to keep an open mind and listen deeply to the content of what people are saying, rather than put them in a left or right box? I'd like to believe that when we listen to others we will in turn feel heard when it's our time to speak.

One of my favorite questions to ask someone facing a choice is, "What's the crazy answer?" They probably already have their pros and cons list drawn up. They know the safe choices, the rights and wrongs, the black and whites. But what are the choices they haven't dared to dream? Maybe we can explore real possibility in that crazy answer.

Do you know an all or nothing, black or white thinker? Do you feel frustrated when limited choices don't allow your full story to be told? Next time, try being mindful of the subversive path. Choose the entire rainbow as your favorite color. Choose gray instead of black and white. Who's your best friend? How about the one who wouldn't ask you such a ridiculous question! Let's strive for flexibility. Let's fully listen and let's be fully heard.

A classic parable of flexible thinking, below is a translation of the Chinese story of Sai Weng Shi Ma or "The Old Man Who Lost His Horse":

An old man owned a beautiful mare that was praised far and wide. One day this beautiful horse disappeared. The people of his village offered sympathy to the old man for his great misfortune. The man said simply, "Who can say what is good or bad?"

A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a beautiful wild stallion. The village congratulated the old man for his good fortune. He said, "Who can say what is good or bad?"

Some time later, the old man's only son, while breaking in the stallion, fell off and broke his leg. The village people once again expressed their sympathy at the old man's misfortune. The man again said, "Who can say what is good or bad?"

Soon thereafter, war broke out and all the young men of the village except the old man's lame son were drafted and were killed in battle. The village people were amazed at the old man's good luck. His son was the only young man left alive in the village. But the old man kept his same attitude: despite all the turmoil, gains and losses, he gave the same reply, "Who can say what is good or bad?" (Other variations of the story can be found here.)


Brad Waters MSW, LCSW provides career-life coaching and consultation to clients internationally via phone and Skype. He helps people explore career direction and take action on career transitions. Brad holds a Master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan and Master's certification in Holistic Health Care from Western Michigan University. Brad is also a personal development writer whose books are available on Amazon and

Copyright, 2013 Brad Waters. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.

Brad Waters, L.C.S.W. is a career and well-being expert based in Chicago. He is also a freelance writer with a background in social work and holistic health care.


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