Thinking in Grayscale
Part I of a Three-Part Series
It worries me when Christians say, “I love Trump.” Or “Trump is doing a great job,”—and that’s where their sentence ends.
Disclaimer: This is not going to be a Trump-bashing series. (For one, because I don’t think we should bash our politicians, or anyone for that matter). My main focus is to argue that in all things—and definitely in politics—we need to evaluate the whole picture and try our best to act and speak with nuance, wisdom, and love.
Let’s wade into the controversy together. Maybe you are already angry I’ve questioned loving Trump. Or maybe you are nodding your head, wanting hear more. Either way, I humbly ask you to listen and think with me.
Why do I worry when I hear Christians say they love Trump, end of sentence? Because I don’t hear nuanced thinking that takes the whole picture into account. I hear a full-hearted embrace of a leader who is doing some dangerous, ugly things (as well as some things to which we as Christians can offer our support). I suggest 3 things for us to question when we speak about Trump (and politics as a whole):
- Are we thinking in shades of gray? You can appreciate the outcomes of some of Trump’s policies and still be vocally critical of his rhetoric, behavior, attitudes, and/or other policies. (Part I, below)
- Are we avoiding logical fallacies? Don’t love Trump because ‘Democrats kill babies.’ (Part II, coming soon)
- Are we looking at the whole picture? Our leaders should be evaluated by biblical principles of character, not just by biblical principles of fulfilling the law. (Part III, coming soon)
Let’s dive into the first question in today’s article.
1. Are we thinking in shades of gray?
In our current political landscape (and maybe in our society at large) we seem to excel at polarized thinking. We talk in extremes, and burry down into partisanship. I hear a lot of full-scale Trump support (typically from Republicans*), and a lot of full-scale Trump hate (typically from Democrats*). Under Obama, I also heard a lot of full-scale adoration or hatred. These polarized reactions to the president usually fall along partisan lines, especially of late.
What surprises me when I hear Christians voice support for our current president is the lack of nuance, the lack of shades of gray. I don’t often hear (especially when the arguments get heated), “Well, I appreciate what Trump has done for [insert topic you support], I am concerned about his [insert behavior, language, or attitude that is troubling.]” Yes, I do hear it from some—dear reader, if you are a nuanced speaker, thank you for what you are adding to the conversation.
Why it has become so difficult think in shades of gray and say, “This president’s policy is doing xyz good thing, but he is also showing troubling/unbiblical behavior?” It’s difficult for us because black-and-white thinking is a common human tendency; in an article titled “Black and White Thinking in our Social Worlds” in Psychology Today, the author highlights how we do this in many areas of our lives:
One of the interesting things about human social psychology is that…we tend to over-simplify stimuli in our social worlds – seeing things that could be conceptualized as complex and nuanced as simple and categorical. For instance, in many ways, we divide people into the category of “on my team” or “not” per the powerful ingroup/outgroup phenomenon (Billig & Tajfel, 1973). Quickly and automatically, people divide folks into these categories – and research has shown that we treat people very differently if they are in our (psychologically constructed) group or not. (Psychology Today, “Black and White Thinking in our Social Worlds”)
Black-and-white thinking is called splitting in psychology, and is used to describe our tendencies to sort things into “good” and “bad” buckets. Splitting leads us not only to sort people and issues according to absolute categories where absolute categories don’t exist**, but also to have emotional reactions, evaluations, and behaviors towards that which we have sorted—leading us to “prejudiced thinking [that] facilitates stereotyping, scapegoating, ostracizing the other, and even committing violence against them in extreme cases.” (Psychology Today, Black and White Thinking in Hate).
We see this splitting not only in our personal lives, but also on the national stage:
[W]e are witnessing extreme splitting occurring at every level of our social, political, and cultural life. We see it in our leaders, members of Congress, state and local bodies, and the public at large, with the splitting often reaching pathological levels. We also see it in large parts of our media, where the underlying goal appears to be taking sides with one or the other political party while vehemently claiming adherence to the highest order of journalism. When challenged for their bias thinking, they split and accuse and attack the other side. (Psychology Today, “Black and White Thinking in Hate”)
Black-and-white thinking—on a personal level and on a national level—is not only unhelpful for us (we are looking at the world through dichotomous lenses that don’t account for the truth of a complex, grayscale world); it can be downright dangerous. At best, it gives us false perspectives and oversimplifies. At its worst, it causes extremism, hatred, and violence.
As you read this, you might be thinking, “I don’t take things to such an extreme black-and-white level!” It’s true that most of us don’t live in the extremes of hatred to which splitting can lead; but many of us still trip into splitting when it comes to our politics. If we express our support for a politician or party without also being willing to name that which is troubling, we are engaging in black-and-white thinking.
When we engage in the discipline of thinking in shades of gray, we move from dichotomies and splitting, and towards a truthful, nuanced evaluation. Healthy grayscale thinking evaluates the whole picture and is willing to name what is good, true and beautiful, and also dives into courageously calling out that which is ugly, dangerous, and unbiblical. This is thinking well—training our minds to move past simple categorizations and into holding complex issues with wisdom.
Can we evaluate Trump and say: “He is enforcing policy decisions I think are important, and I’m also concerned about his public tone, his personal morality, and the damage he might be doing through some of his behavior?” For those who weren’t Obama supporters, nuance might well have been sounded like, “I had concerns with some of his policies, but I appreciated the outcome of his policies that were good for society as a whole, and his lack of personal scandal, his dedication to a strong marriage, the intellect he portrays on the public stage”? And so on and so forth throughout history. Our presidents are mixed bags, not 100% good or bad. And our presidents are more than their policies. Their tone, behavior, and cultural impact need to be evaluated alongside their policy outcomes.
Black-and-white thinking about our presidents is dangerous. When Christians condone the president without also voicing concern, we aren’t speaking full biblical truth. We are looking only at the outcomes we favor, and dismissing aspects of the presidency that deserve critical evaluation.
Part II & Part III of this series will take a look at logical fallacies and biblical issues of character.
* I use the terms Democrat, Republican, Independent, and Moderate in my writing, even though I think the terms aren’t quite correct. One isn’t a Republican; rather, one votes Republican. The identity piece of politics has become concerning, more in a later post.
** This is not an argument for moral relativity; I firmly believe in absolute truths. This argument is how we categorize people and issues that are more complex than to fit in an “all-good” or “all-bad” bucket. No human exhibits all- good behavior or all-bad behavior. No political party is flawless and 100% biblical in its practices. Conflicts rarely have one side that is 100% right and one side that is 100% wrong.