Imagine your home is filling with shit. Like maybe a kid flushed a Squishmallow and things just escalated from there. The plumber looks it over and says, “Okay, I’ve made a list of nineteen different options for repair, depending on price, grade of materials, length of warranty, and other factors.” I suspect that, standing ankle-deep in waste, you would be in no mood to examine his menu and would instead prefer to be presented with a binary decision: “Either pay to have it fixed, or don’t.”
When humans are stressed, overwhelmed or scared, we want simple choices: Yes or no, right or wrong, good vs evil. It’s how the brain is built, it’s like Tinder. Swipe left or right. But a big source of anxiety these days stems from a clumsy, destructive process of trying to force every choice, no matter how fuzzy and complicated, into some kind of clear binary. Regardless of whether or not this will doom humanity in the long run—and it might—I do think it’s making you miserable today...
Before we continue, HOLY SHIT MY NEW BOOK IS UP FOR PRE-ORDER NOW:
Zoey is Too Drunk for This Dystopia is the third book in the Zoey Ashe series of violent sci-fi novels that are definitely only for adults. Or mature youths who have the approval of their parents, whatever. Pre-order at Amazon (including audio), Barnes and Noble, Bookshop or wherever else you buy books. It’s out this fall, but as an author, pre-orders are make-or-break. Those orders are how the booksellers judge interest in a title! If you’re sure you want it, don’t wait! Thanks!
1. Let’s Run Down Some Obnoxious Examples
If you hate yourself, open another browser and go find some people arguing about an issue, any issue. You’ll quickly see a bunch of brains desperately attempting to force the subject into a clear swipe-left or swipe-right choice, in defiance of all available facts and common sense. Here are some random examples I’ve run into just in the last couple of weeks while staring at my various screens:
* Men are either dominant masculine “Alphas” or weak submissive “Betas.” Note that this definitely does not vary by circumstance; the Alpha at the nightclub will also be the Alpha at the spelling bee, apparently. To suggest anything else is, of course, Beta thinking.
* Everyone is either a pure member of our political movement or a secret member of the other side in disguise. If a celebrity takes a leftist position on taxes, healthcare, gay rights, trans rights, climate change, welfare and gun control, but is strongly anti-abortion, they’re secretly 100% conservative.
* Powerful institutions are either already perfect or must be totally demolished. The entire concept of reform or incremental improvement is just a fiction spread by those secretly in favor of the status quo (“How do you reform this?!?”).
* Man-made climate change is either a nothingburger hoax or it will totally wipe out civilization within 20 years. Nothing in between; if you disagree with the latter, you must secretly believe the former.
* Every public person is either an Expert (meaning you should take everything they say on every subject as holy writ) or a Stupid Lying Grifter (meaning everything they say should be rejected out of hand). Under this rule, there is no such thing as an expert who just happens to be wrong in this one situation, or someone who’s an expert in one subject but ignorant in others.
* In every toxic relationship, there is one purely evil abuser and one purely innocent victim. There is no such thing as two flawed people being awful to each other in different ways; every story has a clear hero and villain.
* Everyone in America is either an evil wealthy boss/landlord who is totally disconnected from their humanity (aka the 1%) or a noble exploited citizen (aka the 99%). We must never acknowledge that there are, say, struggling small business owners or honest middle-class landlords. Again, this is a strict good-vs-evil binary.
* America’s poor are either 100% in that situation due to their own bad choices or are 100% the victims of a corrupt and oppressive system. In fact, if you believe in reforming the system, you can never acknowledge that individual choices or work ethic is even a thing.
* You are either a member of a marginalized group or a privileged group. There can be no overlap between those groups or individual circumstances; you are either oppressed by the system or you are not. Period.
* Every creative person is either pure or problematic. Note that this also requires rejecting creators whose ideas were progressive for their era but are considered backward in ours. Context is irrelevant; their work is either forbidden or it is not.
And, of course,
* Anyone who claims they don’t believe in the Good vs Evil binary is secretly pure Evil.
“Now hold on,” you might say, “actual people out in the real world recognize nuance every day, this sounds to me like the thinking of politicians, pundits and chronically-online weirdos.” You’re right, and that’s actually my point: Binary thinking exists primarily in how we talk to one another and signal our membership in a tribe. It’s useless for navigating a human life but great for controlling what words and thoughts are allowed in a particular group. But we tend to go along with it, because...
2. Binary Thinking Is Comfortable
Question: If civilization still exists a thousand years from now, will we still have this?
I don’t mean pitched battles with rotting mutants, of course we’ll have that. I mean stories that are based on that pure Good vs Evil binary: Superhero vs Supervillain, Face vs Heel, God vs Satan. It seems like a truly enlightened people would have put it behind them, as it’s the kind of thinking that turns every disagreement into a conflict and every conflict into a war of extermination. But it’s so ingrained that I’m struggling to imagine a world without it. If it seems like this black-and-white worldview is built into the structure of the human brain, I think that’s because it is?
There is a study that found all animals use a similar decision-making algorithm of breaking down everything into a series of binary choices. A predator is coming, do I stay still, or do I move? If I run and encounter an obstacle, do I turn left, or right? Do I cover myself in mud to conceal my body temperature from its heat vision, or not? But it doesn’t require some kind of advanced neuroscience to notice it in humans, it’s obviously just easier and faster to make a yes-or-no decision. The more subtly different options that are available, the more energy you must expend sorting through them, the longer the delay before taking action, the greater the chance you will be caught and killed by whatever is chasing you. Or you’ll miss your work deadline, whatever.
