Thursday, May 3, 2007

False Binaries

Often acts of social injustice are due to false binaries, also known as the logical fallacy of the excluded middle (wiki). False binaries occur when a person or society distills a complex set of options or ideas into two mutually exclusive options. This can also be called “black and white” thinking. Of course most of us would never consider ourselves guilty of views dependent on a false binary, but it is amazing how subtle and how strongly we are tempted to think this way. I wonder if the way the human mind is wired lends itself to think in terms of two opposing ideas, or if it is simply the pervasive influence of Platonic thought. I have not read a formal study on the subject, but my impression is that cultures that have had limited encounter with Plato and “Western” philosophy do a better job handling the reality that most options represent a continuum instead of a binary. If anyone has supporting evidence for this observation please post your comments.

Some examples of the subtle binaries that infiltrate my thinking:

Fundamentalist vs. Progressive – Particularly in the religious sphere I am often guilty of characterizing someone either as a fundamentalist or a progressive thinker. Fundamentalist representing someone who seeks to maintain a tradition and resists change, and progressive representing someone who is intentionally seeking change do to perceived inadequacies in the current system. The real truth is that all of us adhere to some “fundamentals,” ideas or traditions that we are not willing to change. Additionally, everyone is progressive in some sense of the word, even those who very intentionally hold onto a tradition are still adhering to something that was handed down to them by former progressive thinkers. Indeed, the tradition or idea itself resists becoming static, changing as people and society change.

Third world vs. First world – This distinction is so assumed that to question whether it is a viable concept is to induce incredibility in your listener. Yet First world vs. Third world is simply a way of talking about the world, not a geographic or cultural reality. Certainly economic distinctions might provide the clearest distinction between “first” and “third” worlds, but even these are based on certain assumption that income and a particular standard of living qualify a country to enter “first” world status. One has only to talk to a desperately poor person in a “first world” context, or a comfortably well off person in a “third world” context to recognize how this distinction breaks down. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t factual differences between countries in terms of GDP, income per capita, standard of living, etc, but to reduce these differences into a false binary of “first” and “third” world is clearly an overly simplified way of thinking. Indeed, this way of thinking can even be harmful as it disallows the middle, pushing a country or people group artificially under one label or the other. Regardless of which label a country falls under, there are people with desperate need everywhere, as are there those who are comfortably rich by manipulating the economic system to their advantage.

Terrorist vs. Non-Terrorist – This distinction is so often assumed to be real, yet in accordance with Einstein’s theory of relativity, it entirely depends on your perspective. An Iraqi man fighting to save his country from subordination to America would absolutely view himself as a patriot and defender of peace, even if forced to us non-traditional forms of force. Yet in the end, how different is the suicide bomber from the Navy pilot dropping a bomb on a rural village? I don’t necessarily mean to say that both men are terrorists, but certainly both men are intentionally engaging in acts of terror and violence. Indeed, if civilian casualties are the primary identifier of terrorist activities, then we as Americans should be very cautious about calling anyone else a terrorist, when our munitions have claimed more innocent lives in the past decades than any other country in the world.

Any other false binaries that you have observed?


Mike said...

I think you're really onto something with your ideas about Western proclivity toward false biaries. I have an intuitive sense that it is the result of Platonic philosophy, but that isn't a very Platonic answer, is it?

Interesting too, that we don't speak of 'second-world' cultures. Evidence of a true false dichotomy, it seems to me.

Anonymous said...

Much like the situation of jumping over or into a ditch, self interest provides the clue for ease of solution and thinking. If fractured-logic is the fly in the ointment due to simplicity of movement for the intellect, it would appear that the cure must consist of creating foundations of collaboration. It's always the question we don't know to ask &/or omit that creates the absence of realization that 'the map is not the territory'.

Vijay said...

Taken the liberty of reposting this with some additions. Please take a look at:

Anonymous said...