There Are Two Sides to Every Story
Keith A. Erekson
Keith A. Erekson (email@example.com) is an award-winning author, teacher, and public historian who works for the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in efforts to encourage outreach and historical engagement.
This article is the fifth chapter in his Real vs. Rumor: How to Dispel Latter-day Myths (Deseret Book, 2021), 62–76. Each chapter introduces a “Thinking Habit” that serves as an antidote to poor thinking. Along the way, the book also identifies applications for daily life in “Everyday Encounter” sidebars and each chapter ends with a summary section that identifies quick ways to identify poor thinking – the “Sniff Tests”—and restates important points from the chapter. Believing (and teaching) that “There Are Two Sides to Every Story” is an unhelpful mental framework—one of the “Myths within Us” that impede our thinking and set us up for trouble later. How can you teach your students to avoid polarizing extremes and identify what is good, better, and best?
Somehow, no matter the topic, every Sunday School class ended up as a two-sided debate. One week, Reed praised his mission president for emphasizing “strict obedience,” but William found success through “the spirit of the law.” Another time, Catarina insisted everyone take sides on whether “happiness” was different than “joy.” In October, near Columbus Day, Mario proudly boasted of his Italian ancestry, while Jared remembered that European “conquest” had meant suffering and displacement for his Native ancestors. At Christmas, Jedediah asserted Latter-day Saints should sing only those few “core” hymns that everyone knows, while Chris advocated
the appreciation of all uplifting music.
Hiding beneath the details of each of these debates lies a common but harmful script—the myth that there are only two sides to every story and that we must give equal time to both sides in order to be fair, balanced, or truthful. This myth permeates our public culture as journalists report “both sides” of a story, politicians criticize the “other” party, and cable news hosts debate “for or against” the issue of the day. The biggest problem with this script is that the most important questions that we face usually can be approached in more than two useful ways. Many times, those who want to share misinformation will also invoke this false-balance script to demand airtime for ideas with little merit. We must actively work to resist this powerful myth. The antidote to oversimplifying into either/
More Than Either/
In another method of oversimplification, the origins of a story are forgotten. Many Latter-day Saints do not know that modern Church humanitarian, welfare, and social service efforts trace their roots all the way back to the Relief Society’s nineteenth-century grain storage program. Sometimes information is simply left out. There were women in the march of Zion’s Camp—a fact omitted in many accounts of that historic march.
The most common way that people oversimplify is by reducing an issue to a pair of opposites—good or evil, members or nonmembers, Democrats or Republicans, Black citizens or White police, faith or doubt. These binary pairings flatten the richness of human experience into two oversimplified either/
Latter-day Saint scripture reveals that there is more to life than either/
Even the oft-cited teachings about opposition from Lehi turn out, on closer inspection, to reveal more than simple opposites. Reading under the influence of dualistic thinking, we might try to stack up the binaries Lehi mentions to read like this:
For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.
If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness,
righteousness could not be brought to pass,
Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore,
if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead,
having no life
|nor insensibility. (2 Nephi 2:11)|
This common reading forces the verse into two columns of opposites. But a closer look reveals that “misery” opposes both “holiness” and “happiness” and that the order of one of the pairs is reversed so that “corruption” lines up on the same side as “life” and “happiness.” If we think about the passage again, we might look not for “opposites” but for “opposition”—the word that actually appears in the text and which does not reduce options to simple binaries. Accordingly, we might illustrate the concepts not as two columns but as a thirteen-sided object in which all of the elements can be connected to create “opposition in all things.”
In this reading, “death” can link with “good” when it is time for a person to pass on, and “life” can link with “misery” and “bad” as we make sense of daily stresses and enduring trials. Our scriptures provide room for a complete view of past and present.
It’s a Long Story
One antidote for oversimplified opposites is to talk about the past as a “long story.” The past was complicated and nuanced, but the complexities of the past are no excuse for not seeking clear understanding. After quoting thirteen chapters from Isaiah, Nephi states that his “soul delighteth in plainness” (2 Nephi 25:4) so he offers six chapters of his own, plainer commentary. Isaiah wrote “many things which were hard for many . . . people to understand” (2 Nephi 25:1), including complex prophecies rich with historical connections and multiple meanings. For Nephi, speaking plainly did not mean oversimplifying but rather clarity and completeness.
