Life in the 21st century is complicated. Everything seems to be moving at a faster and faster rate. We are bombarded with information, people are working longer and longer hours, and essential systems seem to be crumbling simultaneously, or if they aren’t crumbling, they’re being patched together with the equivalent of bailing wire and bubble gum.
Rather than expanding the realm of possible options aimed at addressing our myriad challenges, leaders, policymakers and others in positions of power continue limiting solutions to merely one or two. This is especially prevalent with government and quasi-governmental entities, but isn’t limited just to them.
The best articulation of this binary construct I’ve read was written by John Michael Greer in a post back in 2011, called “The Trouble with Binary Thinking.” I’ll leave it up to you to read—and I’d highly encourage you to do so—but a couple of points are worth summarizing here. As a service to JBE readers, I’ve taken Greer’s usual 3,200+ words and created a 117-word multivitamin for you to pop until you can take in the longer-form feast served by Greer himself.
- Human beings normally think in binaries—polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites.
- This may be hardwired into our brains due to our ancestors’ need to make snap decisions.
- Binary thinking precludes there being any middle ground between polar opposites.
- People think/say/do resoundingly stupid things because they can only see two extreme alternatives.
- There is a way out of this either/or trap; Greer posits that first you have to recognize the binary, and then, once recognized, look for a third option (as he indicates, once you learn to find a third option, you often come up with a number of additional options—this takes practice, however).
Yesterday, I was listening to a few minutes of morning National Public Radio, a network that’s become increasingly difficult for me to stomach, and they were using a hackneyed, reductivist explanation of the situation in Ukraine dating back to the Cold War. The use of the lens of Russia vs. “the West” is a narrative journalists have been using for the past 50 or 60 years. There are other ways to explain what’s happening in Crimea; however, it requires you to move beyond the usual good vs. evil, America is perfect and Russia is flawed, and similar black and white modes of framing politics.
I’m currently reading two books simultaneously, both dealing with food production. In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America, by Maureen Ogle (see my post about “The Story of Beer,” where I reference her previous book) and Melanie Warner’s Pandora’s Lunchbox: How PROCESSED FOOD Took Over the American Meal clearly demonstrate that our food system is broken and one of the reasons that it is, is as a result of our binary fixation in framing issues.
The subject of food is extremely complicated. There’s no way I can adequately frame the issue in this 600-word Friday post seeking merely to touch down on the topic of binary thinking. I plan to come back to it after finishing both Ogle’s and Warner’s books.
Let’s start looking for ways to widen the dialogue on the issues. Don’t do the binary knee-jerk. When you react, ask yourself “why” and then, see if you can try to see the other side’s position; from there, it’s not that hard to get to a third position, and beyond.
It’s a little bit of mental workout, but you’ll be glad you exercised those muscles.