False Dichotomy: We Are the Third Way


By Chris Cote

When I was in college, the president of the university was gracious enough to meet with me in his office. There was an agenda, but when we finished with that he asked me to stick around and talk.  How was I doing?  What was going on in my life?  He was and is an extremely busy man, but was genuinely interested in my life (and I was no special case, he showed this compassion for each student he came across).  I wasn’t expecting this and I seized up, just for a second. I was nervous to come up with something interesting (he’s very nice, but I’m sure he didn’t want to hear about the final exams my head was buried in).

The day before, I had watched two university faculty members debate whether an undergraduate’s time should be spent engrossed in theory or filled with activism and service.  This was a conversation I had heard many times before, but had not come to any firm conclusion. Neither did the professors.  I took the opportunity and presented my dilemma to the president.  He just smiled.

“Chris, there’s no need to choose between the two.  You’ve created a false dichotomy. A student’s time need not be spent solely in the library or just organizing rallies or doing service abroad.”  The point was to balance the two, and by presenting the question as a debate, it allowed students to find the missing middle—that theory and action go hand in hand, a key focus of the university, especially its international relations program.

What the president had done for me was take a step back and find the third side; avoiding the limits of dichotomy, he added a new possibility.  Along with the great patience and kindness he showed me, I think over and treasure this lesson often.  It was perhaps a very easy step for him to take, but he taught me to constantly search within a larger context to solve a seemingly intractable dilemma or conflict—whether it be a spat with a friend or a much larger issue.

William Ury, who with Roger Fisher wrote the book on negotiation, discusses the role of the third side in the face of fragmented societies bound with fear from terrorism (one could also insert economic instability, environmental degradation, war, or political gridlock) in an October TED Talk. In the search for peace, he says, we are the third side:  we, the community surrounding a conflict, can change the context of the dilemma.  If our reaction to the threat of fear is to remain complacent, fear will fester and spread through our relationships.  If we break free from indifference and take action, the wound can rapidly heal.

Around the 10 minute mark in the video, Ury begins to riff on the story of Abraham.  “Abraham represents unity and interconnectedness,” he notes. Abraham’s path, from womb to tomb, passes through the most volatile region in the world, crossing Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Syria, and Turkey. Ury advertises the path, which is now open for the cultural tourism, and discusses Abraham’s story as one of hospitality.  We must move from “hostility to hospitality,” and change the framework we think of terrorism in.  We think of terrorism and our desire for personal security makes us freeze. We shrink back into our shell and qualities such as trust, hospitality, and tolerance are thrown to the wayside.  Ury’s reminder that we, each one of us, is the third side—that the way out of our insecurity is through ourselves—is a call to action.  He suggests beginning a conversation with a new person, maybe someone of a different culture, and hearing their story.

What if the conversation expanded to someone of a different religion? Or someone who believes in no religion? Someone from a different profession (a businessman, a scientist, a violinist)? Someone from the opposing political party?  What if you all met together? Such a plethora of diverse perspectives would surely warm us out of our hypothermic indifference and encourage us to find a third way, taking power away from those in whose interest it is for us to remain out of the debate.

We are the third way. Express your opinion, Rock the boat.

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