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Unfinished Products

Feb 25, 2021

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Scholars Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun discuss important characteristics of our dominant culture. One aspect they mention is that our society is marked by “either/or thinking”, also known as binary thinking. That is, we have the tendency to simplify behaviors into dichotomies like good/bad, right/wrong, us/them etc. When we exhibit “either/or thinking” it makes it harder to learn from mistakes and work through conflicts. The reason for this is people are often put in a position where they have to defend a certain label or an aspect of a dichotomy that does not leave much room for context and nuance.


Binary thinking can create a sense of urgency to be “perfect”--meaning to demonstrate the ideal and desired state now. For children who tend to label themselves, you may hear things like “I am not good at math” or “I am not a writer”. When there is a heightened sense of urgency to be perfect we often reject process and do not allow ourselves or others time to grow and learn from mistakes. Moreover, mistakes are often not seen as growth opportunities, but often attributed to a lack of competence and ability. For example, in educational institutions, feedback may often point towards the negative rather than promoting an appreciative culture where an individual’s strengths are highlighted in addition to pointing out areas for growth. This may result in people being highly sensitive and developing what Jones and Okun terms a “harsh inner critic”.


Conclusively, in order to create cultures of belonging, it is important to recognize that our students and colleagues are not finished products. It may be easy to label someone and put them into dichotomous categories, but this may not be the best way to foster a positive sense of identity. The truth is that an individual brings strengths and weaknesses into their environments and communities, and it is imperative that we recognize both. Moreover, it is important to give an individual the ability to name their strengths while also recognizing their weaknesses. The best way to do this is to focus on the process and not just the outcomes.