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on-off tribalism
Our predisposition with binary boxes will destroy us
28 January 2020 . 5min read

The other day, I walked into a dark room. I fumbled for the light switch, and then it wasn't. Dark, I mean; it was still a room. That, dear readers, is what we are talking about this week.

Look, you know I can hear you all sigh?! ... well you suggest something for me to write about! -> hit reply to this email and tell me!

Back to the dark/light room, that I hope we can all visualise.

As you imagine it, you will see it in two states. Dark, then Light. It is a simple visual idea.

Now, let's take another example; coffee. How do you like it? With or without milk/cream? Again, another clear idea. What about tea? This time, the item is sugar; with or without?

Before you get into a panic, this is not a test and I won't be checking up on you at the end.

2+2 = 4 is right; 2+2 = 5 is wrong. Fire is hot; ice is cold.

I think you probably get the idea now. It is the idea of binary, or duality.

There is a whole junk load of stuff that our brains insist on categorising into binary results. We seem to like the on-off, true-false, yes-no outcomes. Which is kind of odd. I mean, we don't think of numbers like that?

Our view of numbers is influenced by the number of fingers we have, 10. When we get to 10, we just add one to the most significant digit and repeat. When we think about language, in English, we have 26 letters in the alphabet. Sure, others have more, but the point is, it is most definitely more than 2.

Why then, with our language and number systems being most definitely more than 2, do we often prefer outcomes that are neatly categorised into 2?

I'm not a philosopher, but I admit it is something that I have considered pursuing, in some capacity. I think, though, it is something that I find slightly curious.

Someone once said that you can divide the whole of the United Kingdom into Tea with & Tea without. Sugar being the 'with'. Over 100 million cups of Tea are consumed every single day in the United Kingdom; that is quite a large sample size!

However, as I am sure you have deduced, this is not the entire picture. Yes, I like sugar in my tea, but sometimes I like 2. When I walk into a dark room, and make it less-dark, sometimes I like a dimmable light.

An espresso is milk free, but a latte has lots of milk and a flat-white also has milk, just less of it.

It is not a yes-no answer; it is more granular. It is closer to the number or language systems of assessment.

OK, so you get what I am talking about, but why is this a problem? Why does it matter if "Tea with" has a number of possible answers?

It does actually matter quite a lot.

For reasons that I can't quite seem to fathom, there is a trend to want to resolve questions into this binary response-state. When understanding, or assessing, answers to problems, we appear to be more comfortable in a yes-no, for-against, win-loose pattern.

I've got a hunch that it is somehow linked to how we consume such question-answer narratives.

If we go back to the 1890s and look at how these sorts of things were discovered and read, you have to look at the newspapers. You will see they are verbose, and the conclusions were just as verbose.

If you look to the current, and at something like twitter now, then the question only has 240 characters to squeeze into, as does the answer. The nuanced answer about you preferring latte on a Tuesday because that is when you go to the gym and it feels like a reward, but how you like espresso on a Saturday because it helps with the night-after feeling... well there just isn't space. You are forced into a response that has to be yes-no.

I'm not blaming twitter for this. It is also linked to how rapidly we need to consume the vast about of news and information that is presented to us. We have to scroll through an epically large, and ever growing, catalogue of news and information. If we don't, then it either builds up, or we will miss out on something; it all has to be bite-sized.

So, why does this matter?

It matters because we are all missing out on the wonderfully complex and nuanced answers to simple questions. We are missing out on the something that makes us human. It is not about yes-no, it is a glorious kaleidoscope of possible answers.

It is more though. It can result in something else. It can force people into tribes of yes-no, or loose-win, or with-or-without. This enforced tribalism creates conflict. You have these clans of people who will only accept binary absolutes.

All the subtleties of responses, of outcomes, are lost in this binary state. A binary state that has become the default of our times. We need to make a change. We need to accept that more complex answers are not a bad thing. We need to embrace people who are in between, on the fence, rather than shoehorn them into one camp or another.

Until we address this problem, the really big problems that face us on a global scale will remain impossible to resolve. For a numerically & linguistically complex group, it really would be tragic if we ended up destroying ourselves because we were forced to think about things in such a binary way.

I remember walking past this shop in Florence, Italy. I've never wanted a shop, but if I did, I would want it to be like this.


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I'm a carbon-unit who writes; a Carbon Writer. Life & culture are my default topics, mixed with a little English wit & sarcasm. Full of mostly true stories, I occasionally remember to write them down. Found in a crowd, or contemplating in a corner. Habit of talking to anyone. Author.
- Nigel Derbyshire