One concept that can help us make sense of the complexity of the past is contingency. A contingency is a possible event that cannot be predicted with certainty—the young college student might choose a path that leads to a quick job or she might go to graduate school. Looking forward, we find uncertainties, unknowns, and surprises lurking behind every corner. Looking backward, contingency represents decision points where some options were closed off while others opened up. There were always more “coulds” than “dids.” Because we know the outcomes, we tend to ignore or forget the false starts, the experiments, the roads not taken, the many options considered before a decision was made. The sum total of events is not predetermined along a single line but clustered around decision points. It takes work to reconstruct past experiences that were open ended, with outcomes unknown. The best histories re-create all of the potential options and emotions.
A second concept essential to understanding a complete picture is causation. Many reasons, decisions, and factors contributed to what happened in the past. Some changes are caused by the choices of actors, whether individual humans or institutions. Decision makers and influencers far removed from the scene shape the laws and culture that infuse everyday life. There are many characters and many plot lines that converge in multiple ways on multiple occasions, resulting in both short- and long-term consequences. Frequently, changes in one area of experience spill over to others. The outcome may not be what the participants predicted or even intended. For example, the invention of the automobile changed transportation history, but its backseat also changed dating and courtship practices. In time, the room that had hosted courtship visits—the parlor—ceased to be included in home floorplans. At the intersection of individuals’ choices and general conditions, there are many ways to see what caused events of the past.
One way to embrace the completeness of the past is by imagining not just a single timeline of events but several lines that converge like spokes on a pioneer wagon wheel. For example, an oversimplified story about the ending of the ban on priesthood and temple participation by Black Latter-day Saints would contain a single line that ends with President Spencer W. Kimball praying and receiving a revelation to end the ban (this oversimplified story frequently introduces an error that “no one had asked before,” when in reality the Brethren had been studying and praying about changing the practice since at least the 1910s).
To the important spoke of President Kimball’s humble determination, we can add many other lines of development—the civil rights movement and increasing racial integration changed views in the United States; African nations obtained independence from colonial powers; Church leaders gradually removed the priesthood restriction from Pacific Islanders and aboriginal peoples; the Church was growing across the earth, and people of many nations accepted the gospel, including Black converts in Africa and the Americas; internal studies of Church history, doctrine, and policy clarified uncertainties about the practice’s origins and the potential for a revelatory change; members of the Quorum of the Twelve came to unanimity of agreement; and the Saints sustained the revelation by common consent. The quest to eliminate racism continues to this day.
The long complexity of the past is frequently one of the first victims of storytelling. Consider the last film version of a pioneer story that you watched. Chances are, the story focused on a family or two in a single pioneer company. Most likely, the story’s protagonists pulled a handcart alone across a barren landscape. You watched them struggle uphill, shiver in the blowing snow, ration their food, and weep at the graveside of their infant child. Perhaps you, too, shed a tear, before rejoicing at a scene of dramatic rescue.
The complete history of the pioneers turns out to be far richer and far more interesting. First, the scale was staggering—approximately sixty thousand people made the journey, over the space of twenty years, as part of nearly four hundred companies. Handcarts were used by only about 5 percent of the pioneers; the rest came by wagon or horseback or on foot. But even among the ten handcart companies, eight made the journey without any significant issues. Viewed from a complete perspective, most of the pioneers didn’t die; the mortality rate on the trail was only slightly higher than the national rate. One-third of the companies made the trek without a single death. And the pioneers also had fun during the journey! Their diaries, letters, and other records show that in addition to completing the tasks and chores of traveling, they formed friendships, helped one another, sang and danced, hunted game, gathered wild fruit, picked flowers, and climbed hills. Even the story of the rescue of the Martin and Willie handcart companies has been oversimplified: there were two wagon companies on the trail with them, at least six men (not three) helped them cross the Sweetwater River, and the rescue took more than two months and involved thousands of women and men from throughout the territory. Finally, the Latter-day Saint pioneers were not alone; hundreds of thousands of Americans crossed the plains to California and Oregon. The Saints followed trails created by others and met people going both directions across a busy thoroughfare.
