I’ve mentioned the flaws of binary thinking before. The concept—framing things in terms of duality, or opposites—isn’t a new concept, and it tends to be the way that most issues are discussed in America and arguably, the West.
From a philosophical standpoint, the origins of this kind of thinking date back to Aristotle and Descartes. They first structured this type of logic, which consists of dividing, distinguishing and opposing items. When you see things in a binary construct, there’s no room for in-between or shades of gray; everything is black or white, good or bad, nice or ugly, good or evil, etc. It is the law of “all or nothing.”
Unfortunately, this kind of dualistic framework often leads to dead-ends, and at the very least, can divide people unnecessarily.
One of the best explanations and the one that really made me sit up and take notice, was written by John Michael Greer, and posted a few years ago at his blog, The Archdruid Report.
Greer takes the origins back even further than Aristotle and Descartes. He writes,
Most of the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah are most efficiently sorted out into binary pairs: food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and so on. The drawbacks to this handy set of internal categories don’t seem to bother any of our primate relatives, and probably became an issue—like so much that’s part of magic—only when the rickety structure of the reasoning mind took shape over the top of the standard-issue social primate brain.
The problem with this snap-judgment way of seeing and making sense of the world is that in our current, non-hunting society, the binary framework eliminates the middle ground. In fact, we don’t even recognize a middle position. More often than not, it leads to division and conflict.
Think about our politics. Our choice is vote Democrat, or vote Republican. The coin flip could be Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton, with our hopes pinned to one of them for four more years! Of course, right now, Democrats are twisting themselves into pretzels, trying to parse the importance of Bernie Sanders run for the White House, pinning their hopes on a 73-year-old former Socialist.
Binary thinking delivers diatribes on Twitter, like those I read related to the shooting in North Carolina, with a so-called black anti-racist leader, saying something akin to “All white people are racists.” I guess the binary of that would be that black people aren’t. The flipside coming from white politicians might be painting all black women as welfare queens.
Binary thinking in politics leads to governance by conflict. This is what’s taking place in Augusta right now, with a governor who refuses to consider compromise or anything that doesn’t align with his own narrow, black/white views. It’s his way, or no way! If you don’t go along with his fragmented vision, he mocks or denigrates you, like calling a respected legislator, “an architect of pork.” Anyone that loves this kind of binary freak show, howl in approval.
As I wrote in an email to a friend the other day, “once you step off the binary train, that’s all you have left—and it’s impossible to get back on.” Your options for dialogue also become limited, unless you prefer to just go through the motions and discuss issues in the standard black/white dialectic. This creates dissonance.
I could argue that we are living in an empire that’s in decline. If so, I think things will continue to devolve over time. That’s a difficult worldview to truly get our heads around because it is the polar opposite from the kind of thinking we’ve been conditioned to practice from the earliest age.
We have been taught to think of America as a “city on a hill,” and a place of never-ending progress—things are supposed to get better and if they aren’t improving, then it’s someone else’s fault, most often the nearest politician. Other convenient scapegoats are loved ones, friends, jobs, and our geographic location.
I like Greer’s suggested exercise of first recognizing the binary that you are confronting. Recognition is the first step. Then, look for a third option, turning it into a ternary.
The next time you get stuck in a binary trap or conflict, look for the third option.