The other day I had a conversation with a conservative friend in which we discussed binary thinking. According to the dictionary, binary is defined as “something made of two [and only two] things or parts.” Most of us are familiar with machine language binary, which is made up entirely of 1s and 0s. Like all binary systems, the two parts are mutually exclusive: if something is a 1, it can’t be a 0, and if something isn’t a zero, it therefore must be a 1.
This type of thinking can apply to just about everything: if a person is a woman, she therefore can’t be a man; if you’re not for my proposal, you must therefore be against it; if you’re a good person, you therefore can’t be a bad one.
When I pointed out to my friend that he was engaging in binary thought during our political conversation, he said something very interesting:
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with viewing the world through a mostly binary lens. That’s what we’ve always done as humans. Our society is built that way, and I think it’s a good thing.”
I do think he is right about one thing here: binary thinking is humanity’s natural, default setting. It’s incredibly easy to do, maybe even instinctual. And it’s easy because it’s so simple. It is, in a word, tribalism: me VS you. Us VS them. Whoever’s not for us is against us. To co-opt an old phrase, binary thinkers see the world in terms of black and white.
But we don’t have to see the world that way. Unlike the animals, we are not enslaved to our instincts nor condemned to follow the natural man’s patterns of behavior. (In fact, Mormons believe that part of the purpose of this life is to “put off the natural man” and gain dominion over our instincts [see Mosiah 3:19].) We can control our thoughts and instincts instead of being controlled by them.
The second way of seeing the world that we discussed in our conversation was, in contrast to seeing in terms of black and white, instead seeing the world in terms of shades of grey.
Looking at shades of grey is not nearly so simple as binary thinking. It not only assumes complexity and nuance, it thrives on it. The world holds far more than just good and bad, for within all people, and even all ideas, are good and evil mixed. The world is a complicated place with complicated problems that require complex solutions, and only by examining every shade of grey can we find the best ones.
Unlike binary thinking, looking at the world this way requires training (i.e., education), practice, and a whole lot of time and mental energy. It is not simple.
In our conversation, my friend and I, he being the conservative and I being the progressive Democrat, found that we differed in our views of the world. He was the binary thinker (as quoted above), and I was the one who thought in shades of grey. As soon as we were finished chatting, I rushed off to write a blog piece about conservatives tended to be binary thinkers and progressives tended to see shades of grey, and how binary thinking was bad and we should all avoid it.
I didn’t get very far before I realized that grouping all people into binary thinkers and greyscalers was in itself binary thinking.
Well, shoot. I hadn’t expected to run into that shade of grey.
So I started over.
It should be obvious that I still do consider shades-of-grey thinking to be a generally higher level of thinking than binary, but as I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized that each way of thinking has its uses and its drawbacks.
There are some situations in which binary thinking is actually preferable. In the military, for example, I want our soldiers to be thinking in us VS them terms when they’re in combat! They wouldn’t be doing their job well if they weren’t. (As an aside, the corollary between conservative ideology and military service is of note here; in this chicken-and-egg situation, I wonder if we’re not seeing a self-reinforcing cycle.) If you’re hunting or gathering, binary thinking is also better. Will that animal kill me, or can I kill it? Are these mushrooms I’ve found edible or poisonous? In those cases, binary thinking can help you survive. This very fact of survival is why I believe it’s our default setting.
There are also drawbacks to thinking in shades of grey. When taken too far, it can lead to an utter moral relativism that eschews the very concepts of good and bad. Even if this extreme isn’t reached, one can be tempted to spend so much time looking at the shades of grey and evaluating all the alternatives that one becomes paralyzed and makes no decisions at all. Neither of these things are healthy.
Yet all that being said, I still think that binary thinking is dangerous in many areas of our modern world, and especially in politics. I don’t think our society is built in terms of binary anymore, and I find great relief in the fact that it is not.
