Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Binary Thinking

by Edd Doerr

"So, Governor, are you afraid you're going to hell?" columnist Maureen Dowd asked Gov Andrew Cuomo (tongue in cheek) after he signed into law New York's same-sex marriage law that Catholic church officials and fundamentalists had fought tooth and nail (NY Times, 6/29/11).

This gives me a chance to ruminate on the subject of binary (i.e. two-valued, either/or, black/white) thinking. The real world is far more complicated than is allowed for in some freethinkers' "god-believer" dumb/ "god-unbeliever" smart or "bright" binary thinking.

Examples: I have conversed with a few "humanists" who see nothing wrong with government forcing all taxpayers to support discriminatory religious private schools and who agree with the Vatican and fundamentalist view that embryos are "persons" and that women should be forced by government to carry problem pregnancies to term. I know of humanists and freethinkers whose narrow vision has actually worked to defeat humanism. On the other hand, I have worked with Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians and others who for all practical purposes are pretty much humanists in all but name. For years I had a colleague who was a minister and biblical literalist but as strong a champion of church-state separation as I have ever known. For 30 years I represented the AHA on the governing body of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (which AHA helped found) and found it to be as progressive as any humanist organization could be.

General Semantics founder Alfred Korzybski, in his seminal 1930s book Science and Sanity, made the case against binary (two-valued, either/or, black/white) thinking. As he put it, "The map is not the territory". Or as I would put it, the label tells you very little about the content.

No two individuals are exactly alike. The real world is complex beyond comprehension. Some people use the word "God" to refer to "creativity" or the sum total of natural law. I find that the word gets in the way of clear thinking too often and rarely use it in any sense. And in the realm of politics I am not bothered by a politician's religious label. I am interested only in what he or she stands for in the real world what he or she actually does and how they do it.

In our current political and social crises we cannot fall into the error of allowing binary thinking to influence our actions. I say this as a thorough-going Manifesto II sort of humanist who recognizes that humanism embraces far more people that just members of humanist organizations, Ethical Societies, Unitarian churches and Humanistic Jewish congregations. Moving away from binary thinking would help us grow.


lucette said...

We are often forced into binary thinking when we participate in groups like CFI, for instance. We start the meeting with a go-around and we are supposed to describe ourselves in 45 sec for people that we don't even know - the famous "elevator speech." It is of course impossible to do that and maybe we should just take the fifth.
I like the saying: the tree will be known by its fruit.

Edd.Doerr said...

One can say rather a lot in 45 seconds without being binary.