The Rush to Judgment: Binary Thinking in a Digital Age

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The Rush to Judgment

Binary Thinking in a Digital Age

Contrast is power. The greater the distinction between one position and another, the stronger its credentials. We have an atavistic impulse toward opposition: every analysis of a concept or thing reverts to a sketch of its converse. Since dualism is invariably invoked as a hermeneutic aid, we don’t notice its role in structuring our thoughts, in shaping and finally constraining our understanding. After thousands of years of a binary approach to political, philosophical, economic and sociological problems, we have let our imagination ossify. We are three-dimensional beings imprisoned within a two-dimensional perspective.

Banners and slogans are distilled ideas: reductionism is our weakness. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, a baldly dualist perspective changed the terms of debate and made both a peaceful resolution or a broader coalition force impossible. Protestors around the world chanted ‘No Blood for Oil.’ Supporters responded: ‘Anti-war Is Pro-terrorism.’ Still others wanted a more finely-tuned discussion about the long-term effectiveness of inspections backed by the threat of force. Polls taken in February suggested that such a policy had the support of pluralities and perhaps majorities in England, America and even Germany, but it was a position that required elaboration and compromise.[1] In the event, they never had the chance. Strident voices hijacked the debate and marched off in opposite directions, bullhorns blaring. Polarized ranting made real discourse impossible. The war might have been avoided or more broadly supported — in either case, a less divisive and discouraging result, one with better long-term prospects of success.

We shouldn’t have been surprised. Dualism is older than organized religion, as old as philosophy. Plato distinguished between forms and the world, the ideal and the actual instantiation.[2] The Bible is an extended allegory of good and evil, of us (the chosen people, and then those who follow Christ) against them (Egyptians, Canaanites, Romans, sinners — a medley of unbelievers).[3] The Old Testament chronicles the mostly horrific tribulations of a tribe: its interactions with other, less durable populations, and its efforts to secure God’s blessing (if not reliably his aid), while diverting his wrath to others.[4] The New Testament is an extended meditation on saints and sinners and the paths to heaven and hell.[5]

Gnosticism, which predates church-centered Christianity by several hundred years, held that the spirit world was ideal and the physical world contaminated and evil.[6] True knowledge rested in the spiritual being, base knowledge in mere matter. Reincarnation was not a blessing but rather a sentence. In this, the Gnostics foreshadowed Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, in which each action must be repeated endlessly.[7] Earlier, Zoroaster, who lived in the 6th century B.C., believed the world to be a product of the struggle between Ormuzd and Ahriman, light and wisdom on the one hand, darkness and evil on the other.[8] The Manicheans, a hybrid of Gnostic and Zoroastran thought, with a helping of pre-Islamic Persian pantheism, posited a world perfectly divided between good and evil, the former represented by the spirit and the latter by the body, the two spheres radically and irrevocably distinct.[9] Although Catholicism rejected Platonic dualism in favor of a theistic monism, a God-centered unity, St. Augustine remained preoccupied with the difference between physical and moral evil,[10] and Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics distinguished between spiritual beings and the bodily matter that the spirit animates.[11]

Descartes, the first modern thinker to provide a systematic analysis of the dualism between mind and body, held that the mind and body interact at a single point — the pineal gland, of all places.[12] Descartes may have been wrong about the gland, but his focus on the causal relationship set the terms of the mind-body problem and gave rise to a new discipline: the philosophy of the mind.[13] Descartes conflated thought and being, but others were less certain. Spinoza and Schopenhauer believed that it was impossible to quite distinguish between body and soul, and for that reason the nature of consciousness was unknowable.[14] Saxophone players since Lester Young have tended to agree.

If the mind-body problem no longer occupies a central place in philosophic inquiry, it is because cognitive science has successfully advanced the idea that the mind is the body. As Steven Pinker has demonstrated to great acclaim: “The mind is a system of organs of computation designed by natural selection to solve the problems faced by our ancestors in their foraging way of life.”[15] There is no soul in the machine. Rather, the machine is constituted to create the effect of a soul; the machine is so finely calibrated that it is conscious of its existence and its potential for nonexistence.

* * *

Efforts at synthesis have been unsatisfying. In Buddhist cosmology, yin and yang are opposing forces, similar to the Manichean concepts of good and evil, which comprise an overarching whole, the Tao.[16] Dissatisfaction and ill-health result from an imbalance between these two forces, and happiness is closely tied to an individual’s ability to get the balance right. Yet the basic organizing principle of Eastern thought is plainly dualist, for harmony requires a synthesis of yin and yang.[17]

Nietzsche, taken with Buddhist and Zoroastrian (Zarathustran) thinking, identified two opposing artistic forms and explored the ways in which Greek tragedy embodied them. The first, which he called Apollonian, represented order, reason, clarity and harmony. [18] The second, the Dionysian, denoted wild creativity, free-spirited and usually drunken play. Many philosophers interpret Nietzsche’s conception of tragedy to elevate the Dionysian over the sterile Apollonian, but Nietzsche was a subtler thinker. He was searching for position beyond dualist structures, just as he demanded an ethics beyond good and evil. Nietzsche believed that the strong-willed could balance Apollonian and Dionysian forces.[19] Few would be capable of such mastery, usually effected through dedication to a particular art or sport, and then only briefly. At those moments of crystalline balance, the over-man would gain insight and knowledge.