Of course, we live in a world in which you can’t even buy your morning coffee without stepping outside that binary, but we wish that wasn’t the case, and in some settings we enjoy pretending it isn’t. By nature, we don’t want a system of ethics that weighs the utilitarian value of a range of choices; we want a clear list of things that are allowed or forbidden. The problem is that this requires lying to yourself, exaggerating the goodness of the choice we favor and the badness of the other.
As such, the loudest voices—and the ones that get amplified the most in social media algorithms—are the ones who reassure us by framing the world that way. And as society gets more complicated, brains that have been Tinder-ized by evolution only thirst harder for that kind of clarity. Doubt generates anxiety, which makes you sick and weak. A confident, binary decision in which one choice is blindingly obvious will erase that doubt.
Then, as usually happens…
3. Powerful People Learn How To Work It
I was raised in an Evangelical church and, as such, never heard a single sermon about the complexities of sexual consent, because we were only taught a black-and-white choice: All sex acts were forbidden outside of marriage. Violate that rule and you’ll be subject to the ultimate, eternal binary in which you’re denied the glory of Heaven and cast into the eternal torture of Hell.
In reality, everyone in that church knew that the teens were doing hand stuff in backseats and had done the same or worse themselves. These “clear” rules were doing nothing to help us navigate the reality. This gap between the ambiguity of our actual lives versus the simplistic slogans we were given created a crushing tension that is still felt by teenagers all around the world today (and not all of them will survive it).
You can call what the church leaders were doing “hypocrisy” but that actually undersells it. The truth is that hypocrisy is built into everything, everywhere, all of the time. We are trained from the start to have two lives, one public and one private. The public self is just a banner we wave, a loud presentation based on the supposed strident black-and-white morals of our group. The private self makes actual nuanced decisions based on weighing risk and desire.
This is how you can get into the bizarre situation where two neighbors have warring yard signs (“In this house, we believe Black Lives Matter!” vs “All Lives Matter!”) while both are living the exact same lives with the exact same habits in the exact same gentrified neighborhood. If the local government decided that, in the name of equality, their children should be bussed to an inner-city school, both neighbors would take equal action to prevent it. Their hatred of each other exists only in their public presentation.
Don’t get me wrong: The hateful feelings are real. It feels good to have a team to love and an opposing team to hate. But the banners they fight under may as well be iPhone vs Android (or gas vs electric stoves). The surface, often inconsequential differences that divide them into the warring tribes are stoked by some very powerful people who will, at some point, want a tangible action, usually in the form of votes or money. But never forget that those powerful people themselves don’t live by the binary. They negotiate with the enemy all the time because in the real world, it’s almost impossible to accomplish anything otherwise.
Meanwhile, among the rank-and-file you get the kind of polarization I talked about last time, partisans living lives under the absurd fiction that no common ground exists. “Wait, Jason, did you just create a false binary between the powerful and the common folk? Isn’t that also a nuanced spectrum?” Yep! Seriously, try to go a single day without accidentally doing it yourself.
4. This Is A Recipe For Misery
Strangely enough, my opinion of modern polarization does not involve picking from a binary of “This is fine” or “These shitposts are the first shots of Civil War 2.” I think the consequence is somewhere in the middle, and it involves lots of us becoming steadily sadder and lonelier with time. For example:
Much more famous Substack guy Freddie DeBoer wrote about the reader backlash that came from his stating openly that he hates the USA. These were readers who had been along for the ride for years and probably millions of words, but finally ran into the opinion that was the dealbreaker. They were done, they said, they were dropping their subscription. Sure, they had agreed with, or at least appreciated, 99.99% of the lifetime words they’d read from him. But this one single opinion flipped him, in their minds, from pure Good to pure Evil.
Likewise, I think some of you read my work nervously waiting for me to reveal myself as something unacceptable (“Isn’t this whole premise inherently conservative, as it discourages radical change? That bit earlier about mutual abuse, was that about Johnny Depp?!?”). Binary thinking does that, it turns everything into a series of purity tests. I think it’s a miserable way to consume art, or interact with other humans in general. I wasn’t just screwing around earlier when I used Tinder as my comparison as dating apps are bad for your mental health. But of course they are; reducing social interactions to a series of ruthless binary judgments made from afar feels efficient in the moment but does nothing to prepare you for dealing with real, flawed human beings.
Remember, the binary always eventually pushes you toward the darkness. If you believe that all people are either perfectly good or perfectly awful, you’ll eliminate that first one as soon as they disagree on literally any emotionally-fraught subject. Well, that only leaves one option. You’ll soon find yourself rationalizing it by exaggerating every flaw to reassure yourself you were right (“If you think about it, her refusal to laugh at my jokes was a form of gaslighting!”) and find yourself ranting online about how “people suck” and secretly believing that in the battle of Light vs Dark, the only one wearing white is you.
And here, at the end, is where I should have some great tip for how to avoid this kind of thinking, including pushing back on the various social media algorithms that promote it. But the only tool my brain can come up with, the only one that would actually inspire an audience, involves turning the binary thinkers into an enemy that we, the nuanced, must unite against. We would have to raise a banner and draw a bright line between Us and Them, taking pride in being on the right side of it. The false binary really does feel like the only tool in our toolbox.
By the way, the aforementioned Zoey novels touch on this subject quite a bit, if you haven’t read the first two, there are buy links here and here. Meanwhile:
The new book, Zoey is Too Drunk for This Dystopia is up for pre-order now! Amazon (including audio), Barnes and Noble, Bookshop or wherever else you buy books. It’s out this fall, but as an author, pre-orders are make-or-break! If you know you want it, don’t wait!
Great piece! Half of all these binaries describe me.
I completely forgot to add one of my recent favorite jokes: “Atoms are binary. They’re either hydrogen or helium, we can’t just throw out this model because less than 1% of atoms aren’t hydrogen or helium.”