A few months ago, I was lucky enough to monitor a session of teaching for people working for the Church of England, in which they learned about reconciliation. One of the many exercises involved everyone standing up and then having to move within the room to align themselves with one of two options: for example, fruit, or chocolate? If you identify with ‘fruit’, go to that end of the room. If you identify with chocolate, it’s the other end.
As we all moved around the room, deciding which way to go and how near the wall to locate ourselves, some clearly hated the whole thing. Others were up for anything. Some spent a while working out just where to stand. Others found a place, stood there, and then carefully moved one step further along. None of us really knew why we were doing it. But at each stage, as yet another pair of terms was called out, and we all moved again, the facilitator would ask some people why they stood where they stood. Why fruit rather than chocolate?
Fruit: ‘It’s not that I don’t love chocolate – but I’m diabetic so I shouldn’t eat it’.
Chocolate: ‘I like them both, and in fact I like fruit more, but I thought, if it were to be the last thing I eat in my life, it would be chocolate’.
Fruit: ‘I took the question to be about how much of each I eat in the average week’.
Chocolate: ‘I just love the sound of the word’.
The facilitator also asked people why they thought others were standing where they were. Did the fruit people think the chocolate people were gluttons? Did the chocolate people think the fruit people were all liars, trying to claim a virtue that in reality they lacked?
This exercise demonstrates a very simple set of facts. Not everyone who positions herself as holding a particular belief or view does so for the same reason as others who hold that belief or view. People don’t all hear a question in the same way. It’s not easy to second-guess the motives of others. We all come to any debate with our own assumptions about others, and they in turn make assumptions about us. We come to any debate with our own history.
And thinking in binaries, in polarizations, misses out all the richness of our individuality.