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.

**

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

Why freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Man leaping off cliff

victor-rodriguez-726159-unsplashPhoto by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” —Jean-Paul Sartre

I didn’t ask to be born, and neither did you. Despite this, in what has to be the most selfish act that a pair of adults can undertake, a decision was made for our existence, and as a consequence, life was suddenly and spectacularly thrust upon us.

Given that we didn’t choose to be born, we could be forgiven for assuming that the decision-makers in this messy process would be responsible for everything that happens in our lives. But as it turns out, even though mother and father plotted and conspired to establish our fleshy form, the responsibility of our own lives falls to us. I’m hard-pressed to find a comparable event of such cruel and heartless discrimination. If this were hauled before a respectable judge, she would smash her decisive gavel in our everlasting favour. Those utter, utter bastards.

I jest, of course. I’m thankful for my meagre existence and the responsibility that comes with it, I just wish it wasn’t so bewilderingly complicated. Not only are we faced with a million bamboozling choices throughout our lifetime, we’re also expected to make the right one. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t given any How To Make Great Life Choices classes at school. Socrates didn’t teach at my woeful establishment. I just got yelled at a lot by adults who seemed to have spent their earlier years being broiled in a harsh, bitter liquid. None of them ever cooled down enough to offer me a map of life and some orientation instructions.

The problem that we all have is freedom. If you’re currently incarcerated in some god-awful prison with nightmarish, grime-ridden shower blocks, I apologise. But let me explain – freedom is simultaneously the most wonderful and awful thing that we have. It’s wonderful because it offers us the ability to make our own choices, and it’s awful because those choices can be so painfully difficult to make. As the beady-eyed French philosopher Paul Sartre said: we’re condemned to be free.

“Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”Jean-Paul Sartre

Freedom oh-so generously breaks our heavy shackles, while at the same time crushing us with the obligation to choose from an endless catalogue of options. Do I quit my woefully boring day job and study to be a mechanic? Will breaking up with my girlfriend make me happier in the long run? Should I accidentally trip this screaming, satanic child? These important choices, and an uncountable number of other choices that we’re faced with, can cause us a great deal of anguish. Modern society, with its dazzling and seemingly endless plethora of choice, can make freedom even more debilitating. There’s unlimited choice, and no information on how to choose.

Then there’s the accurate nihilistic notion that life is meaningless, making the responsibility of freedom even more miserable. Why decide to do anything if it doesn’t mean anything? It’s ideas like this that have led philosophers to the prospect of suicide as a serious consideration. Is life worth living if it’s just pointless?

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Thankfully, most of us are too cowardly to place our heads in a makeshift noose, or much too attached to our lives, even though it’s often intolerably bewildering. Though we’re relentlessly faced with a freedom that presents us with important, demanding choices, we love too much about our ridiculous lives to even consider throwing it away.

If we must go on, what we need is buckets of courage. The shackles of free choice must be smashed with audacity and determination – storming into the fray of our decisions, polished, hardwood shield raised and glistening sword unsheathed. Battle wounds are inevitable, but the alternative is distanced cowardice, in which we recoil from our lives, too frightened by the perplexity of freedom to tackle it.

The courageous hero takes full responsibility for her decisions, making appalling mistakes, as well as achieving stunning, air-punching victories. Her life isn’t perfect, but who wants perfection anyway? Even if it was attainable, a life of perfect sublimity would fast become boring, because without negativity as a contrast, we cannot understand positivity. They exist as a single, unbreakable scale of experience.

“Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.” — Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

Facing the chewy, sour parts of life without giving into the desire to escape – whether through alcohol, drugs, social media, or anything else – is heroism beyond measure. It’s affirmation, not negation, of our lives. A deafening, resounding yesThough life is unquestionably meaningless, by choosing to participate thoroughly, and by acting decisively, we’re creating our own meaning. Our role is of the sculptor, starting his long artistic process with a huge block of marble, resolutely chipping away until something evident and meaningful appears.

We may be condemned to be free, but we still possess the ability to choose our attitude. Should we play the dismal victim, crippled by the deluge of freedom, and the terrifying responsibility that we all possess? Or should we strap on our armour, accept our immutable freedom, and charge headfirst into the world with a battlecry so hectic that it’ll inspire poets? I know what William Wallace would have done.