By grouping people into “people like me” and “people different from me,” binary thinking naturally leads to racism. Physical differences like color are very easy to spot from a distance and assign into the “different from me” category. Not that long ago, our nation was literally divided into Black and White sections, many of which have persisted into the present. Laws stated that “one drop” of African blood was enough to make someone “black”—an ultimate rejection of the literal shades of human color. It’s a well-documented fact that African-Americans, both in the slavery and Jim Crow eras, were considered less human than their white neighbors. Binary thinking—tribalism—can very quickly lead to dehumanization.
And dehumanization doesn’t just happen on racial grounds. As I said before, binary thinking is the default state of humanity. And to see the fruits of that default state, we can look across recorded human history. In most places in the world, for most of humanity, people have lived in various kinds of dictatorial monarchies with a very black-and-white class structure. There was the nobility and the peasantry; the lords and the serfs. In our modern words, the haves and the have-nots. And the economic separation between them was stark and dire. A few places, like India with its caste system, had a couple more shades of grey thrown in, but in most places where those shades of grey existed, they were found only in the better-educated nobility. They usually didn’t apply to the peons. And of course, we must remember that within these societies, this inequality of wealth and power was seen as natural. Kings had a “divine right” to rule, and the lower classes were constantly being told to “know their place.” Binary thinking overlapped; the poor were “lazy” or “simple” and therefore deserved to live in squalor and be ruled over by their “betters.” This way of thinking not only enabled but reinforced and perpetuated every oppressive and freedom-quenching government humanity has suffered under from antiquity through the middle ages.
I shudder to contemplate going back to a binary world.
And yet we are edging closer to living in one. Wealth and income inequality are approaching levels not seen since right before the French Revolution. If left unchecked, do we really think things are going to turn out any differently? (Especially with modern weapons involved.) The Enlightenment ideals that began in Europe and upon which America is founded revel in the diversity of shades of grey. Freedom of religion. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. All different opinions, all different beliefs, all different ideas coexisting chaotically together, with liberty and justice for all, not just the privileged few. This foundation of freedom allowed a middle class to develop, and for the first time in history, average people had a chance at a good life. Yet now, because of conservative policies that give the rich ever more tax breaks, America is heading in the opposite direction—back to the simple, binary society of haves and have-nots.
Please don’t misunderstand and think that I’m calling all conservatives binary thinkers. Some are not. There are still moderate Republicans in Congress calling for an independent investigation into Trump’s Russia ties and who don’t want to sacrifice health insurance for millions of their constituents. And there are liberals who engage in binary thinking as well, calling every gun fan a murderer and every GOP donor an oligarch or plutocrat, or who think that every GMO is inherently suspect. And not all binary thinkers inevitably travel the slippery slope down to bigotry. As I’ve thought about this subject more, I’ve come to the conclusion that binary thinking isn’t a function of conservatism per se; it’s more a function of extremism. I do think there’s more binary thinking on the conservative side of the aisle at the moment. The reason for it is that the GOP is objectively more extreme than the left. Tea Partiers like Ted Cruz and white nationalists like Steve Bannon have pushed it there, often through tactics that rely heavily, if not exclusively, on binary thinking—on portraying “liberals” as the enemy of America, bent on destroying all that’s good and wholesome. This appeal to our base binary instinct has been, I regret to say, all too effective. And we can see it in the fact that the single biggest predictor of who would vote for binary thinker Trump over shades-of-grey thinker Clinton was education—the training program that helps us learn to think in non-binary terms.
What’s scary is how the GOP seems hellbent on cutting education spending wherever they’re in power. It’s like they know that educated people will see through their shallow worldview and discern the true nuances that lie beyond. At which point, they realize that the emperor has no clothes.
So why do members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tend to fall into the trap of the binary mindset? First, let’s remember that this is part of the natural man that we are trying to put off. We are all at different places in our conversion from sinner to saint, and we tend to work on our weaknesses one at a time. Just because someone hasn’t conquered binary thinking yet (or learned when it’s appropriate to use) doesn’t mean they don’t have other worthwhile, valuable qualities and talents. (And yes, this reminder is for my own imperfect self as much as anyone else.)
