The Rotten Habit of Black and White Thinking

Donkey
Black and white thinking makes asses of us. Image by 1691628 from Pixabay

When people ask me why 52% of the UK voted to leave the EU¹, I usually come up with the same answer: immigration. Brexiteers see immigration as an evil that is ruining the country, bombarded by childish memes that their thickheaded friends share on social media, and electrified by a shocking reel of Sun headlines that cattle-prodded them to the polls. They’re unable to comprehend the complexities of EU membership (few can), and cast their vote based on their racism, like frightened dogs yapping to protect themselves from the terror of the non-white hoards trying to find a better life.

Entertaining as it might be, this profile of a typical Brexiteer is untrue, falling victim to the same simplistic danger as it criticises. To make sense of something as chaotic and important as the vote of a Brexiteer, it’s much easier to discard subtlety and reduce it down to a single argument. When people ask me why 52% of the UK voted to leave the EU, I don’t consider a Brexiteer’s other potential reasons like economic regulation, trade, and sovereignty, I just choose the easiest and most common way to define them: immigration. To make sense of the carnage of Brexit, I pigeonhole 52% of the British population.

This is a common response when we’re faced with something important and complex. We feel an obligation to pick a side, but don’t want to do the research needed to better understand the situation, or people’s motives. So we simplify it down to something that resonates with us; something that we do understand, which doesn’t wobble us with cognitive dissonance, and protects our delicate egos. We engage in black and white thinking, forgoing our intelligence and becoming the very people we’re criticising.

Black and white thinking is bad for a number of reasons.

We make bad choices

We need an accurate understanding of the world to make good choices for ourselves, and for the people around us. But it’s a complicated place, and we’re all so busy, so when important events come along like Brexit, an election, or a political movement, we often get a shallow overview rather diving deep, because we’re lazy and don’t care enough to put the time in.

Continuing with the example of Brexit, if I were to make an informed decision about which way to vote, I might need to do the following:

  • Find out Britain’s immigration policies, and their economic implications
  • Find out how EU membership benefits British trade
  • Understand the government’s proposed human rights policies
  • Find out how much sovereignty Britain has as an EU member

…and much more, preferably from sources with little bias. Even if I did just one of those things, I’d be better informed and able to cast a vote that made more sense for the British people. But most people can’t be bothered, instead choosing one of a million mindless entertainments that the Internet is suffocating us with.

When we surrender to our laziness, we shrink complex issues down to a single emotional factor, ignoring all shades of grey. Our point of view is visceral, rather than grounded in fact, resulting in a bad choice that doesn’t reflect reality. Some of these choices will be innocuous, while others will tarnish our lives and the lives of our countrymen.

It’s also possible to go the other way and be a perpetual fence-sitter, despite having delved into the details of an issue. The challenge is knowing when you’ve done enough research to form a confident opinion. And if you’ve haven’t researched at all, you don’t need to pick a side.

We become stupid

When we engage in black and white thinking, we’re making a conscious choice to ignore potentially important information, and so we make fools of ourselves. The shades of grey are waiting to be discovered by those who want a more accurate and nuanced point of view, which is more difficult and time-consuming to obtain, but has the potential to make you smarter and better informed.

As we simplify an issue over and over again, casting aside all other possibilities and refusing to look deeper, we strengthen the neurons in our brains for the idea, until we become stubborn buffoons who find it impossible to perceive it in any other way. We habituate ourselves to a single simplistic assumption, and squash all creativity for the issue. We ignore nuance, and so we become dimwits.

Shaky confidence

“Black and white thinking masks itself in the disguise of certainty, and certainty feels good in an uncertain world.”

Dr. Christine Bradstreet

Black and white thinking does wonders for our confidence. It’s easier to settle on a point of view when we’ve limited the possibilities, allowing us to say “I’m right about this” with confidence. But you’re not right, you’ve just narrowed your scope, and when someone comes along with contradictory facts, your easily-won confidence is shown to be delicate as a spring daisy. Some people change their point of view when this happens, but many remain stubborn to protect their confidence/ego, and cling even harder to their daft perspective, like an intractable Flat Earther.

Simplifying the chaos of the world may fill us with self-assured certainty, but it builds a feeble confidence that can be shattered by someone willing to look deeper. Forming an opinion without looking into the details isn’t the act of a decisive leader; it’s the deed of a prosaic bootlicker.

We become predictable and boring

Rupert Murdoch’s monstrous web of media companies are an exemplar of black and white thinking. If you get your news from Murdoch, you’re in danger of becoming narrow-minded, cynical, and tedious. The primary goal of these kinds of media is to generate as strong an emotional response as possible, preferably a negative one, so that you purchase their newspapers and engage with their shows. They may harbour journalistic values and attempt to report accurately, but it’s often spun into something emotional that’ll draw you in. When you’ve spent decades reading a newspaper with headlines like YOU PAY FOR ROMA GYPSY PALACES and ‘MUSLIM CONVERT’ BEHEADS WOMAN IN GARDEN, you’re going to have trouble realising that not all Romanian Gypsies or Muslims are evil.

To have any chance of being an interesting, well-informed person, you need to delve into the details, question the validity of what you’re consuming, and engage with a variety of sources. Otherwise you risk becoming a frightened, obnoxious Fox watcher, whose imbecilic ideas are defined by sensationalism and outrage—black and white thinking that is easy to fall into if we allow ourselves.

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As a species, we have a strong tendency to simplify complexity, so that we can understand. It’s easier to call a Brexiteer a racist than to understand his full rationale, and in this act of black and white thinking, we diminish our humanity and intelligence. To be smart, confident, engaging, and a good decision-maker, the shades of grey are where we’ll spend our time, refusing to fall into the rotten habit of black and white thinking.

