“If not A, then B.”
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” (A statement that, ironically, has multiple meanings.)
“It’s an either/or situation.”
We answer “yes/no” questions.
We decide if we want this or that.
We think in ones and zeroes—literally, if we program computers down to the machine language level.
Yet, in the squishy world of reality, binary thinking is one of the most significant obstacles that we place in the path of human progress. There are issues in which this is glaring apparent.
One is EITHER pro‑choice OR anti‑abortion. That is, either one believes abortions should be available for any reason from dire necessity to “oops” and that it is just another form of birth control OR one believes that no woman should, under any circumstances, have an abortion. Ever.
One is EITHER a gun‑lover OR a gun‑grabber. You are pro‑gun or anti‑gun. You are for the Second Amendment, or you are against it. You either respect gun rights OR you want to take them away from everyone.
One is EITHER a liberal (aka progressive) OR one is a conservative. One EITHER believes in the welfare state OR in individual sovereignty.
One is EITHER a hero OR a villain (or believes someone else is either a hero or a villain).
If you are one side of any of the above binary pairs, you are all that is good; if you are on the other side, you are unmitigated evil. Which is which depends entirely on which side you are on.
It is a zero sum game—there must be an absolute winner and an absolute loser.
This sort of binary thinking is supported by the media in all its forms. For every behavior on the part of a newsworthy individual or group, journalists speculate about and offer opinions on which of two sides they come down on. If the behavior is nuanced in any way, the media cannot allow it to remain so because eyeballs are attracted and ad space sold by conflict. Conflict requires two distinct, opposing sides. Hence, they must determine which column they should sort the individual to: ones or zeroes.
This reached a truly head‑scratching point in a recent article I read that began thusly: “When it comes to his relations with Congress, President Barack Obama, is a man of two minds.”
How so? I thought, and read the article hoping to find out. What was the particular behavior of the POTUS that had puzzled the journalist?
It was—I kid you not—that the President praised Congressional efforts to get things done and criticized obstructionist behavior that led to not getting things done. The journalist didn’t understand why the President should praise his opponents for progress on an immigration bill, say, yet criticize them for a filibuster on another issue. Clearly, he was torn in his feelings for Congress and therefore did not have a consistent attitude toward it. (Which begged the question as to what the journalist expected someone of ONE mind to have done.)
I read the article twice on the theory (and in the hope) that I was missing something. Was the journalist being ironic or satirical? No. The tone of the article was perfectly serious. He saw the president’s behavior (praising effort toward progress; critiquing lack of progress) as anomalous.
I have three kids. I had parents. From both angles, I have observed that generally when teaching a child, one critiques or disciplines for unproductive, obstructive and destructive behavior and praises and rewards productive, cooperative, constructive behavior. In this case, the one and the zero are part of achieving a single positive goal: to encourage productive, cooperative, constructive behavior and to discourage unproductive, obstructive or destructive behavior.
The binary behavior the journalist seemed to expect of Mr. Obama, in this case, was an attitude that he was a one and Congress a zero (or vice versa). Ergo, if Congress were to win (merit praise), the White House must lose. Any merits Congress received gave the President demerits and vice versa. So it seemed puzzling to this journalist that the One should compliment the Zero for a job well done when it detracted from his Oneness … or something like that.
This is a cultural artifact, this binary style of thinking. The culture that preceded ours on this continent did not adhere to it as strictly as we do. During the period of time when Western Europeans were invading America, there were at least three different opinions among the native population as to what should be done. These points of view were espoused by different chieftains. Three of the most influential were Crazy Horse, American Horse and Red Cloud and their solutions to the problem ran the gamut from fighting back to negotiating the sharing of the continent to simply depending on the good will of the invaders. As we have seen in our own recent political history, men who hold diverging opinions are loved by some and hated by others. One is a hero to the group that shares his views and a villain to those who don’t. But our Native American predecessors did not share that binary thought which is why I found the 1939 book Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains by Charles Eastman eye-opening and refreshing. Eastman—a Sioux who acquired a Western medical education and served on the reservations—treats each of the nine native leaders he writes of as heroes, even when their beliefs diverged radically from each others’ and from his own. Reading Indian Heroes, I understood how it was possible for two tribes to fight each other for grazing or hunting land in the summer, yet come together in the winter to share resources. How they could, in fact, come together to form a Federation whose articles greatly influenced the framers of the US Constitution.
From a Bahá’í point of view, if we are to achieve real oneness, real convergence, real progress toward a common goal, if we are to stop living in armed intellectual camps, we must be able to grasp nuance—to see it, understand it and speak it. We must see more colors than black and white, count higher than one; even see that 1 and 0 can equal 10 (which is far greater than the sum of its parts), ask questions that do not accept only yes or no answers.
What does that look like on the ground? It may require that we stop prejudicing our own thinking by framing multiple choice (or essay) questions as if they were true or false. It may mean realizing there are people who are pro‑choice AND anti‑abortion. That there are those who support the rights of gun ownership AND recognize that this right burdens one with an awesome responsibility that not everyone is competent to bear. It may mean that there are those who believe in individual responsibility to contribute to society AND society’s responsibility to contribute to the welfare of the individuals that comprise it.
Binary thinking is easy—okay, I’ll call a toad a toad—it’s lazy thinking. It spares us the effort of forming opinions based on fact, reason and values by insisting that if not A, then surely B. It spares us the embarrassment of admitting that we don’t have a grasp on the nuances of every situation or issue. It saves us the trouble of wading through the facts (and knowing when we have enough of them at hand), weighing the complex issues, understanding the dynamics, weeding out the distractors, and applying the relevant values and principles that go into comprehending what is going on around us.
Binary thinking means never having to say, “I don’t know.” Because you always do know: If it’s not one thing, it’s another.