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Binary Thinking

We humanists fancy ourselves to be free to conduct discernment of our life stance because we reject supernaturalism.  But we seldom stop to think about the way biblical narratives have shaped western culture outside the church. This is the water we’re swimming in, and we don’t notice it.

I’ll give you a personal example.  When I came to MIT, my life philosophy was based on three then-unexamined assumptions:

  1. Business was good, hence business school.

  2. Technology was good, hence MIT.

  3. Religion, as I had experienced it as a young child, was bad, so I left this behind.

See the pattern here?  I was an either-or thinker.  

Where does either-or thinking come from?  It started with my Sunday-school indoctrination into saved or sinner, heaven or hell.  Men have agency; women don’t. I now know that this is not the only flavor of Christianity.  Back then, I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.

Today I see binary thinking playing out in our political system.  Red or Blue. The mere suggestion of a Purple approach is shot down.  Culturally, we are entrapped in binary thinking.

But binary thinking is not a human universal.  Other cultures do not see good and evil as either-or.  For example, in the Haudenosaunee creation story, Turtle Island (North America) was shaped by the twin sons of Sky Woman.  One twin had a good disposition, the other an evil disposition. After the Right-Handed Twin did his thing to shape the earth, he created man out of red clay.  But everything the Right-Handed Twin made, the Left-Handed Twin hacked, promptly and maliciously.

This is the reason that rivers have rapids, roses have thorns, and that everyone has both a good heart and a bad heart.  Because of the logical structure of their creation myth—the left and the right hands shaping the world together—the Haudenosaunee have always recognized that people and institutions cannot be simplified into good or evil, right or wrong.  

If I had grown up on the other side of the St. Lawrence river, and had been socialized as a Haudenosaunee, I would not have been such a black-and-white thinker.  I would have begun my career with the idea that business, technology and religion are partially right and partially wrong, and can be used for both good and evil.  I think this story yields a more realistic way to look at the world.

As a young technology evangelist, back in the days when computer dinosaurs roamed the earth, I bemoaned binary thinking in others.  As The Prophetess of Unix and Open Systems, I heaped scorn on those who believed that customers (and their data) were Vendor A’s or Vendor B’s.  Can you imagine a world where you could not be both a gmail user and a Mac user? Unthinkable! Yet that’s the way it used to be.

It was MIT students who made me see my own tendency to think in black and white.  When I first sat down with Fossil-Free MIT protesters, I did so out of solidarity.  I had been a climate activist in college. I knew that Exxon knew–when Exxon originally figured it out.  At the time, I had unconsciously applied transitive logic to my assumptions, and concluded that there was nothing to worry about.  After all: business was good; Exxon was a business; Exxon knew it was harming the world. Therefore, Exxon would change its ways…  

Nope.  That’s not what happened.  My unexamined assumption had kept me blissfully unaware of the decision Exxon made not to act on what it knew.  I had a blind spot so big it hid the Koch money. It’s hard to admit this. But everybody has blind spots.

I still believe that business can be good.  That nothing allocates scarce resources better than a price system.  But now I’m looking through the lens of both/and, not either/or. So I acknowledge that business can harm as much as it can help.  I acknowledge the influence of both the Right-Handed and the Left-Handed Twin.

Just as business can do good, so can evil be done for the sake of profit.  The price system can allocate resources efficiently, or it can be rigged to rape our public lands for the profit of a few.  Just as technology can be a force for human flourishing, so can it be a force for human diminishment. It is up to us as humans–be we ethical, spiritual or religious–to name and claim our good.  

–Nina Lytton, Humanist Chaplaincy Intern 

To continue questioning binary thinking…

No Such Thing as Generic Christianity

I used to be triggered by a binary understanding of Christianity

A liberal perspective on the Scourge of Black-and-White Thinking A fundamentalist (and to me, offensive) perspective on left handedness

Links for Lefties and Former Lefties who were forced to switch

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