As my husband and I ate dinner Sunday evening and reflected (as we do each night) about what we are grateful for, I was simultaneously aware of our abundance of unearned good fortune and sick to my stomach thinking about the people— especially the girls and women—in Afghanistan. I can only imagine their terror and despair, and imagining leaves me overwhelmed.
Like so many people following the news of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, I feel a range of emotions: anger, sadness, frustration, hopelessness, and confusion. Also like many people, I’m full of righteous indignation and blame, but I’m trying to hold these feelings in check. They are the easiest emotions to latch onto; the ones that roil us up and lead us to vent rather than cry; the feelings that prop up our political identities, whatever they may be. These emotions feel strangely good because they are energizing and eclipse despair. But that doesn’t make these feelings worth indulging. In fact, indulging them is dangerous. Such emotions promote polarization and discourage solutionary thinking. They are both self-serving and in-group-serving. They add to, rather than dissipate, conflict. And they prevent us from actually doing good.
The trap of either/or thinking and how to help
It would not be surprising if you are finding yourself choosing a political side in this terrible tragedy. Our culture consistently manipulates and pressures us into either/or thinking, often deflecting our attention away from what actually matters. Our two-party system, approach to legislation, debate teams, and media all conspire to promote side-taking, limit complexity, and erase nuance. And should you find yourself expressing nuance, your in-group might lash out, which means that you may fear being shunned (or “canceled” in today’s parlance) and keep your potentially unwelcome thoughts to yourself. Your silence then feeds the either/or culture, where the loudest voices are the ones yelling at each other, and the actual help we could provide fades from awareness or focus in the shouting match.
This is a trap, and it’s insidious. Here are ways to climb out:
- Find out how you can actually help. Speak to or read and watch accounts by actual stakeholders, in this case, Afghans, especially women who remember living under the Taliban regime. Listen deeply and carefully. If you have the opportunity to meet with Afghans who fled their country, ask their opinions about what they think should have been done and could be done moving forward. Gather information so your opinions and good works can be based on the lived experiences of people who’ve suffered before and during the war, and in the awful aftermath happening now.
- Bring an observer’s eye to the media. Notice when it is focused on blame and when it is focused on what exactly went wrong and why, and what can be learned. Notice your own responses. How do you feel as you watch, read, or listen? If you find yourself in a heightened state that leads you to focus on your anger (and are then rewarded by expressing that anger on social media), ask yourself whether this is the best way you can aid Afghans now and in the future.
- Think like a solutionary. This includes becoming a researcher willing to: learn about root and systemic causes of the problems in Afghanistan; seek out stakeholders to understand their perspectives (as previously mentioned); focus on finding leverage points that can create change, whether in Afghanistan or the next place where fundamentalists are on the verge of taking over; and devise and/or support viable solutions moving forward whether in this situation or the next that will surely follow.
- Read a book like High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out by Amanda Ripley to understand how “high conflict” and polarization arise, get reinforced, and can be met with better tools and ways of thinking and acting in order to create “good conflict” and, ultimately, solutions.
- Choose media wisely. This chart will help you find media that is relatively unbiased. Seeking out biased media is useful to understand how and why others think the way they do, and how and why simplistic and either/or thinking gets reinforced, but make sure that your actual sources of information are as accurate as possible.
Let’s not forget what matters now. Afghans are experiencing terror. Those who worked alongside the U.S. are facing deadly retribution. Women and girls face the prospect of subjugation and oppression once again. We can each take steps to learn how to help instead of arguing or fomenting our own rage.
Despite the horror unfolding in Afghanistan; despite the tragedy of our 20-year war that so utterly failed; despite the loss of life and treasure and the agony of families who endured such loss for naught, a more just and peaceful future is still possible. Keep this vision and goal in mind not only for yourself, but also to honor those who have suffered or died, seemingly in vain, and to ensure that real answers emerge that will help future generations.