Unwinding Binaries & Loving Justice

Any time we enter a highly charged political and/or ethical conversation, there is a strong pull toward binary categorizations and polarized thinking: Good/evil, right/wrong, us/them, etc. The result is that even concepts and values that are not necessarily diametrically opposed come to feel like they cannot exist alongside one another. In the current political climate, one such polarization that I often encounter is the oppositional framing of forgiveness and accountability/consequences.

When we talk about forgiveness and accountability, enormous emotion can arise. Our past traumas, experiences of harm and betrayal, and our conceptions of ourselves as good and/or bad people emerge. It can be very easy to lose ourselves in all of the negative aspects of a forgiving perspective (permissiveness, pressuring survivors of harm to forgive, etc) or all of the negative aspects of an accountability-centered perspective (vengefulness, abuse of process, excess).

Polarity Mapping, a model developed by Barry Johnson, can help us to ease out of this entrenched debate and move into a dialogue that is based on holding the strengths and weaknesses of both positions. When we compare strength versus strength and weakness versus weakness (as opposed to strength versus weakness), we start to live in the “both/and” space (as opposed to the “either/or”).

Developing the ability to find and stay in both/and is a primary aim of Loving Justice. It requires mental flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity – both of which in turn require personal and collective trauma healing in order to be sustainable. Both/and is not a tenable position when it comes to moral atrocities (ie, it is not acceptable to discuss the “strengths” of a position like white supremacy). However, both/and thinking is key to the maintenance of strong relationships of solidarity and collective growth.

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