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How to create a better choice out of two bad ones

By Irshad Manji


Recently, I naturalized as a U.S. citizen. Now I'm a dual citizen of both America and Canada. I'm proudly “both-and.” The both-and lens is, I believe, key to busting out of the mental traps that human beings set for ourselves.


To illustrate: Growing up, I repeatedly heard that "even if we Canadians don't know who we are, at least we know we're not Americans.” The fear of being associated with anything American stunted Canadians' willingness to have honest conversations about themselves.


To ask hard questions about policies that are "uniquely Canadian" (read: not-American) — policies such as multiculturalism or nationalized healthcare — was to risk being labeled an "American." Better to coast into corruption and deal with it then, if at all.


This either/or mindset plagues so much that human beings need to grapple with. Take another example: the scourge of antisemitism. A lot of us won't speak up against it because we're afraid to be perceived as downplaying anti-Muslim bigotry. After all, to humanize one "side" is to dehumanize the other, right?


Logically, that's flat-out wrong. But try explaining this to people's emotions. Including our own.


To make progress on just about anything, we need to spring ourselves from the either/or snare. How? By thinking both-and.


Let me lead by example. In a video featured on the Moral Courage YouTube Channel, I tell the story of seeing swastikas on the walls of my 9th grade English classroom. I did nothing for fear of being mocked by fellow students. Worse, I knew that my silence was wrong. Even so, I quietly took my seat.


As I wrestled with my silence throughout class, I realized that it wasn't too late to "do something." Watch the video for the rest of the story.


In short, caving to an either/or mindset at any given moment doesn't mean that you're "stuck." Use the next few moments to liberate yourself from the trap. Ask, "Do I really have only two options: Either call out the perpetrators or clam up? Is there a third choice? Can I, for instance, tell the targets of this hate that I see their wounds and offer my friendship without having to make a performance of it?"


I'm not suggesting that both-and is easy to do at first. Either/or has powerful sway because it provides clarity. Yet clarity isn't always accuracy.


I was reminded of this truth when a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Officer almost killed my chances of becoming an American citizen. He took a look at my Wikipedia page, glimpsed the word "Islam," and decided I'm a threat to his country. No questions asked. Either/or at its best.


And yet, once it becomes a habit, both-and is that much more powerful than either/or. Hey, I'm still standing — with both my Canadian and U.S. passports in tow.


Remember that you can often innovate a third, much better, choice out of two lousy ones. Just pause and puncture the premise that either/or is truly the best we can do.


UPDATE: I’m filming an online TV series about how to transcend the either/or framing that contemporary culture routinely serves up. My series is called “The Dilemma with Irshad Manji” and it’ll stream in fall 2024. I say more about it in the latest issue of the Moral Courage Moment, our newsletter. Subscribe.

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