Black or White

The human mind, according to some philosophers, is a “dichotomizing machine,” as Stephen Jay Gould reminds us in “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth”…as in that ultimate cognitive weapon of mass destruction “we are good and they are evil” that so effectively abolishes all discussion of possible third alternatives. Bush and Co. were right about one thing: that, at least in the dichotomizing minds of Bush and Co., there really was a link between Hitler and Islamic political activism. It was not the history, the behavior of the two that were linked but the image of the two in the minds of a certain class of Americans—the “dichotomizers.” If indeed human minds are designed to dichotomize, then perhaps this gross oversimplification of reality is not their fault. And I will not dwell on the further irony that Hitler’s fundamental sin–of attempting to exterminate a whole category of humans solely because he, the Great Dichotomizer, judged “them” to belong to a different and therefore (in the mind of a person capable of perceiving only two categories at a time) “bad” category—was itself a sin of dichotomizing.

So seldom is reality composed of precisely two categories that it might be a useful homework assignment for repentant dichotomizers to make a list of cases in human history when a situation can accurately be described as consisting of precisely two classes. It would, I predict, be a short list.

In practice, dividing the world into black and white oversimplifies and thus excludes by definition a vast range of potentially invaluable alternatives. Human civilization is “colorful.” Its magnificence lies in its complexity, in its variability, in the range of alternatives explored. Consider just pathos, one color in the rich palette of human emotions. Consider just two marvelously different examples of human pathos – Russian folk songs at their most tearfully yet proud heights of nationalistic and nature worship (one can almost hear Solzhenitsyn or Tolstoy softly praising “the land”) and the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. And that’s just two examples of one emotion, and emotion is just one of a multitude of categories of the human experience. If human behavior were to be colored, we would have to discover more colors than human eyes have ever seen. To toss out all that beautiful array of alternatives, leaving only the two extremes would effectively destroy human civilization. One may almost say that black and white are the only two colors that, for the human experience, do NOT exist…except in our minds, when we are not thinking.

Worse, dichotomizing contains an inherent bias against considering any potentially correct alternative: it erases all rational options, leaving us with only the two extremes, which are themselves almost by definition both wrong choices, if not the two worst possible choices. Conquest and slavery are both wrong choices. Look what slavery did to the Old Southern Aristocracy! Nor was it so cool for the slaves. And the barbarians didn’t get much out of Rome after they burned it. For an obvious and more modern example, look at what the conquest of East Europe did to the USSR or, indeed, what the conquest of Iraq did to the U.S.

Even more, the whole exercise is a set-up, for in any situation, any individual is almost certain to see the obvious unacceptability of one of the extremes: “Life or death?” “Success or failure?” “Conquest or slavery?” These are trick questions. The reality might be: “Would you prefer success for five minutes, followed by eternal failure, or humiliating failure for five minutes, followed by a gradual climb toward success? Or…” But no, that would be far too complex for a poor dichotomizing human mind. Just choose A or B (and we know you would never choose B…hah, hah, hah). So, my fellow Germans, would you prefer to slaughter your Jewish neighbors or see your nation perish? So, my fellow Americans, would you prefer to launch a permanent war on terror across the globe, sparing no expense, or would you rather be responsible for allowing a global Caliphate to destroy human civilization? Don’t get a headache…it’s easy: just choose A…or B.

Ironically, then, in the end, dichotomizing, far from focusing our minds on the essential choice in fact eliminates all choice. What “choice” is there between life and death?!? The pie is either mine or yours. If yours, I go hungry and lose. If mine, I eat it all and lose by getting indigestion (just look at the U.S. strategic position in Iraq [or Afghanistan] today). And I won’t even breathe the word “Pakistan.”

In the physical world, two choices may, at some level, really exist (drive straight off a curving road…or curve). In the arena of human affairs, don’t you believe it. Yet the list of politicians who seem totally wedded to a dualistic view of politics is a bizarrely long one.

In another essay, Gould observes:

Among the organizing dualities of our consciousness, change and constancy stand out as perhaps the deepest and most pervasive….no organizing construct of the mind can be more socially and politically influenced than our transient preference for either change or stability as the essential nature of the universe. [“Lucy on the Earth in Stasis,” 134.]

