Gautama Siddhartha- the historical Buddha- famously refused to allow his disciples to write down his words in his lifetime (of course, they began writing down everything they could remember he said the moment he died, hence the Dhammapada, and the Pali Cannon, but nonetheless). He said, "When I point at the moon, do not mistake my finger for the moon." Because, he argued, words are tricky; they entrap and ensnare us. Although we think words reveal the truth, in fact they keep the truth hidden, because we think the word is the same as the thing it represents (its referent); we trick ourselves into believing truth is black and white, when in fact truth is often gray, complex, entangled, convoluted, even contradictory.
But what does this have to do with binary thinking? And how does this have anything at all to do with mankind, politics, or civilization?
Binary thinking, in its simplest form, is the tendency of human beings to think in terms of "either / or." In fact, the brain is hardwired for dichotomy: this & that; good & bad; right & wrong; mastery & slavery; liberty & tyranny; love & hate; light & dark; helpful & harmful; spiritual & physical; and on and on and on...
Even the nature vs nurture argument is a bad argument, as anyone with even an elementary understanding of biology and psychology should know- and yet we continue to fall into the same old trap: "Either it's this or it's that, but it can't be both." And yet, in reality, almost nothing falls perfectly into this binary system of categorization- not even reality itself. For example: Men are men because of testosterone, and women are women because of estrogen, but it would be just as false to say that men do not have estrogen or that women do not have testosterone as it would be to say there was no difference at all. The reality is more complex: Men have higher quantities of testosterone and lower quantities of estrogen than women; conversely, women have higher quantities of estrogen and lower quantities of testosterone than men- but both sexes possess both hormones in different measures.
Subtlety is important; reality is very rarely binary. Oversimplification kills nuance, which degrades communication and makes us all stupid.
This is no more obvious than in politics.
Ultimately, politics- in the local, non-military, intra-national sense- is the art of problem-solving at the societal level. And although religion may make us human, it is politics that saves us from savagery. Politics is the end of barbarism; it is the beginning of civilization. Literally, the word politics comes from the Greek polis (πόλις), meaning "city"- that is, civilization as opposed to savagery and barbarism. Law, markets, democracy- all of these only exist because of politics.
Carl von Clausewitz once argued that war is the continuation of politics by other means. True enough. However, in order to be effective, non-military, intra-national politics cannot be thought of as a grand, ideological war between opposing factions. Because this is binary thinking, and leads to war, conflict, and rebellion: "Either he is for us or he is against us!" But in reality, all the members of the political body- that is, all the citizens of a particular nation- must be united, by culture and by language, in order to solve complex societal problems.
Civilization, essentially, is mankind's conquest of natural savagery. It is politics that brings peace to human beings through mutual benefit; it is politics that prevents us from returning to tribalism, to small groups of blood-related families slaughtering each other for limited resources. But when we think in binary terms- that is, when we think that a person is something simply because he belongs to [insert whatever ridiculous category here]-, we oversimplify the human being; we make the human being into a caricature of humanity. Now he is not a complex person, with a complex set of ideas and experiences unique to him; instead, he is a mere representation of a category, a caricature of a caricature of a caricature...
Modern politics is littered with simplistically binary thinking, resulting in opposing axioms that often contradict one another, perhaps depending on one's political affiliation:
"Men are natural leaders;"
"Men are violent and dangerous;"
"Black men are stronger and more athletic;"
"Black men are drug dealers and gang bangers;"
"Women are victims;"
"Women are better and more moral than men;"
"Democrats are socialists;"
"Republicans are racists and xenophobes;"
"Liberals are weak;"
"Conservatives are stupid;"
The list goes on and on and on...
None- precisely zero- of these attitudes are true in the general sense (that is, true as a complete statement). They are all caricatures of reality; they all reduce the human being to a vastly over-simplified category. This results in a distortion of behavior- especially on social media, which is the ultimate in dehumanization (the reduction of the human being to a simulation of humanity, literally represented via binary code). We see this everywhere on the internet; we divide up into our camps- on Twitter, on Facebook-, and hold one another in contempt, even though we pass one another on the street day after day with perfect civility.
Binary thinking is not only dehumanizing; it wreaks havoc on civilization itself. Instead of solving problems, we waste our time fighting one another, and working towards the destruction of our political adversaries- never once reflecting on the fact that we cannot destroy half our nation without destroying the nation itself. Politics is no longer about problem-solving; it is about racking up points in order to win some stupid, childish game- a game without prize, trophy, or conclusion. This is destroying us.
Ninety-percent of the population of any given culture are in agreement ninety-percent of the time, excluding nations that actually do exist in a state of civil war. That is what it means to share a culture, after all. And yet binary thinking has convinced us that we are not in agreement, that we stand entirely opposed to one another; to make matters worse, actual extremists to either side of whatever political aisle perpetuate the problem by representing through their extremism all the worst elements of their more moderate compatriots. The result: Citizens that hold one another in contempt for attitudes only held by five percent of the population of either side.
This is not tenable.
As technology expands in scope and strength, and as civilization grows more complex, we will be called upon to solve increasingly difficult problems. For instance, we will be called upon to solve problems pertaining to our environment. This is clearly a polarizing subject- and yet environmentalists on the political left and conservationists on the political right hate one another in spite the fact that they agree essentially on the critical point: We must protect the natural world. Nobody wants the air to be toxic, or for us to ruin the oceans with plastics- but we never address these common concerns because we are too busy arguing about a single, contentious issue: climate change.
Why? Because we have fallen victim to binary thinking; because we have already determined that the solution is either / or. Dehumanization follows, and the descent of the polis into war, violence, and savagery. This cannot be allowed.
We must stop viewing one another as caricatures of human beings. Each of us is complex, with complex ideas and experiences. There is no reason why we must agree on everything in order to respect one another; we can disagree while still respecting one another as citizens, and more importantly, as human beings. Nothing is more difficult, and yet nothing is more necessary.
~ Joshua van Asakinda
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Joshua van Asakinda is a master-level psychological consultant, and the creator of ZenTactics, Heroic Theory, & Zenshida'i Silat-Serak.