References

  1. EU Referendum Results,” BBC News

Looking down on others

Stereosonic festival

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 1.24.31 pmStereosonic festival – Australia

Most of us are familiar with the feeling of being better than someone else; of tilting our heads and arrogantly looking down our noses at them. For me, this behaviour was exhibited when attending a now-cancelled music festival in Australia called Stereosonic, a dance music extravaganza for which 75% of the audience were either steroid-fuelled male beefcakes, or scantily-clad, tits-out barbie dolls, both with the same levels of self-esteem as a fired McDonalds worker. My judgments of such people are based on my beliefs that you won’t find much genuine, long-lasting fulfilment by inflating and flaunting your bodies, like peacocks with gym memberships and extra chromosomes. I’m extremely confident in this belief, and the result is condescension.

You may choose to look down on someone because of their dietary choices, perhaps going so far as to ruthlessly rebuke them. This is a trait for which some vegans have become notorious, and the reaction is often rebounded condescension, and not-so-playful piss-taking. Maybe your judgment reaches harsh levels when you observe a casually-smoking mother, whose plumes of vapour appear to be forming a circle around her innocent child.

Whatever it is that evokes condescension in you, it’s rarely a constructive thing. Though we may be confident in our judgment of the situation, we’re usually acting out of insecurity; our criticisms are often formed because we feel that we are lacking in some way, and so we judge in order to feel better about ourselves. Attacking from an elevated position is satisfying; it’s a temporary state of power and confidence. We’re right, and they’re wrong. We’re smart, and they’re dumb. We’re quite clearly better than them, and travelling on a superior path.

One of the biggest mistakes that we make when being condescending is our arrogant confidence in being 100% accurate. Our world is obscenely complex – every choice that we make and every circumstance that we find ourselves in is comprised of a huge number of intricacies. It’s usually arrogant to assume that we can recognise, analyse and conclude that somebody is making a bad choice, based on our limited understanding of the situation. Even experienced professionals are only working from the knowledge available in their field, and are just as fallible as everyone else. While I may believe that inflating your muscles in order to impress others isn’t a good tactic for achieving contentment, I don’t really know whether that’s true. I can certainly make assumptions based on my arm-chair psychology knowledge, but these are flimsy foundations on which to elevate yourself. Even the scopes of geniuses have limited clarity.

Some choices are, of course, clearly bad. Someone subject to a severe cocaine addiction shouldn’t continue to ingest cocaine, unless they want to end up killing themselves. Such clear-cut examples appear to be a rarity though – the situation is often too complex for us to make an accurate judgment on the positive value of a life choice.

One possible cause of our tendency towards condescension is the idea of cognitive dissonanceThis is the uneasy feeling that appears when a belief is contradicted by another belief, and you suddenly feel unsure of yourself. Much of our confidence is hinged on the certainty of our beliefs, and when people act in ways that go against them, we react with condescension, because we’re desperate to cling onto our own confidence. We don’t like being wrong, and so we idealise our own choices and beliefs in order to protect our delicate ego. The fact that the world is extremely complicated doesn’t even factor into our thinking; we just climb onto that high horse of ours – a more comfortably superior position.

People invested in a given perspective shall—when confronted with disconfirming evidence—expend great effort to justify retaining the challenged perspective. — Wikipedia on cognitive dissonance

There’s a few reasons why you should change your condescending ways, the biggest of which is sociability. You’re not going to form good relationships with people if you look down your nose at them – it’s an awful way to be treated. A nasty habit is also being formed, which might end up with you being a resident of, or perhaps even the president of, Cuntsville. Habitants of this place constantly focus on the bad, and can become deeply depressed in the process.

If you’ve decided that you want your condescending habit to be over, then compassion is the thing that it should be replaced with. Compassion is the nemesis of condescension; it’s about displaying tender understanding, rather than arrogant judgment. As humans, we all suffer a great deal, and we’d do well to remember this fact when we’re casting judgment on another person’s choices. Everyone is just trying to do the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt. Even if you’re supremely confident in their failure to make good choices, treating them with condescension helps neither one of you. The few bad choices that are apparent may be concealed by a treasure-trove of good ones, and unless you can display the exquisite compassion required to love your fellow humans, you’ll never find out about them. We must assume that everyone we meet is better than us in some way.

“In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s helpful to remember that we often have little control over the choices that we make. Vowing to lose 10 kilos usually doesn’t result in us losing 10 kilos. Our willpower has a tendency to be pitifully inept. Casting aspersions on people’s choices is especially callous when considering this fact, not to mention hypocritical.

Another reason to be compassionate about the apparent failings of others is the amount of terrible and easily-accessible information in the world. Some bad choices are made from a totally warped view of what will make you happy; of what is valuable. Some poor souls may live their entire lives acting out poisonous beliefs, with zero capacity or understanding on how to improve their situation. You simply can’t find good information if you don’t know how to.

There’s also our culture to consider, a powerful motivating force that can shape negative behaviours. Noxious celebrity magazines are plastered with images of stick-thin, perfectly-chiseled stars who become role models for impressionable everyday people. Is it really surprising that they will do whatever necessary to emulate the richest, most successful people on the planet? A culture doesn’t have the best interests of its people at heart, despite its potential to influence our choices. Looking down on a girl who injects her face with botox might seem justified, until you consider her a sufferer of society. And even then, what makes you so arrogant to decide that she’s making a bad choice?

We must learn to replace our condescension with a more caring, compassionate understanding. Don’t be so cocky to assume that your beliefs always reflect reality – that probably isn’t the case. Consistently challenging your beliefs and updating them will imbue you with guru-like wisdom, and the accompanying compassion that you exhibit will create long-lasting bonds with those around you.

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