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The Dangers of Binary Thinking

The Dangers of Binary Thinking

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Unfortunately, it is an accepted truth that humans have an innate tendency to think in binaries. Binary thinking – that is, the consideration of only two possibilities or ways of thinking in any circumstance – can be a useful way to simplify and understand different ideas, opinions, or potential outcomes. Such a method is common day-to-day, yet certain fields of debate have managed to somewhat overcome this often limiting, and harsh distinction of thought.

Politics certainly has not. Following on this path, binary thought has bolstered a rise in some potentially dangerous ways of thinking about how our society should be run and how decision-making ought to be conducted within society.

Consider the following question is proposed to a group of interviewees undertaking a discussion-based exercise, who are given a few minutes beforehand to consider and draft ideas: ‘Should the legal drinking age be reduced to 16?’ In almost any case, one might imagine that the first action of most interviewees will be to draw a line down the middle of the page and categorise their points into ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ or ‘for’ and ‘against’. This immediately necessitates that when it comes to the discussion, there are only two possible answers to the question – only two plausible outcomes. As such, a division is drawn, loyalties form, and the group is already polarised before a single word has been spoken, diminishing any hope of compromise – any hope of considering neutral factors which could go either way in the discussion.

Naturally, those loyalties grow with the argument. As each individual flexes their rhetorical muscles, that passion to press one’s own agenda reduces their argument to resolute points. These points only reflect their personal answer to the question, be it ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In an effort from all not to appear weak, the idea that the drinking age should be reduced to 16 for certain beverages, yet stay at 18 for others, is lost. Points about specificity and practicality are rarely discussed. Instead, the whole debate becomes a melting pot of soundbites and brief, provocative refutations intended to induce emotion. What if, instead, the common assumption was that the answer to such a question did not have to be ‘yes’ or ‘no’? Would the pre-emptive notes be two-sided? Would the discussion be two-sided? Probably not. Yet, why is this always the case, when the outcome need not be such?

The above analogy can be applied almost ubiquitously to any political discussion.

The EU Referendum is perhaps the best example in recent history of where the forced oversimplification of a question to binary outcomes, in the conventional vein of all referendums, has led to chaos and confusion on both sides. However, this should not be mistaken for an argument against Brexit, but an argument against the unnecessarily overwhelming presence of binary thinking in politics. This comes in many forms, from referendums, to two-party systems (or two-party attitudes in a multi-party system), to voting in parliament, to the ultimate round of voting in a Conservative party leadership contest. In all these cases, the polarisation that comes as an inevitable consequence of being limited to only two absolute options limits pragmatism in discussion and stimulates more extreme views on either side.

In law, binary thinking is generally opposed. This is because many legal arguments are deductive, reaching a conclusion on a purely logical basis; yet, where they are inductive, they are as logical as possible and typically do not succumb to emotive language (of course, this is not always the case in court, but lawyers have no decision-making power in court – they serve only to persuade). This must be so, because there is often a range of potential outcomes in any given case, so sides cannot be taken by those making decisions prior to any debate.

Binary thinking has a definite purpose, yet politics, more so than any other field of debate, treats it as the only way a decision can be reached. The consequences of this range from inferior outcomes (in legislation, for example), to lack of compromise, to outright extremism. The next time you engage in or scrutinise political debate, consider whether the only two options being argued are truly the only two options, or whether this is the case solely for convenience.


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