 

 

The hero – the ultimate weapon against suffering

Aragorn on horse

aragorn-on-horse.jpg

“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.” —George Orwell

If every experience, thought and emotion of a person were to be compiled into an extensive catalogue of their life, a large portion of it would probably be tagged with the word suffering. It’s an indelibly human experience – frequent, painful, and inescapable. Our brows are often knitted in frustration, mouths curled into a grimace, and muscles uncomfortably tense, as if preparing for an attack.

Your narcissistic, impish boss might be the source of your suffering, as his eyes slowly narrow into contemptuous slits during conversation. Perhaps you’re hopelessly fastened to a blob-like lifestyle, in which fried potato comfortably and regularly defeats fibrous vegetables. Maybe you’re slowly and reluctantly realising that you married the wrong person.

Unless you want to renounce your life and introduce your neck to a homemade noose, suffering is here to stay. And if it can’t be expelled, we’d better learn how to handle it.

As it turns out, suffering itself isn’t the problem, but our judgment of it. We suffer, and then we suffer some more because we can’t help but bitch and whine about it, exacerbating the original problem. This preposterous, habitual reaction to suffering is attributed to much of the world’s emotional pain – a form of insidious, repetitive self-harm. It’s like accidentally cutting yourself in the kitchen and then intentionally wedging the knife into the wound afterwards. A witness to this behaviour would swiftly sit you down for a chat about the demons inhabiting your soul.

There’s two fundamental roles that can be assumed in relation to suffering – two standpoints that we can assume. The first is the victim.

The victim

The victim is a doleful character for which life just isn’t fair. Nobody deserves the pain that they experience – them least of all. A disproportionate share of misery has wound a path to them; all signposts for anguish point in their direction. If they picked winning lottery numbers, they’d probably put their ticket through the wash.

Life as a victim is tragically debilitating – every ounce of energy is wasted on complaint, with feeble weakness as the result. Exertion is taxing and undesirable. It’s much easier to complain about something than it is to actually change it. The voice of a victim has an unmistakable whiney quality, as though all traces of bassy substance has been filtered out, resulting in a spiritless, barely noticeable, irritating noise.

If faith in the almighty is their thing, they might be left wondering why they’re being so woefully punished. Even Jesus himself couldn’t have been the recipient of such devlish torment. Perhaps a visit to the local church will do the trick.

The victim’s lengthy role has instilled them with an unshakeable hostility towards life, which has treated them appallingly and must be responded to in a similar fashion. They’re as hostile as rabid hounds, and as bitter as raw coffee beans.

“He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.” — Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays

If being a victim sounds horrible to you, then you might consider strapping on your armour, unsheathing your glistening sword, and assuming the role of a much more agreeable character: the hero.

The hero

The hero suffers the same amount as the victim, but chooses a much more advantageous stance. They understand that pain is inevitable, to be faced head-on with jutted chest, wide-set feet, and hands on hips. Suffering is still unsavoury and arduous, yet tolerated with admirable courage and hulk-like strength.

Fortitude is a chief characteristic of the hero, forged from years of leaning into suffering. Unlike the victim, for which suffering is cruel and undeserved, the hero understands that pain is a great teacher; an alchemist for an enlightened soul.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” —Kahlil Gibran

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”— John Keats

The hero wouldn’t be caught dead casting aspersions on life, like pitiful martyrs. They know that suffering has the potential to mould them into something better, something durable, superbly tenacious, and with a shadow that darkens entire neighbourhoods.

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Like the hero of Dante’s Inferno, they recognise that the way out of hell lies at its centre – only by fully experiencing pain can we escape it. Complaining only strengthens the potency of suffering. Life is a rip-roaring adventure, bursting with colourful jubilation and dreary sorrow, with all of it valuable.

**

Life is suffering, but the intensity and duration is defined by the stance that we choose to take. We can be helpless victims, whining our way through life with shrivelled voices, suffused with crippling anxiety. Or we can be courageous heroes, standing Hercules-like against our pain, with every laceration amplifying the robustness of our character.

The choice is yours.

“The fact is that we’ve all been hurt, and we’re all wounded, but not all of us are mean. Why not? Because some people realize that their history of suffering can be a hero’s saga rather than a victim’s whine” —Martha Beck