“Change or constancy” might make a great book title, but basing one’s personal view of life or a country’s foreign policy on such a simplistic set of choices does raise questions about the level of human evolution. Given the obvious complicatedness of every arena of human knowledge, most certainly including global governance, one can only respond in amazement, “Why two?” The very simplicity of two and precisely two alternatives should make everyone suspicious. Does anyone know of anything in life that is actually that simple?

The point is not so much to question the cognitive capacity of humans as to sensitize us all to ask what the real number of basic alternatives might actually exist for a given arena. Gould’s own priceless contribution, for evolution, immediately raises a further complication: he did not just hypothesize that evolution is characterized by both change and constancy but further argued that the two alternatives operate on very different time scales, with constancy typically lasting a very long time and change occurring rapidly (punctuated equilibrium). The relevance of punctuated equilibrium theory to world affairs has been noted in recent years by at least a couple researchers but not well publicized, much less internalized into public policy making. In any case, we now have two dimensions:

  1. The number of alternatives;

  2. The time-scale of the alternatives.

Things are obviously more complicated than they might seem, suggesting that a lot of work remains to be done to develop any sort of realistic theory about the sort of fundamental choices that need to considered in order to make decisions effectively in a given arena.

A political scientist may be forgiven for envying the cognitive sophistication of evolutionists, who have now, well, evolved to the point of debating such topics as the balance between change and constancy.  Analogous thinking in international relations theory of course exists, e.g., in discussions of the rise and fall of empires, the evolution of new political systems, and the role of revolutions (our own evolutionary punctuation), but mind-numbing dichotomizing between “good” and “evil” continues to cause the needless deaths of thousands of innocent people who are far too busy with the real complications of life to engage in such superficial nonsense.

Lacking a theory of alternative definition that would inform us of the number and nature of the major alternatives policy-makers need to consider in order, say, to lay out rational policy choices for engaging Iran or tackling global warming, what is the next step? Can we poorly evolved dichotomizers even manage to conceive of more than two fundamental alternatives?

In addition to “victory” and “defeat,” I propose “exploration.” Darwin’s finches have in recent decades been found to evolve longer or shorter beaks in quick response to a few seasons of weather shift that affected the size of seeds. The finches “explored” their changing environment and once the weather returned to normal, a few generations sufficed to shift the size of newborn finch beaks as well. Explore the margins of your environment but be prepared to pull back. Undertake an imperial adventure when you feel strong, withdraw when you meet insurmountable force—without either victory or defeat. Barbarians burning Rome is not the only alternative to endless expansion. Indeed, is not exploration of the decision-making space the most fundamental form of behavior? Don’t decision-makers spend most of their time trying ideas for marginal gain, leaving victory and defeat for the occasional risk-taker? But those very same decision-makers will speak as though victory were essential for the survival of “our way of life,” and here is the bad part: they do not just speak that way for public consumption; they actually implement policy that way. Foreign policy is far too often designed to compel the destruction of the opponent’s “way of life,” often leading to mutual disaster. Policy-makers actually appear to believe that “victory” and “defeat”—in reality both extremely unlikely outcomes—are the only two possible choices.

But please do not blame me for all this. The whole train of thought was provoked by Gould, after all…an evolutionist, wouldn’t you know. And that, for a political scientist, is the most ironic point of all, for the least evolved aspect of human civilization is how we govern ourselves. Speaking of biological evolution, recall that, for us dichotomizers, two alternative hypotheses and only two, obviously, exist – either A. life is evolving from low quality to higher quality OR B. evolution does not exist. Other choices (such as life evolving randomly in response to environmental pressures, such that no progression, e.g., from simple to complex, from bad to good, from stupid to intelligent can be assumed) do not exist. Speaking of governance, Christian and Jewish Germans cannot form one society. A small band of extremists cannot be brought to justice in open court and humiliated before all mankind by allowing them to convict themselves by their own words, nor can a single remaining superpower possibly afford to admit some measure of responsibility for any of the links in a long chain of circumstances over 500 years of Western superiority over a weakened Muslim culture that led to a small band of extremists striking out with the only weapons they had. The complexity of the sentence alone, much less its meaning, makes it obvious that it offers a ridiculous theoretical alternative. And now you see the brilliance of the human mind: it’s really very simple, you see, our way or the highway.


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