The dangers of either/or

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This year’s conference theme—Widening the Angles of Literacy Research: Honoring Untold Stories Using
Contrapuntal Approaches— LRA 2021

con·tra·pun·tal/ˌkäntrəˈpən(t)l

adjective MUSIC

  1. of or in counterpoint.
    • (of a piece of music) with two or more independent melodic lines.

When I read the theme for the 2021 Literacy Research Association conference, I was a bit confused. Contrapuntal? My limited understanding of Latin roots gave me a clue: contra: against, punctum: point in time or space. I turned to my friend, Google, for clarification and found that contrapuntal is a musical term related to counterpoint. Being both a musician and a word nerd, I dug a little deeper and learned that contrapuntal is an adjective that denotes the existence of a counterpoint, while counterpoint is the investigation of how two independent melodic lines may work in harmony. Counterpoint itself dates back to the Middle Ages (Jackson, 2020), where two or more sung/chanted groupings created a unique sound.

Without going too deep down the musical rabbit hole, counterpoint evolved and changed through the centuries, becoming mostly associated with two independent melodies that, when sung or played together, made a pleasing sound. If you listen to the Bach Brandenburg Concerto Number Three, you can clearly hear distinct musical lines in an interplay of stringed instruments. Each instrument is distinct and each melody identifiable, but the magic of the piece is in the putting it all together in a joyful blend that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Voices of Music

I read an interesting piece in Medium recently that gave me a V8 moment (for those readers who missed the joys of ads in the 70s, click here for some pop culture history.) It was a story of a family who stymied a customs official by claiming to be full Asian, full Hispanic, and full Caucasian. The father in the story explained, saying, “As a family, we believe that ethnicity is much more than some digit that can be chiseled away into percentages. We cherish all the distinct bloodlines we descend from and see ourselves as fully included in all of them. You see, we are multiracial and not mixed-raced”(Agarwal, 2020, December 10.)

Multiracial, not mixed.

So what does musical counterpoint have to do with a story of a multiethnic family and the danger of either/or?

One of the lessons of the Great Pandemic of 2020 included increased attention to the issues of race, injustice, and “othering.” The issues weren’t new, but maybe because we had time to pay attention to the world around us, we had to face, head-on, the ramifications of some people more equal than others. Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breanna Taylor became familiar names across the US because of the ways each died–at the hands of white official and unofficial law enforcers. There were dozens of other names to be remembered, but these three stood out as representative of three distinct problems within law enforcement: police brutality, police ineptitude, and non-police vigilantes. There are plenty of essays and articles about the specific cases, so my focus is not necessarily on these three, but rather what they illustrate: humans who focus on skin color, culture, and/or ethnicity can be dangerous. A philosophy that puts appearance above character stands in opposition to what most Americans believe. Most Americans (Black, Hispanic, Asian, and white) cling to Dr. King’s dream for a time when people would be judged, not for the color of their skin, but by the content of their character (King, 1963, August 28.) When the riots of June 2020 began, white Americans were largely horrified and surprised, but Americans of other ethnicities often echoed the sentiments of those participating: You who are in authority cannot continue to violate the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness guaranteed to ALL Americans without consequence. And because it was impossible to turn a blind eye to the protests and the riots because we were all in pandemic lockdown, people of all ethnic backgrounds had to listen for a change.

The problem of racism begins with the dehumanizing effect of the other. It is not limited to people of European descent, although that is how it is most often discussed in the political and social US. The idea of the other goes back to Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) when Cain, in a fit of anger, murdered his brother, Abel. When confronted, Cain said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” By that, Cain meant that Abel was not his responsibility; they were different and their relationship was a matter of “him” and “me.” Othering began at that moment and has been a global phenomenon ever since.

Othering is at the heart of the either/or movement. Either Black or white. Either digital or analog. Either science or art or religion. When people fall victim to a false binary (either this or that), they typically seek to protect “their” culture, “their” belief systems, and “their” ways of knowing. By turning inward toward those who look and think as they do, people begin to view the other as an enemy.

Either/or is not limited to melanin sufficiency or deficiency. Either/or can be any aspect of humanity that seeks to keep itself apart from other human groups: the spread of the Persian/Greek/Roman Empires, the Viking conquests of northern Europe, the battles between Israelis and Palestinians, African tribalism, and the European colonization of most of the world are all examples of how othering destroys both cultures and individuals.

There is a solution to the notion (and the nonsense) of either/or: both/and.

There is power in both/and. Both/and is truly inclusive. It means that every voice is permitted, heard, and respected. In a both/and world communication includes listening carefully to information AND experiences. It considers situations and issues from multiple sides, like turning over the facets of a diamond to see the beauty from all angles AND to remove the inclusions of misinformation so that everyone has a clear view. Both/and looks for truth, truth that conforms to fact and actuality, not subject to whims of opinion.

Both/and is what allows the contrapuntal lines of music to create harmony. When a musician makes a mistake, the harmony is disrupted. It is in the both/and working according to the music in accuracy to the design of the piece that brings joy to both the musician and the audience. Every genre of music has its own rules and forms, even the most improvisational form of jazz. The sounds of different genres may not make sense to every hearer, but once the rules and reasons are understood, everyone can appreciate the contribution of each to the music of the world. Individuals are richer for learning the differences in scales and tonalities in global music.

In the same way, individuals are richer for exploring and examining all sides of any given idea or thought or experience. Including multiple points of view, without exclusion, is the best way to find harmony and truth. No one group or person has all the information about anything in this world. Perspectives inform interpretations of facts and events, but perspectives are not necessarily accurate to reality across the board. It is in multiple perspectives that people can gain understanding that leads to harmony.

Embracing both/and is exactly what the family in the opening story meant when they claimed to be multi-ethnic and not mixed-race. The limits of either/or are destroyed when we all embrace both/and.

Agarwal, S. (2020, December 10). There are no ‘mixed race’ people: Why it’s troublesome to believe otherwise. An Injustice Magazine. https://aninjusticemag.com/there-are-no-mixed-race-people-655eb510fbc1

Jackson, R. John (2020, January 5). Counterpoint. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/counterpoint-music

About mrsloomisPhD

I am an accidental artist. I am an on-purpose teacher. I was terrible at art when I was in school. and I said more times than I can count, "I will NEVER be a teacher." God, in His divine sense of humor, has made sure I am now both artist and teacher. Thirty years after earning my first teaching credential I earned a Ph.D. in teaching and learning, majoring in language and literacy. I still work to creatively merge art as text into my research. I am passionate about my Lord, my family, my dogs, music, and naps. I love photography, digital art, running, and just BEING. God is good, and I am blessed.

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