Change “Or” to “And”
We can improve our thinking by changing the “or” in the either/
One way to change the script is to look for a more temperate middle point between the two apparent extremes. For example, the modern debate in the United States over abortion pits a “no, never” position against “yes, anytime.” For its part, the Church has defined a position in the middle of these opposites that condemns abortion generally while also recognizing the merit of the choice in cases of rape, incest, and health complications for the mother or fetus. Middle points need not be exactly in the center of the extremes.
A second way to dissolve a dualism is to accept both options. Instead of seeing a tension between faith or reason, look to the scriptural charge to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). Instead of contrasting the mind to the heart, accept the Lord’s explanation: “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost” (Doctrine and Covenants 8:2; emphasis added). How did the Three Witnesses see the gold plates? In vision and with their eyes (see 2 Nephi 27:12; Doctrine and Covenants 17:3). Can we find happiness in this life or in the life to come? Yes.
Sometimes we can add to two opposing ideas to see both/
Finally, in thinking about history and human experience, it is often most useful to think in terms of good, better, and best. President Dallin H. Oaks taught that life’s choices are not always
between “good” and “bad” but among “good, better, and best.” When the Holy Ghost directed Nephi to kill Laban, the message emphasized that this choice was “better” than allowing a nation to “dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Nephi 4:13). In the same way that our knowledge of technology, medicine, and hygiene improve over time, so too can our understanding of history go from good to better and from better to best.
You Try It
There are two sides to every story.
1. Only two options or sides. Beware of histories (or politicians or news channels) that force you to choose between only two options—myth or reality, prophet or fraud, faith or reason, fact or fiction. Such false balances make for seductive clickbait, but they distort the past and the present.
2. Omission. Watch for stories with missing middles and forgotten origins. Beware of sources, stories, and studies that omit women or minorities.
3. Oversimplification. Just because something happened later does not mean that it was caused by the thing that happened earlier. Just because two things happened together does not mean that one must have caused the other. In other words, “correlation is not causation.” Both fallacies oversimplify the complexities of the past.
4. “True facts are good and pure.” Beware of histories that assume or state that the only facts worth knowing are those that are good, moderate, or neutral.
5. “True facts are dark and insidious.” Beware of growing but still immature thinkers who turn the corner on dichotomous thinking by simply flipping their binary—what once was true is now false. In this view, history is caused by scheming people, the true facts are dark and dirty, and there is always something sinister lurking below the surface. If Joseph Smith is only a fraud or if a restaurant only harms its guests or if the government only deceives its people, then the thinking is still only a dichotomy. If history happens only after midnight or in a darkened alley or in secret meetings of conspiratorial characters, then you’ve found a story that fails the sniff test.
It’s a long story.
1. We must tell long stories about history because the past was complicated.
2. Any event or decision in the past involved the contingency of multiple options and outcomes.
3. We can understand causation by identifying the many decisions and factors that contributed to what happened in the past.
4. Latter-day Saint teachings embrace concepts far richer than simple dichotomies. We can look to the middle of two extremes, accept both options, consider more than just two options, and differentiate between good, better, and best.
 Jill Mulvay Derr et al., The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016); Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992); Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2011).
 Andrea G. Radke, “We Also Marched: The Women and Children of Zion’s Camp, 1834,” BYU Studies 39, no. 1 (2000): 147–65.
 Bruce C. Hafen and Marie K. Hafen, Faith Is Not Blind (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2018), 6; Lloyd D. Newell, “Instruments or Agents,” Ensign, April 2019, 36.
 See the entry for “World” in the Topical Guide.
 “Race and the Priesthood,” Gospel Topics Essays, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, December 6, 2013, https://
 Keith A. Erekson, “5 Things We Learn from Database of Mormon Pioneers,” Church News, July 23, 2015; Melvin L. Bashore and H. Dennis Tolley, “Mortality on the Mormon Trail, 1847–1868,” BYU Studies Quarterly 54, no. 3 (2014): 109–23; Chad M. Orton and Curtis Ashton, “Five Things You Might Not Know about the Handcart Rescue,” Church History, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, March 19, 2019, https://
 “Abortion,” in General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2020), 38.6.1.
 Quentin L. Cook, “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion: Be Temple Worthy—in Good Times and Bad Times,” Ensign, November 2015, 39.
 Dallin H. Oaks, “Good, Better, Best,” Ensign, November 2007, 107.
 Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), 206, 207; Stephen R. Covey, The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems (New York: Free Press, 2011), 8.