The end of either/or thinking

In the days where you stayed in the same place for your whole life, where everyone was pretty much like you in terms of class, race and socio-economic background, either/or thinking had its place. It was easy then to do the “us” v “them” dance, the black v white jig, or the ‘us’ and ‘other’ jive. You could say that life was this, or life was that.. because let’s face it, unless you travelled and got to see the world, you didn’t know much more beyond your immediate environment and what the media told you about the rest.

Today, however, in this interconnected, digital, global age, it’s not so easy. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. If you want to shatter your own stereotypes and perceptions you can. With ease. Yet, many do not. Many continue to live in a closed universe, when the world is in fact, more open than it has ever been.

I’ve never been to Mongolia. Yet, I can go online and research it. I can see Mongolian people. Watch them speak on youtube, read their own thoughts on their own lives and their own environments. I have no need to make up what I think Mongolia is about. I need not believe my uncle, who has never visited Mongolia in his life and has only got his understanding of it from a select few publications, when he tells me negative things about them. No, I can find out for myself these days.

Even if you’ve never met a black person in your life, you can now. Go online. Read the multiplicity and range, the depth and breadth, of voices, and views and attitudes and thoughts coming from all over the world. The days of black man = rapper and black woman = angry panther can be analyzed for yourself. You can make up your own mind.

In 2012, what we can all learn is that we are not the same. People are individuals. Even those sharing a racial, cultural, religious or socio-economic background can be  -and are – vastly different. This is one of the more beautiful things about the internet. It can open you up to an understanding and knowledge of the world that you could never have got if the only way to reach it was to get on a plane and find out.

YET… either/or persists. Because it is convenient and it is easy. I believe that the biggest challenge for the generations coming up now is the ability to think in a nuanced, sophisticated way, in a way that is able to cope with ambiguity and differences, and sometimes even contradictions.

Let’s take myself for example. Look at the multiple nature of my identity, one which – if I’m honest – I struggled with for a long time before realizing that I just didn’t fit into any either/or box. I’m black. But I’m also British. But yet not English even though I was born and raised there. The English ask me where I’m from… where I’m really from. Well, I’m African. Nigerian, to be exact, although I have never lived in Nigeria. My parents are Nigerian. I understand Yoruba fluently, but don’t speak it very well. At times, Africa to me is a culture shock. There they ask me if I’m really Nigerian. I have, though, lived in South Africa. As an expat. An expat with an English accent, a surprise to those who would approach me speaking in Xhosa or Zulu.

I’m also female. Also intensely driven, alpha and purpose-orientated. It is my boyfriend, not I, who makes the dinner every night. I was privately educated my entire life, yet lived on a council estate in inner city London for 10 years. I have friends literally from all over the world, pretty much on every continent. I’m both “1%” and “99%”. Where do I, and others like me, fit in the either/or world?  The answer: we don’t. And as the years go by, there will be many more who also do not. They will be hybrid, mixed culture individuals who don’t fit so neatly into either a stereotype or a box.

The fast changing nature of our world has upset the apple cart. All industries are being rapidly disrupted. The real challenge is how people respond. Because in order to make sense of this new order, much thinking is required. The know-it-all days in which we could make easy assumptions and fit people into simplistic categories are gone.

These days we don’t know much. We have no idea which direction the future is going in. And we are being forced to remove our precious little labels. But – and this it the catch – despite having the tools available to us, they will only be useful if we actually use them. Those who will win in the future will be those who do. Those who will remain stuck in Industrial Age thinking will be those who don’t.

Thinking – that is, good thinking, creative thinking, novel thinking, critical thinking – requires curiosity and desire. It requires a willingness to engage. It requires a need to ask hard questions, to ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ and more. It means not just accepting what you have been told, but finding out for yourself.

I recently realized that I was becoming very bored with the internet. Why? Because it is becoming more and more closed. Google wants to tell me what to read, based on my location. Twitter wants to tell me who to connect with based on who I follow and who follows me. Linked in wants to tell me who they think I should know, based on who I have already linked with. The idea is, what I have already known should define what I want to know in the future. For me, at least, they are all wrong.

We can get drawn back into our shells – into the familiar, into what we already know and already like. These networks seems to want us to continue to live in our boxes, to some degree, and to categorize our in-groups and out-groups, our us-es and thems and our either/ors. I’d love to see a network that opens me up to newness.. new people, new ideas, new thinking that takes me beyond who I already am and what I already know. In other words, one that is educational.

We can resist this imposed limitation, for our own self-education and betterment as human beings, and choose for ourselves. We can go and search. Read widely. Search widely. Look at things we haven’t seen before. Type in a random query and see what it returns. Ask your friends to recommend some blogs or books or videos to see so that you see what you haven’t seen before. Shatter your own status quo. Go beyond either it’s this… OR it’s that…

No, today, the world is AND. In fact, it always has been… We just didn’t know it.

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