Nietzsche’s conception of the tragedy was an attempt to synthesize dualist thought, but it wasn’t a rigorous, systemic effort. Nearly all postmodernist theory, including the entirety of linguistics and deconstruction, is founded on a structuralist theory of language as a system of binary signs. Each sign is made up of a signifier (the word itself) and the signified (the concept or meaning). De Saussure observed that these signs are arbitrary, in that they might plausibly refer to anything else. The letters s, i, s, t, e and r suggest a girl or woman who shares the same parents as the referent, but the idea of this woman is not linked by any inner relationship to the succession of sounds that serve as its signifier.[20] Deconstruction at once inverted and advanced structuralist linguistics, but in its reliance on the relation of sign to signifier, it remained essentially dualist.[21]

The Marxists, for all their revolutions, were traditionalists in this respect. Dialectical materialism set religion against science, capital against labor, elevating in each case the latter as the determining factor in any inquiry into the structure of society. For the Marxists, the kind of idealism Plato advocated was useless if not misleading. Rather, society was better served by an analysis of how material factors, such as the means of production, determine the social and economic structure of society.[22]

More than ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, political theory remains stubbornly dualist, despite the evidence that there are more than two positions on the political spectrum. If the 20th century taught us anything, it is that political thought cannot be divided neatly into left and right. Indeed, the political landscape is less a continuum than a circle, with the fascist right and the totalitarian left adjoining each other on the dark side of the political planet, an unpleasant territory that now includes the fundamentalist state. Recent adventures in foreign policy are instructive, since Conservatives and Labour in England, and Republicans and Democrats in America, don’t line up neatly when it comes to foreign politics. The Bush-Blair alliance is one of a radical conservative and a liberal with centrist tendencies. So too with Chirac and Schroeder. In the Middle East, it’s the conservative warriors who end their lives striving for peace (Rabin and Sadat). And yet we persist, in America, England and elsewhere, to divide the political debate into left and right.

We divide liberty into negative values (the right to be free of restrictions) and positive ones (the right to food and shelter and work). Isaiah Berlin, starting with an obscure quote from Auchilochus, grouped thinkers as either hedgehogs or foxes: hedgehogs know one big thing, while foxes know many things.[23] Similarly, the protagonist of John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy divides all humanity into rabbits and bulls. Rabbits dart about to survive while bulls plod on, unwavering.[24]

There are no Platonic hedgehogs, no thoroughbred rabbits. Except for the true believers, we are all mutts. Everyone, going about their daily lives, will be both a taurine rabbit and a twitchy-nosed bovine. A healthy society will understand that there are no pure positive and negative liberties, that free speech means little for the starving.

* * *

Even the arts have succumbed. The Matisse-Picasso exhibit that opened at the Tate Modern before hopping the Channel to the Grand Palais and then the pond to MoMA Queens, pits the two artists against each other, reducing masterpieces to a half-century long, hubris-fueled game of artistic poker.[25] The catalogue is devoted to a “Comparison with Comments,” two pictures on opposite pages with a paragraph comparing them. It’s puerile. Evidently not to be outdone in the race to the binary bottom, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York organized “Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting,” which — apart from Met director Philippe de Montebello’s obvious joy in recasting French 19th century painting as an awed response to Spanish masters — makes, with the ostentatious resources at the Met’s disposal, the incisive point that artists are influenced by their predecessors, a process that involves less anxiety than outright mimicry.[26]

Dualism may be hardwired into our genes. The chemical structure of DNA is helical, two strings of sugar phosphates wound round each other and connected by supporting trusses of hydrogen, dangerous if detached or misaligned. Watson and Crick understood that the binary nature of DNA was its critical trait:

The novel feature of the structure is the manner in which the two chains are held together by the… bases…[which] are joined together in pairs, a single base from one chain being hydrogen-bonded to a single base from the other chain, so that the two lie side by side… Only specific pairs of bases can bond together. … [Since] only specific pairs of bases can be formed, it follows that if the sequence of bases on one chain is given, then the sequence on the other chain is automatically determined…. It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.[27]

If the influence of DNA on thought structure seems a leap, Richard Dawkins’s work renders it more plausible.[28] Natural selection operates upon genes, not species, so the evolutionary success of the genes we cart around with us — or, more accurately, the genes which utilize humans as a useful reproductive vessel — may be attributable to the kinds of thoughts they determine.[29] Humans may not be walking and talking dualists, but genes certainly are.

Dualism lies at the heart of life. It should not then be surprising that given the chance to build the ultimate machine, we based it on zeros and ones. Just as the DNA structure determines replication and reproduction — the laws of life — computer code controls software and, more broadly, cyberspace. Larry Lessig has written that just as constitutions identify and protect values, computer software preserves certain values at the expense of others. Code, Lessig argues, is law.[30] And code, at heart, is binary.

