There is a measure on the March ballot in Los Angeles, Measure S, that would among other things force a two year moratorium on most new big real estate development projects in the city. I’m not going to discuss here the merits of this proposal, even though I have definite opinions on the topic. I’m only going to address how our political and legal processes frame decisions. In this case, instead of allowing a healthy public debate over the scale, density and location of new apartment construction, in which we could consider a range of ideas, and perhaps reach solutions that serve a number of competing interests, this ballot initiative now forces use to choose only whether we are for or against one particular proposal. We listen to the proponents spin a narrative about preserving neighborhoods against greedy real estate developers determined to profit at the expense of our quality of life, while the opponents tell an equally compelling, competing narrative about the need to accommodate a growing population without rents spiraling out of control. To win the debate, both sides are prone to exaggerate the merits of their own proposal, and the faults of the other side. The debate is contentious because voters may choose only one side or the other, and are not allowed to search for a consensus solution.
Few people would try to justify the initiative process as an ideal way to make policy. Instead, initiatives get put on the ballot because some powerful interest becomes frustrated with the normal process of legislative decision-making on an issue. And often that frustration is justified, because the partisanship and corruption of the “normal” legislative process does not always create an ideal environment for making good policy either. But at least the City Council does not have to limit itself to only voting yea or nay on one particular way to approach a problem. It has the ability to consider many ideas, and can strike a balance between competing proposals.
Moving from the local to the national level, the new administration in Washington is also presenting us with some unfortunate “either-or” decisions. No longer are we talking about reaching legislative compromises on comprehensive immigration reform, for example. Instead we have been presented with ideas somewhat out of mainstream thinking, such as building a wall on our southern border, or temporarily banning entry from certain Muslim nations. And people are forced to line up for or against these proposals to address particular aspects of immigration policy, rather than being allowed to collaborate on solutions to broader questions. Whether people think these are good ideas or bad ideas, it appears that their implementation (or non-implementation) may make it harder to address other aspects of a much more complicated problem. When these political solutions inevitably turn into legal disputes, they devolve into another kind of an “either/or” choice. Our courts are now embroiled with deciding whether the temporary ban is constitutional or not, a binary problem that barely begins to address the whole complicated issue of immigration policy.
Proposals like Measure S, or like the Muslim ban, made by outsiders to the traditional political debate, have the power to upset the whole framework of that debate, and can make the solutions previously on the table impossible. People presented only with the choice of saying yes or no to a new radical proposal, tend to adjust to this new reality quickly and gravitate to one side or the other in the new framework. In that way the radical new idea becomes normalized.
“Either/or” thinking also permeates my world of business conflict resolution. Business disputes may be caused by a range of problems, including management failures, personality issues, and factual misunderstandings. But as soon as somebody threatens to go to court, the whole complicated array of problems that gave rise to the dispute may end up getting framed as an “either/or” question of whether somebody violated a particular contract provision, or committed a tortious action. The parties to the dispute will obviously line up on opposite sides of that question, and the deciders of the controversy may be limited in their choices to yes or no, up or down, guilty or not guilty. The real causes of the conflict may never be addressed, and other solutions to the conflict, beyond the narrow question presented to the court, may never be considered.
In sum, there are at least two problems with this prevalent mode of conflict resolution. One is that we have artificially limited the solutions to only an up or down vote on one particular issue, and foreclosed our ability to consider other ideas. The second is that we have forced the disputing parties to take antagonistic positions, investing them with the motivation to deny the validity of anything the other side is saying, rather than allowing them to work together to design a solution that may work better for both of them.