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Binary Blues

By Tim Hayes

Mary and Joseph rode a dinosaur to Bethlehem.

That sentence sounds ludicrous, right?  Ridiculous.  Crazy.  Insulting, even.  A purposely disrespectful exaggeration.

But let’s think about this a bit more critically.

If one believes, and is convinced beyond any doubt, that the earth is no more than 6,000 or so years old, why not?   If paleontology offers proof that dinosaurs existed, and if Scripture and tradition place the Nativity roughly 2,000 years ago, then is the possibility so far-fetched that the two events could have intersected?

Well?

This scenario comes to you courtesy of binary thinking.  The insistence that there can only be two choices about any issue or question in life.  Black or white, 1 or 0, right or wrong.  No gray areas permitted.

And while binary thinking provides the backbone of all computing and artificial intelligence, its magic fades when applied to the brain cells and electrical synapses that drive human thought.

Winston Churchill once famously noted that, “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”  Permit me to extend that observation.  A fanatic is both of those things, but is also a person who feels compelled to change your mind too – and won’t let up in that doomed crusade.

The wonder of this country comes in the Constitutionally protected fact that Americans can speak their minds in open dialogue.  The “marketplace of ideas” concept – as referenced by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1953 – holds that the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in free, transparent public discourse.  This legal definition has been most often applied by the Supreme Court in cases involving questions around freedom of the press and the responsibilities of the media.

Simply put, we are each free to state our case, proclaim our version of the “truth,” and advance our arguments.  But when only one source is “selling” his or her own goods, that does not make it a “marketplace.”  If you can have the floor to speak and declare and propose and argue, then so can anyone else.

And that’s where we seem to be getting into some sticky issues lately.

Call it political correctness, call it tribalism, call it blind loyalty, call it whatever you like, but people seem to prefer immediately taking sides, digging in, aiming their rhetorical weapons at the other side, and blasting away.  All without inviting a dialogue.  All before giving an opposing view even a hint of attention, much less analysis and review.

One side is always right and the other side is always wrong.  Binary thinking.  And it’s dangerous because when a society accepts this absolute, take-no-prisoners, complete-victory-or-die-trying approach to solving problems, then that society must and will fail.

My e-mail inbox gets filled every day with messages from both ends of the political spectrum.  I’ve set it up that way intentionally, to get a read on what either side is telling its supporters.  Some of it can be characterized as thoughtful and reasoned; most is nothing more than wild, groundless, infantile hogwash.  And that’s equally true on both sides.

It’s shameful that we have abandoned the middle ground.  The place where shades of insight and truth from either end can mingle and bounce and learn from each other to arrive at a state of compromise – the place where everyone can feel an equal sense of achievement and sacrifice.  Where the best answers usually can be found.

Maybe we can start to steer this majestic old ship of state back toward that middle ground in a few weeks.  Maybe not.  Both sides need to step away from this awful grip of binary thinking.  It’s not helping.  Quite the opposite.

I have faith that this season of disagreeableness and disrespect will fade in time, and that we will find a way to talk with – not at – each other again, for the greater good.  And if we don’t, we might as well climb aboard our dinosaurs and ride them straight off the nearest cliff.

Copyright 2018 Timothy P. Hayes