The Falseness of Dichotomies

I took a break from this blog for a while.  Seemed like everyone needed a cooling off period after the election.  I had a lot to say, but am trying to practice a very unnatural behavior for me–listening more, and telling less.  So I’ve been working a lot in the past month or so on listening (or more accurately, observing–engaging all of my perceptions to try to better understand).  One of the most significant observations I’ve made involves dichotomies.  I’ve been considering writing about this topic for weeks, but hadn’t fully formed the idea, so I kept observing, with the intent of developing a complete understanding of the idea, and the key learnings from the idea, which I would then inscribe in the electrons so that all could share in this well-packaged lesson.  Unfortunately, the writing style and underlying thought patterns of my 9th grade English teacher (thesis statement, three main points, each with three to four neatly packaged sub-points, all proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the thesis is true and fully described) just can’t seem to encapsulate the many branches, inconsistencies, dependencies, and variation of the idea rolling around in my head.  So, I’m giving up on neat packaging, and instead I’m going to embark on a thought-journey.  This will transpire across multiple posts–don’t know how many, how frequently, or, unfortunately the exact course it’s going to take.

Lest you think you’ve stumbled onto the digital footprints of a meandering fool, wandering aimlessly with no purpose or destination, I do have an objective for this journey.  I intend, when I’m done, to be better at  loving mankind (and thereby loving God).  I am going to continue to follow the compass that God gave me when I started this blog–the two quotes at the top of the page:  “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness” and “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Before I digress even further off course, let’s get to the topic at hand:  Dichotomy.  Dictionary.com defines the word as:

  1. division into two parts, kinds, etc.; subdivision into halves or pairs, or
  2. division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups: a dichotomy between thought and action.

That same website goes further to cite the entry from Britannica.com (who knew Britannica still existed?):

(from Greek dicha, “apart,” and tomos, “cutting”), a form of logical division consisting of the separation of a class into two subclasses, one of which has and the other has not a certain quality or attribute…. On the principle of contradiction this division is both exhaustive and exclusive; there can be no overlapping, and no members of the original genus or the lower groups are omitted. This method of classification, though formally accurate, has slight value in the exact sciences, partly because at every step one of the two groups is merely negatively characterized and is usually an artificial, motley class.

So where am I going with all this?  There is a strong tendency in human thought, particularly Western human thought (as opposed to Eastern thought–a dichotomy in and of itself, pointed out here as an example) to classify and characterize everything in an attempt to better understand it. (If you want to dig deeper, do some research into the closely related concept of binary opposition.  If you want to go really deep, I highly recommend the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman).  If you don’t want to do a lot of research, I’ll summarize (and somewhat overgeneralize) to say that we tend to be very efficient in processing the infinite amount of information we are constantly exposed to.  Our nature is to quickly analyze a thought, event, or person, and quickly classify them into a category, or series of categories.  Generally, these categories are mutually exclusive, which further enables us to place value judgments on the thought, event, or person.  In many situations, this is a useful process–back to the very basic friend/foe survival instincts.

What’s the problem?  While useful at the basic level of information processing, it can become dangerous when it precludes higher levels of thinking.  All of us witnessed examples of this (most likely externally and internally) during the recent US election cycle.  Red/blue, liberal/conservative, right/wrong…  the extreme occurred when red/blue became viewed as black/white; as polar opposites, rather than variations in a spectrum.

To avoid turning this into a political thread, let’s look at another potentially divisive issue in current events.  The news has been filled in recent weeks with brutal, unexplainable death.  Whether it’s the Samantha Koenig abduction/killing here in Alaska, the Jessica Ridgeway abduction and murder in Colorado, the Jovan Belcher murder/suicide in Kansas City, or this week’s brutal killing of innocent children in Connecticut, our universal reaction is to classify the perpetrator as evil, and to look for an easy explanation which will allow us to place the event and the perpetrator in a neat category so we can process the situation and move on.  Guns? Violent video games?  Poor parenting?  See, if we can place the cause in a nice, neat category, we can then either eliminate it, avoid it, or at least judge it.

I’m probably the most judgmental person I know.  I classify people all day long, starting with the commute to work each morning.  When I am not vigilant about my overwhelming tendency to make binary decisions, I can quickly categorize everyone I encounter throughout the day as incompetent, self-serving idiots, who are terrible drivers.  But, when I get to know those people, I find out that they’re not so easily characterized.

I’m going to close today’s post with an example from the headlines.  Jovan Belcher was a football player for my favorite sports team in the entire world, the Kansas City Chiefs.  Most of you had never heard of him until two weeks ago, when he made national news by shooting and killing his girlfriend and mother of his 3 month old daughter, then driving to the Chiefs practice facility, and in front of team leadership, pointing his gun at his own head and taking his life.  Many were quick to categorize Belcher:  murderer.  Evil.  Monster.  Some went so far as to pronounce that his suicide was a good thing.

I didn’t know Jovan, but I knew of him.  He had a great story.  Undrafted, worked his way up to starter.  Set the example on the field and at practice for his dedication and work ethic, his passion.  None of that excuses what he did.  But if you read much more than the headlines following that tragic event two weeks ago, you found that his teammates, many of whom were close not only to Jovan, but also to his girlfriend, were torn.  They couldn’t classify him as an evil monster.  They knew him.  They went so far as to say that they had no indication that he was capable of such brutality.  When it became personal, it wasn’t easy to categorize the man.

I’m going to stop here for today, with a request:  be aware this coming week to the dichotomies you use to make judgments and decisions.  How many of them are legitimate?  How many are oversimplifications?

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