The Loudest Voices and Binary Choices

Not that anyone asked, but I'm not buying it...

People who know me well also know I have a pet peeve or two. And when triggered, I’m inclined to rant. I’m working on resisting the (at times) irresistible temptation, but if I’m brutally honest with myself, it’s an uphill battle.

Occasionally, I try to make a virtue of it, by observing that my rant means I care. I do, by the way…but that’s not the point. As I said, I’m working on it. This month, however, I have to cop to acquiring a new pet peeve — or perhaps just finally becoming aware of it. Either way, bear with me, please.

Binary Choice in the fog
Nobody asked me, but intuitively, my answer is no. Few things are that simple.

Pernicious Certainty

It has become a cliché to observe we are an increasingly polarized nation. Thoughtful men and women are quick to point out it isn’t just here in the United States. True, as far as it goes, but I am guilty of caring most about my home.

So as the United States crawls tentatively toward the 2024 elections, we are reminded of how our stove piped, for-profit media serves to narrow our vision, encouraging us to see our choices as binary. Yeah…I know. With only two practical alternatives by way of political parties, they are binary, for all practical purposes. And if we’re getting our news from Fox or MSNBC, it’s hard to imagine an alternative, today. But an August 2022 Gallup poll suggests more Americans (40%) identify as Independents, than identify as Democrats (30%), or as Republicans (24%).

And if my casual conversations on the street are an indicator, I’m by no means the only one with a distaste for the hyperbolic rhetoric of the extremes. Yet the de-facto model of a divided, (and essentially binary) America persists.

Occam’s Razor and Reductive Simplicity

Most of us are familiar with the popularized version of Occam’s Razor, to wit: “the simplest explanation is usually the right one.” And on the surface of things, this feels intuitively true. And after all…who wants needlessly complex explanations or solutions? KISSKeep it simple, stupid! Right?

And that’s not an entirely naïve of silly notion. Occam’s Razor can be used to pare down conundrums to cognizable (and theoretically manageable) dimensions. But does that make sense, in all cases, or do we do it simply because we’re more comfortable thinking in those terms? Is it possible that our habits of thought are at odds with how our world functions? Let’s wonder together for a few minutes and see…

In a Maelstrom of Uncertainty

Most of us have (at least) a nodding acquaintance with independent and dependent variables from our science, mathematics, or philosophy studies. And are not many of us inclined to think of variables in those terms?

But in the “real” world, most complex systems are driven by a constellation of interdependent variables. Variables that affect each other, in a muddy confusion of conflicting and interrelated outcomes. And the clues we can glean from observation are often in conflict — both with regard to causation, and the range of remedies available. As Donella “Dana” Meadows, author of The Global Citizen and Beyond the Limits once observed:

“Words and sentences must, by necessity, come only one at a time in a linear, logical order. [But] Systems happen all at once. Their elements are connected not just in one direction, but also in many directions simultaneously.” As quoted in Systems Thinking, 3rd Edition, Managing Chaos and Complexity,” Jamshid Gharajedaghi, © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.

If there was ever a time when reductive thinking was counterproductive, surely it's today!

As readers of some of my other posts know, I view our time as a paroxysm of transition. A transition at least as profound as the one accompanying the Industrial Revolution. Between 1760 and 1900 (+/-), industrialization swept away the medieval system. In the process, it demolished many of the prevailing political, economic and social myths of the Middle Ages.

The social, economic, and political churn of the Industrial Revolution feels eerily familiar, today. Then as now, the changes of the period erased old norms, along with many of the rigid social strata that until then, had been taken for granted. Are we now on another historical cusp, similar to the Industrial Revolution?

If so, perhaps part of our problem tracks back to some of the conventions of thought and communication derived during that period. Perhaps the linear thought processes and the communication skills learned then serve to channel our thought processes along binary lines. Much as water tends to seek the easiest path downhill. Perhaps we humans remain an odd mixture of logic and magical thinking, resorting to whichever works in the moment, all to conjure up certainty and security, soothing our anxiety.

Complications and Courage

But in today’s environment, both certainty and the resultant sense of security may be more illusive than real. That said, since binary thought is tidy and easier to grasp, we’re still inclined to think in terms of binary alternatives — without regard to whether the inferences drawn and decisions made using that model are in our best interests.

In our multi-variate future, our ability to hold several thoughts in our head at once, some of which feel intuitively contradictory, may be necessary. It’s a spooky proposition, insofar as interdependent variables and multi-variate analysis are both fraught with uncertainty. It has always been so in the past, whenever the paradigms are shifting. How much more so must it be today, when all the paradigms seem to be shifting all at once?

But like it or not, we’re all going to have to get more comfortable with unaccustomed levels of uncertainty. The age of cocksure certainty and loud voices, haranguing “the other side” over binary choices must end. The age of Uncertainty awaits — for which kinship, humility and optimistic courage seem to be the only antidotes.

D.B. Sayers is the author of six thoughtfu and thought-provoking  books with two more on the way. You can subscribe to Smoke Signals, his newsletter at the top right of this page.

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