Binary Thinking and Polarization: Life is Not Black and White and Global Discussions Shouldn’t Be Either

Binary Thinking and Polarization: Life is Not Black and White and Global Discussions Shouldn’t Be Either

Our world seems to be constantly in turmoil. When there is no outright crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, then there are always contentious issues. Issues such as racism, capitalism, immigration, poverty and gender are constantly under discussion. Generally, these discussions are held to proffer solutions. Due to their near-universal and complex nature, one would expect to hear diverse opinions and nuanced takes on these issues. This, however, does not seem to be the case.

I have noticed that more and more, these conversations are being made binary; from social media to mainstream media and everywhere in between, it seems that as these problems get more widespread and complex, our views on them get narrower. Binary thinking is an oversimplification; a framing of questions in either yes or no. It puts two terms that are mutually exclusive side by side and frames it so that all the possibilities and answers to the question lie only with those answers. The answer is severely limited to either option A or option B or nothing else. Never mind that the alphabet has 24 other letters.

On the one hand, binary thinking can be correct at times. Some questions can be satisfactorily answered with either a yes or a no; like when as a guest you are asked if you’d like a cup of tea or not. On the other hand, we all can agree that life is not as simple as deciding whether or not to have a cup of tea. And even if it were, you might recognize the fact that the question ignores all the other things you could want; say a glass of lemonade or a bottle of beer.

The result is that if you are a good guest, as is most often the case, presented with the limited options in this example, you would more often than not perceive asking for those other things not offered as an inconvenience on your host. No one wants to be the person who looks ungrateful by wanting too much, so you just decide not to ask.

Credit: Alexander Sinn.

Binary thinking has long since been associated with computers; with binary logic being 1s and 0s. We recognized the limitations of this binary system over the years and began to develop artificial intelligence alongside machine learning. We want our computers to transcend the failings of the binary mode of computations so as to go further than just binary operations. The irony though is that it seems that only the computers are currently learning this. If anything, we humans are getting over focused on binary logic and applying the same to ongoing global conversations.

Binary arguments have for long been the favorite tactic of politicians who use it to mask their unwillingness or inability to find and fund innovative, equitable and acceptable solutions to issues. For instance, in the United States, practically every issue is viewed through the lenses of the Right or Left, Republican or Democrat. The situation is such that if you support increased immigration control, then according to binary reasoning, you must hate immigrants and you must therefore be considered racist. If you do support more flexible immigration policies, then you are presumed unpatriotic by those who don’t because America should be for Americans.

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In reality, these issues couldn’t be farther from black or white because they move hand-in-hand with layers of other attendant matters. I have come to understand that where there exist such binary views; the answer or solution to whatever issues under consideration lies somewhere off both sides. Virtue afterall lies in the middle. To further buttress my point, consider for a moment the raging American issue of whether the state should provide universal healthcare or not.

The best solution being offered is a meld of both views which would essentially be a capitalist welfare economy where the state provides some inalienable support for citizens. But the fact that this has shown to be working doesn’t mean that the two political factions would consider the issue resolved. In such situations, facts and data fly out of the window. The ‘Left’ screams all or nothing and the ‘Right’ bellows that little is everything because any support from the government means that the country has devolved into socialism. Never mind that the government provides billions in support to big businesses already in the form of subsidies, tax incentives and, in the event of a pandemic, economic ‘stimulus’ packages.


When we approach national and global issues with a binary mindset, we tend to subconsciously relegate the real issues to the background. In the end, no real progress is achieved. Instead, what we have are people who dig into their positions and worldviews, even at the expense of improving what it is that they claim to fight for. Solutions become secondary and opposition becomes primary. The mere fact that the other side agrees to something makes it something to oppose.

In a rather interesting twist, I have noticed online that progressives and liberals actually seem more guilty of this. It is like all the major issues are listed in a binary format and anything short of absolute agreement with all the views negates every other view you have. If you support immigration control, that means you automatically support imprisonment of children and that of course makes you a horrible person. It does not matter if you consistently say otherwise.

A few days ago, the famous author J.K Rowling made a tweet that became controversial in a matter of seconds. She essentially relayed that while she supports trans-women’s rights, she believed that the experiences of women are rooted in their birth sex and this shouldn’t be glossed over. Her tweets were in response to an article that referred to ‘people who menstruate’ and she went on to further state that if sex isn’t real, then there can be no same-sex attraction. If this were true, then the lived realities of women globally would be erased. She stated that she knows and loves trans people, but reiterated that erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives.

Her stance didn’t seem outrageous to some people. For one, she has a right to her opinion and for another; her tweet seemed to be rooted in biological facts. The prominent backlash from this tweet however was not about biology and subsequent use of linguistics but was made about her transphobia and her being a “TERF” short for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. The entire public conversation then became rooted in her hatred of trans people, seeing as the popular binary position is that you are either good by supporting them or labeled evil for not. The backlash raged on, despite her repeated declaration of undying support for trans rights.

Observing the online discussions, there were no buts or middles grounds; it was not considered that she might have valid concerns held by other women. This is a notable woman who has made her mark in lives across the globe and in ways previously considered non-existent. If J.K. Rowling has taught us anything through her work, it is probably the importance of owning your own voice in whatever you do.

She will likely survive this backlash because of her wealth and prominence but it made me realize how badly binary views on world issues disrupt our intellectual progress. If J.K Rowling, a woman, a prominent woman, can not raise any concerns on such an issue, then who can? Me? Me, who is an ordinary man? There should always be room for divergent opinions because if not, how far have we really come? Every society should raise people with opinions as diverse as possible but when diverse opinions are policed as badly as they are in our world today, then there is cause for some serious alarm bells to ring.

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The shaming culture is on the rise; the expression of unwanted views on any topic is seen as a sign of backwardness or deliberate evil. With this kind of belief system in place, the result is that people keep their doubts and views to themselves; with learning moments being passed over in favor of popular outrage. But those views don’t go away though and they shouldn’t; because for all we know, they are the right ones. They get stronger and it gets expressed in more fundamental ways such as support for extremist candidates. This in turn reinforces the initial belief that they were wrong and the cycle continues like a bad movie.

Photo: CJ Dayrit.

I understand the desire for global conversations to be more clear-cut and simple. I understand that it makes them easier to grasp and the solutions we need easier to find. Let’s be clear though, shaming anyone for having an opinion different from yours does not make yours right. The temporary rush of having won an argument by bullying another person into either accepting your views or going silent is not the way any real progress is made in any sphere of our lives. It only makes you a bully.

What I’m trying to tell you is that it is actually possible to support immigration rights and still worry about potential job losses to those immigrants. It is possible to love the right to bear arms but support better gun control laws. It is possible and should be normal to support trans gender rights and still speak up when you feel their rights encroach on scientific and linguistic understanding of biology. Except for the fact that you’d probably be shamed for not regarding trans people as women; as if you shouldn’t be free to express the fact that they truly are expressing identities different from their birth sexes.

These positions should be allowed to happen because for one, we all should be allowed to hold our views. But most importantly because, the progress we all seek in global conversations is deeply entwined with the free expression of our views on the issues being discussed. Real progress, more times than not, lies beyond our personal convictions on any topic being discussed; right beside common sense.

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Cover image by Delia Giandeini.

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