Why dividing opinions into dichotomies is useful, but insufficient

The bottom line: Although presenting only two sides of a story is an incomplete oversimplification, it’s useful for understanding how reasonable people can disagree.

The Narratives Project’s foremost goal is to promote political mindfulness and peace. But with that goal in mind, our method of dividing complex conversations into a simplified dichotomy of two opposing sides might seem counterintuitive. So why do we do it?

The usefulness of dichotomies

The goal for each of the Narratives Project’s analyses is to help readers momentarily see outside of their own narrative by frame switching into another person’s perspective. By showing issues from two distinct points of view – left vs. right, for vs. against, or liberal vs. conservative – readers are presented with at least one view that is different from their own. If your position isn’t captured in our two sided paradigm, lucky you! You’ll have two contra partisan positions to understand. 

Another reason we often present only two sides to an issue is to keep our work accessible and timely — if we were to cover every point of view on an issue, we’d have to include roughly 8 billion positions for every topic. Instead, we focus on putting out a product that gives readers the opportunity to understand at least one perspective that is distinct from their own. We find that when you take the time to understand one alternative perspective, you are better equipped to consider other points of view as well.

Is left vs. right useful?

The primary strength of a left-right divide is that it’s so well-known – this makes it a useful shortcut for describing two distinct sides of an issue. In reality, there are varying opinions within each side and people’s personal opinions are much more complex than just left or right. Terms like left and right are also relative and only gives us a limited understanding of the world. But despite its shortcomings, it’s a useful tool for understanding political conflicts surrounding complicated issues by giving us a sneak peek into how other people might form their point of view. 

Most of us don’t squarely align with one side or the other on every issue. Instead, our position on the political spectrum often changes based on the issue at hand. We may, for example, support increased immigration (often considered a position held by the left) while opposing business regulations (often considered a position held by the right). Holding both left and right views simultaneously might seem contradictory, but we don’t have to agree with everything one side says for our views to be valid. If we support immigration and minimal business regulations because we believe both contribute to increased economic opportunity, our framework might be rooted in the right to conduct business without burdensome government interference. Our view of immigration and business regulations don’t fit within the left-right dichotomy, but are internally consistent based on other values. 

Sometimes our position even differs within a specific issue. Government regulations in healthcare is one such example. Some people support government regulations for COVID vaccines, but oppose it for abortions; others support government regulations for abortions, but not for COVID vaccines. At first, it may appear illogical to support  government regulations in one instance but not the other, but the people who are holding these positions see them as internally consistent. That’s because it’s not only about our position on government regulations in general. Other values such as protecting the community, the sanctity of life, etc. impact our views on these issues as well, leading us to reach different conclusions. 

Takeaways

The world is much more complex than a neatly divided, two-sided model. But even though using this model presents an inherently incomplete picture of the world, it’s a useful tool for peeking into our contra partisans’ framework of experiences, values, and worldviews. Our hope is that it will remind you that we all live within different, incomplete narratives, and that disagreement doesn’t mean the other side is ignorant, stupid, brainwashed, or evil. It just means that the building blocks we use to form our opinions differ from the experiences, values, and worldviews others use to form theirs, and that’s okay.

Sofia Sedergren-Booker April 6, 2022