The United States has always been divide
d into clean-cut dichotomies with its government
. In the 1700s, the political system was divided into the Federalist
s, who supported a strong central government, and the Anti-Federalist
s, who supported individual state rights. The Civil War
divided the North and South, the abolitionist
s and non-abolitionists, and supporters of industry and agriculture. These groups distinguished themselves with clearly opposite
views. After 1850, the Republican
Party emerged, making way for a dichotomy we still recognize today: that of the Democrat
s and Republican
s, liberals and conservatives.
Today's twofold separation of government, however, seems to be backed less by opposing beliefs than by the idea that we must be pitted against one another for the sake of simply having enemies. People often vote for a leader because he or she represents their political party, not necessarily because they like the candidate. The recent decision of Virginia's Senator James Jeffords to step down from his Republican slate and become an Independent demonstrates how sometimes a person cannot identify themselves as a member of one of two opposing groups.
Jeffords' shift not only reveals his own set of beliefs, but it has also led to one of the biggest brouhahas between Democrats and Republicans in the history of the debate; the division between the two groups is more distinct than ever. Suddenly the government does not seem to be split so much by a clear division of ideology, but rather by pettiness over which group should dominate the Senate.
Jeffords did not switch to the Democratic Party, so he suddenly became too liberal. The Republicans are panicking because his label has been altered, and now the number of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate is no longer split evenly. Though the Republicans will likely lose influence in Congress, the fury of the Republicans seems to be backed by an attempt to keep the two teams equal so that there can be fair opposition.
With war, the conflict is usually also between two opposing forces, rather than multiple sides battling against each other from all directions. At the risk of oversimplifying, the world was basically divided into two categories during World War II: the Axis powers – Germany, Italy, Japan – and the Allied nations – Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, China.
Yet we could very well have had more than two political takes on how government should be run. We could have had the mass of countries who supported dictatorship or socialism, a group of nations who believed in democracy, and a group that was fighting for anarchic control. Wouldn't that have made the war a lot more interesting than just our nation versus the evil forces of foreign governments?
Even childhood fairy tales brainwashed us with the idea that there must be "good" and "evil" sides. We learned that Snow White and the Smurfs represented everything good, and the Evil Queen and Gargamel were evil in a bottle. But did we ever stop to think about how pitiful that Evil Queen was, how mentally unbalanced she must have been to poison an apple to murder a young woman? No, we were taught to believe that both characters were flat and one dimensional, either completely good or entirely evil.
Movies are not much better at portraying gray, as opposed to just black and white. The film "Pearl Harbor" recreated a tragic moment in U.S. history and emphasized the distinct sides of good versus evil, as personified by the United States and Japan. The Japanese dropped the bomb on us, so they are the bad guys; we are the innocent victims.
The film never presents the audience with what the our country did in retaliation to this event: the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities, the effects of which were just as deadly, if not worse, than the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The film industry therefore assumes that its audience is simple-minded and can only handle watching a story with obvious good and evil sides, and audiences seem to agree by paying to see these movies.
Categorizing oneself into one of two separate groups also aids in self-definition, as is the case with the dichotomy between men and women. Members of each sex can define themselves by traditional gender roles, acting in either "typical" masculine or feminine ways, including mainstream fashions.
While there may not be cookie-cutter molds for how all men or all women should dress, the distinction between men's and women's clothing is but one part of what distinguishes the sexes. Without this clear-cut gender dichotomy, self-definition becomes more uncertain as we must, heaven forbid, rely on personality traits that make learning about each other a bit more complicated.
Separating everything into two distinct categories may be a simple way to look at things, but they seem to shortchange human intelligence. The "good versus evil" phenomenon is a subjective form of categorization, so to eliminate our capacity to judge what we agree or disagree with belittles our abilities to think for ourselves.
Of course we are always free to explore things in less simplistic manners. Instead of looking at the world as good and bad, PC versus Mac, Beta versus VHS, we should always see arguments and situations as more than just two-dimensional.