On binary thinking

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Binary thinking – the idea that, in any situation, a person has only two choices – is pervasive. Moralisers reinforce the idea – their favourite two choices being ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Inevitably though, on closer inspection, there will exist far more than just two options and education and knowledge are key to being able to recognise this.

On binary thinking

By: Gareth van Onselen

28 June 2012

Such things as subtlety and ambiguity – and therefore human nature – are not the friends of moralisers. For them, the world is far easier understood in binary terms, every complexity reduced down to just two options, of which their favourite is: ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Rarely, however, is this actually the case.

Choices are thus easily made for moralisers – in any situation they have only two and who would chose to be bad anyway? Perhaps more accurately, then, it is fair to say moralisers only ever have one choice. And that is not really a choice at all.

The prospect that this sort of fundamentalist thinking might actually be realised as fundamentalism depends on how well set it is. There is a difference between believing one has only two choices and insisting that to be the case.

The former can be unlearnt, as it is usually the result of little more than ignorance. The latter is less easily countered. Education and, with it, knowledge, helps. With understanding comes complexity and, with wisdom, an appreciation of it. The world is a complex place. Being able to appreciate that, dependent on one’s response to uncertaintly. Moral absolutism offers the comfort of similicity and certainty but the price one pays for that is ignorance.

When binary thinking is common place and pervasive in a society, curiously, it becomes harder to identify: So captivated are people by whichever false choice preoccupies the public mind, the possibility that a third or fourth option might exist simply never occurs to anyone; too busy are they reinforcing their particular trench.

The great appeal of binary thinking is its simplicity and those forums that lend themselves to simplicity thus attract and reward moralisers – the more such platforms, the more moralising.

All of this is to the detriment of a society when faced with a real moral dilemma because, in that rare situation when a hard call does actually have to be made between something good and something bad, people are none the wiser to it. It represents merely another opportunity to knuckle down and fight regardless, and whatever side they choose, simply a response to that desire.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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