Avoid Reductive Thinking
Reductive thinking is the mental process of reducing an individual (or group) to nothing more than a behavior or a set of behaviors.
For example, if you’re driving and are cut off by another driver, you probably automatically think of that driver as nothing more than “the jerk driver.”
You aren’t thinking that they may be an otherwise thoughtful person who’s racing to the hospital for an emergency, or who’s distracted by the radio and isn’t paying attention, or that they’re a person who has hopes and fears, who has experienced joy and pain. You’ve reduced them to nothing other than this one behavior of aggressive driving. You’re also probably not thinking about how you, too, may have driven aggressively at times.
As advocates, we can end up using reductive thinking, whether we’re dealing with nonadvocates or other advocates. For example, if you’re an environmentalist, you may reduce someone who’s not an environmentalist to a “self-centered jerk” and a fellow environmentalist with a different approach to advocacy to a “half-measure compromiser” or a “radical terrorist.” Or if you’re a vegan advocate you might think of a nonvegan as an “apathetic meat eater” and a vegan from a different “camp” as a “pragmatist sellout” or an “unstrategic fundamentalist.”
In each case, we conflate what someone does (or believes) with who someone is. This kind of thinking causes us to assume that the whole of someone’s character is determined by a certain set of behaviors, when in fact, everyone engages in a mix of healthy and unhealthy, harmful and helpful behaviors.
The belief in a hierarchy of moral worth
Reductive thinking often reflects and reinforces the inaccurate core belief driving all harmful and unjust attitudes and behaviors, the belief in a hierarchy of moral worth. This is the belief that some individuals or groups are more worthy of moral consideration, of being treated with respect, than others.
The belief that someone is more or less inherently worthy based on their actions is akin to the belief that someone is more or less inherently worthy based on their height or the color of their eyes. Each of us is nothing more nor less than the synthesis of our hardwiring and every experience we’ve had. We are who we are, and we do what we do, based on these two factors. If, for example, you had been born into the body of the aggressive driver mentioned above and had lived through all that person’s experiences, you, too, would have been driving aggressively.
Understanding that the hierarchy of moral worth is a myth doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold someone accountable for their problematic behaviors. It simply means that we need to recognize that, like everyone, that individual is a whole, complex being with inherent worth just like every other being on the planet. When we communicate with them from this understanding, we honor their dignity and we significantly increase the chances that our message will be heard as we intend it to be.
The less we engage in reductive thinking, the less we contribute to infighting, as well as to the polarization that’s becoming a norm in many places in the world.