Guest view: Going beyond ‘either/or’

By TIM SIZE | Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative 

I am not about to argue that we never have just two choices. We all know that some people chew ice and some don’t. I am going to argue that “either/or” claims have become an unhealthy national obsession and that we almost always have more than two extreme alternatives.

The “either/or” fallacies are statements in absolutes that present only two options or sides when there are many possibilities to explore and discuss. Along with the COVID-19 pandemic we seem to be experiencing an epidemic in our country of “either/or” virtual bomb throwing. Examples we see and hear daily, sometimes explicitly, often implied, look like:

• “Follow the science or look like an idiot.”

• “Either a lockdown or spring break in Miami.”

• “America: love it or leave it.”

Alternative to “Follow the science or look like an idiot” (from “Building Confidence in COVID-19 Vaccines,”, 3/24/21):

• Build Trust — “Share clear, complete, and accurate messages about COVID-19 vaccines and take visible actions to build trust in the vaccine, the vaccinator, and the system in coordination with federal, state, and local agencies and partners.”

• Empower Healthcare Personnel — “Promote confidence among healthcare personnel in their decision to get vaccinated and to recommend vaccination to their patients.” 

• Engage Communities and Individuals — “Engage communities in a sustainable, equitable, and inclusive way–using two-way communication to listen, build trust, and increase collaboration.”

Alternative to “Either a lockdown or spring break in Miami” (from “Thompson wants 75% of UW classes in-person this fall,” Associated Press, 2/18/21): 

“University of Wisconsin System President Tommy Thompson announced it’s time to give students a typical college experience again. Thompson has directed chancellors to ensure students at every campus have an opportunity to attend at least 75% of classes in-person.”

“The system’s social distancing, masks and aggressive testing protocols have kept COVID-19 infection rates low. ‘I’m going to fight like hell to get back as close to normal as we possibly can. With testing, with vaccinations, with having our classes open, our dorms open, hopefully we’ll be playing sports, having a good time once again.’ ”

Alternative to “America: love it or leave it.” (from “Improving on ‘love it or leave it,’” CEO Magazine, 7/23/19):

“’Love it or leave it’ is usually a statement that the actions of the country involved–in reality, usually the actions of its government–should never be criticized. It’s popular in the US because that country sees itself as a moral champion. In a sense, for some Americans, saying ‘love it or leave’ is saying: ‘don’t criticize our champion’.”

“’Love it or leave it’ also says something worse than just ‘don’t dissent from the government.” It says ‘don’t try to improve the nation’ — that there is no way to love it and yet make it better still.

“And yet ‘improve it’ is the obvious alternative. Indeed, countries need to improve. This is what champions do, from Serena Williams in tennis to Magnus Carlsen in chess: they work to get better. And nations can only improve themselves durably through open debate. Free and open speech is the operating system of society.

“In denying the possibility of improvement, ‘love it or leave it’ rejects the one process that democracies rely on above all others to make our countries better over time.

“Karl Popper, a brilliantly practical philosopher chased out of Germany by the Nazis, called this process piecemeal social engineering. We make the place better by changing our laws and institutions, one little change at a time, revising as we go whatever doesn’t work.

“If there’s a better way to build countries, that way is yet to be discovered. To be a patriot, forget ‘love it or leave it.’ Embrace ‘love it and make it even better.’”

Going beyond “either/or” starts in our homes, workplaces, churches and schools–as we move, our politicians will follow.

Tim Size is executive director of Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative, Sauk City. RWHC is owned and operated by 43 rural hospitals, including Tomah Health.

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