Correlative Thinking

July 19, 2017

A traditional rule of grammar is that both parts of a correlative conjunction should be used: “both” goes with “and,” “either” goes with “or,” and “not only” goes with “but also.” The omission of the second half is a frequent error we see in the editing world.

 

As I fixed a few occurrences of this in a recent proofreading project, it occurred to me that so much of our contemporary political and social discourse—such as it is—suffers from the same type of neglect. Social media resounds with shouts that seek to drown out all the other shouts. It seems to so many that things can only be either...or, and as a result, it's all gotten very loud. 

 

To be clear, I am not a moral relativist. (After all, I’m a career Ignatian educator—I teach at Jesuit schools.) I believe there are ethics that define that which is fundamentally good and that which is not. However, these “baseline” ethics are quite broad—and it sometimes gets very, messy very quickly when one attempts to define a broad ethical principle narrowly, in terms of a very specific issue, without examining the broader context in which that specific issue exists. The problem is this: more often than not, there is a “both…and” to every issue, despite what our increasingly polarized political echo chambers would have us believe.

 

As an author—and as a teacher, for that matter—the importance of imagination is very clear to me. I wonder: have these echo chambers muted our imaginations too often? Are we crippled, at times, by an inability (or at least an unwillingness) to imagine the potential merits of a different point of view? When I am teaching argumentative writing to my students, I emphasize the key to effective argumentation: acknowledging the merits of the opposing position. This makes for informed understanding—which may just as well change our opinions on a particular matter as reinforce them. This is why I encourage them to read The New York Times as well as the Washington Post, for example.

 

One can, in fact, believe one thing and another thing, which might be related to the first. Not everything is as mutually exclusive as the loudmouths want to make it. In most cases, mutually exclusive thinking is the path of least resistance—a simple, easy way forward that doesn’t tax the mind. Life isn’t supposed to be that clear. If it were, we wouldn’t ever grow up. And if we do everything possible to make everything that streamlined—ignoring the other side—we hinder our own capacity for intellectual sophistication. I’m talking about the kind of intellectual sophistication that went into forming a republic like this one, which, for all its troubled history and ongoing problems, has been a remarkably good force in the world. (Yes, along with being a remarkably damaging one, too. Because, well...both, and.)

 

This is why, after membership in both major political parties through the course of my twenties, I discerned the need to be an independent. This is why so many of the statements I make strike people I know as contradictory. I was told not that long ago that, “Paul, you sound like a Republican on so many things, but such a Democrat on others.” Yes. This is true. Because life requires reflection and discernment, and engaging in those practices regularly makes for this sort of nuance. This is not a bad thing. And it goes beyond politics. Having an independent mind means evaluating situations in their own context—although always trying to base decisions in principles. It is not being noncommittal—it is merely a commitment to informed discernment instead of groupthink.

 

I do not begrudge my family and friends who are aligned with a party. Nor do I think they are, by default, flawed in their thinking. I only like to remind them that if they search hard enough, they’ll find things within those parties that are antithetical to their own beliefs, and I think it’s important to acknowledge this and determine whether or not they wish to support that party exclusively. I know many of them do acknowledge this, with a sort of “lesser of two evils” mentality. That’s okay, too. Because I think there should be both political independents and those aligned with a party. Both…and.

 

Ultimately, my call here is for imagination and a willingness to explore the opposite point of view before concluding, unconditionally and prematurely, that our conclusions about a matter are correct. Correlative thinking demands that we always ask: is it just either…or, or could it be both…and?

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