Second, let’s pay closer attention to how we talk about things in church. We like to say that we are “the ONLY true church.” That mindset is as binary as it gets: true VS false. And if we’re the only true church, then everyone else, by definition, must be false! But that’s not what the Church actually teaches. The doctrine is that we are the only church with all the knowledge and authority necessary for salvation. That is a BIG distinction. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not have a monopoly on truth. In fact, the Church directly teaches that almost ALL other religions have truth in them! It’s even permissible that other religions may have truths that we lack. Joseph Smith taught, “the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. . . . The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation.” That’s not to say other religions are wholly true; we do believe they contain errors. But the Church’s position on this subject is much more shades of grey than it is black and white. So why do we teach it in binary terms? My only answer is that the binary framework is easier to understand.
I don’t believe God sees things in terms of black and white. I also don’t think he sees them only in shades of grey, either. True, God “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance,” (Alma 45:16, D&C 1:31) but this is the same being who told a woman taken “in the very act” of adultery, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:3-11). God knows perfectly the “thoughts and intents” of our hearts (see D&C 6:16) and is therefore able to judge us perfectly. To extend the visual metaphor, I submit that God sees in color.
And not just in color. God sees in ultraviolet, infrared, even radio and X-rays—in short, I believe that God sees the entire spectrum. This ability is part of what makes him divine. And if, as the Church teaches, we are here in this life to try to become more like him, I submit that we must do better than seeing in shades of grey or black and white (though we should learn these skills and when to apply them as well). We need to begin to learn to see in color.
Let me give you an example of what I think this means. In my conversation with my friend, he posed a question:
“Should a devout Muslim photographer be forced by law to shoot a gay wedding?”
This is one of the fundamental questions of our time: Where does religious freedom of conscience end and the secular right of access to business services begin? It’s a variation of the old wedding cake conundrum, which should be familiar to all of us by now.
In the binary way of thinking, there are only two outcomes to this problem:
- The photographer (or baker, or whoever) is forced by law to provide his services, and freedom of religious conscience is thereby violated.
- The photographer is allowed to deny service to the gay couple, at which point their right to freedom from discrimination is violated.
Because binary thinking allows for only these two options (“YES” or “NO”), someone’s rights get violated in either case. The binary thinker must therefore make a value judgment about which right is more important. A conservative binary thinker would, unsurprisingly, decide that religious freedom was the more important right. A liberal binary thinker would likely choose freedom from discrimination. (Note that there can be binary thinkers on both sides! And in this issue, there certainly are in real life.) If we follow a binary thought process here, no side can win except at the expense of the other. Which brings me to the final drawback of the black-and-white worldview: binary thinking results in zero-sum situations.
The genius of our civilization is that it encourages positive-sum solutions—ones in which neither side may get everything they want, but both sides are better off than they were before. This is the power behind capitalism, be it in competition between neighborhood grocery stores or in the benefits of global trade. Not everyone gets benefited equally, but everyone benefits.
As I thought about this question during our conversation, I realized just how limiting the binary mindset was. It completely prohibited my friend from imagining any other solution. In his mind, my “liberal grayscale views” were taking a simple situation and making it needlessly complicated! But by looking at both sides, I did manage to come up with a tentative solution that worked to keep both sets of rights from being infringed. I don’t pretend that this is a final solution to the problem in any way (it needs a lot more debate and deliberation than two old mission pals chatting on Facebook), but here is what I told him:
“As an off-the-top-of-my-head example, the law could mandate that such a photographer make a good-faith effort to find another business who offers the same service at a comparable price. That way the photographer’s conscience is satisfied and the LGBT couple’s right to access the goods and services of the market is fulfilled.”
Obviously, such a law would have to provide for situations in which no other business could be found, and a host of other details. (This is a statement of principle, not draft legislation.) But in presenting this example, I hope I’ve given you a glimpse not just of greyscale vision, but of what solutions we might deliver to the world if we began to see things in the colors they truly are.
Times and places exist in which binary thinking is appropriate. But in our complicated, nuanced society, those times and places are the exceptions rather than the rule. Seeing the differences between shades of grey is, in general, better in our society. But seeing things in color—as they truly are—is best.