The Problem with Binary Thinking, Part I


Like most of you, I was raised in a Christian family with a very strong sense of right and wrong. The Biblical understanding of good vs. evil  -- and by extension, right and wrong -- is, in fact, a universally acknowledged human belief, however you choose to frame it.  Good or bad, light or dark, black or white, hot or cold, up or down.  I believe this lies at the heart of what is termed binary thinking. In other words, many carry this notion of two opposing forces into all areas of life. Aristotle, Descartes and other philosophers had binary tendencies. There is a right way and a wrong way to do something. You are either right or wrong in your opinion on a given subject. You are either on the right team or the wrong team. A story consists of the good guy and the bad guy. Yes, this is more predominant in Western culture than Eastern, although the current wave of Islamic extremism indicates we are all subject to its pitfalls. It is not hard to see how this kind of thinking so easily leads to an "us versus them" mentality. Please understand me here: if you know me, you know I believe in good and evil, that I do not believe all morality is relative. But I also believe, strongly, that reality is most often found between two extremes.

Years ago I discovered an intriguing few verses in the mysterious book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament:

"Do not be over wicked, and do not be a fool -- why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes." (italics mine)

Reality is most often found between two extremes.

While the musings of Solomon are often enigmatic, I find an important principle here. The fact is we are more complex, the world is more complex, than a simplistic assigning of right or wrong to a situation, person or opinion. Our culture is awash in false choices, perhaps the most profound being Is man basically good or evil?

My answer? Yes.

As a matter of fact, that is my answer to many either/or questions. Yes.

The fact of the matter is that the good guy, like you and me, has his faults. And yes, the so-called bad guy has his positive sides.

We'll come back to this later, but in the meantime, I leave you with one of my favorite G. K. Chesterton quotes. In response to a survey question put out by the London Times asking what is wrong with the world:

"Dear Times,

I am."

What examples of binary thinking do you see around you?