* * *

Our genetic and computer codes may be Manichean, but our thinking must not be. Dualism, which originated as a theory about the structure of the world, has calcified into an analytical set piece. We must find another model. We must bring a multivalent tool to bear on political, sociological, philosophical or economic issues. It would be rigorously open-minded, continuously recalibrated. It would cast dichotomies as guideposts rather than fenced-in camps. It would be vibrantly relational, a cross-pollinating perspective yielding imaginative solutions rather than deadening, zero-sum compromises.

Efforts to find a ‘third way’ suggest the desperation that dualism yields, particularly in the political arena. It is there that a multivalent tool would be most welcome and useful. As liberal democracies mature, political voices accrete into two major parties because they are unable to wield significant influence outside them. Opinions that don’t advance the party’s current strategy are shunted. A broad coalition — a big tent — is usually an ineffectual one. In the United States the two-party system is creaking, with the Republicans bloated with money and power and the Democrats just emerging from fearful disarray. This is partly the result of the surprisingly symbiotic relationship between corporations, with their lavish lobbying purses, and the Christian right, which votes, writes letters, protests and, well, votes. Corporations pursue economic interests while the Christian right monitors social matters, and because they rarely conflict, it turns out to be relatively easy for the Republican party to address both. The recent strength of Green parties in Germany and Scandinavia, and the occasional burst of hateful exuberance by Le Pen’s Front National and Austria’s Freedom Party, are exceptions that prove the rule. Their gains are almost immediately co-opted by one of the entrenched parties (consider the endearing Mr. Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister, faithfully serving Schroeder’s Social Democrats).

The loss of effective political diversity emasculates liberal democracy. It may foster corruption. A new perspective, shorn of dualist tropes, would create a more dynamic republic — and it could work in real life.

Few political issues cleave a group of citizens as neatly and ferociously in two as environmental problems. A hydroelectric dam is a good enough example. It produces electricity for the surrounding community, water for down-valley farmers, a hell of a hurdle for spawning salmon, stagnation and a slow death by silting for the river and the riparian ecology, and, in the submergence of often stunning valleys and waterfalls, a symbol of human arrogance to environmentalists. A dam has a way of producing a fantastic array of interest groups: loggers, farmers, environmentalists, fishermen, outdoorsmen — who may include backcountry hikers and kayak enthusiasts, who tend to be philosophic environmentalists, and sport fishermen and hunters, who may not — and then there is the electric power company, its stockholders, and the large and small construction firms with an eye toward many-zeroed contracts. And somehow, among all these voices, the dispute is inevitably drawn as narrowly as possible — YES! or NO! — as if humans, with our laughter and irony and opposable thumbs, with our sense of wonder and the capacity to design a thing as beautiful and functional as a bicycle, could think of nothing more complex.

All of the interest groups — with the exception, perhaps, of the off-the-grid ecotopians and their neighbors, the antigovernment survivalists — need the dam, or at least the electricity it will generate. Even the coldest bean counters can appreciate the value of unspoiled wilderness. The solution to the dam dilemma will lie in the broadest balance of power generation, harvesting and extraction of resources, and wilderness preservation. This dam must be linked to the last dam, to the next gas-fired plant, to the roadless national monument across the state. Some environmentalists, for example, are working to connect wildlands across continents rather than focusing on gemlike islands of wilderness slowly losing their viability to encroaching development. It turns out that the earliest preserves in Europe, North America and Africa were sustainable because the surrounding territory was largely uninhabited. Now that tract housing has reached the Yellowstone gates, the ecological health of these areas are foundering. Connected wildlands both strengthen the ecology of more strictly cordoned areas and permit development elsewhere. The nature of the project compels compromise with the broadest range of constituencies rather than the one-off toe-to-toe battles with the snowmobile lobby in one region, the logging industry in another, ranchers on the plains and developers on the outskirts of town. A multivalent compromise based on relational thinking will create a coherent framework for incremental issues.

In the future, all politics will be global. Before then, we must strive to draw political issues as broadly as possible. In the short term, this will make solutions more difficult by increasing the complexity of any acceptable compromise. It’s always easier to cut a side deal; remember the popularity of the smoke-filled antechamber. But the plans and compromises brokered there don’t long outlast the cigars.

Even the conflict in the Middle East has been perverted by dualist thought. Cast as a dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, any incremental gain by one must represent a loss by the other. When the focus is real estate, solutions tend to be zero sum, but even where the land at issue includes holy sites of three major religions, a broader, relational perspective would advance the peace process. A solution is not likely to be reached by drawing lines in the sand. Rather, every directly and indirectly interested party will have to contribute, compromise, and fold down its aggressions. Syria will have to cede its control of Lebanon in return for part of the Golan, a recognition of Israel, and a demilitarized zone along the Heights. Egypt will have to warm a cold peace with free trade, while it and Jordan grant amnesty and citizenship to Palestinians living there. Israel will have to allow a relatively small but symbolically substantial number of Palestinian refugees the right to return to and live peacefully within the Israeli state. The wealthy Gulf states will have to generously fund a new Palestinian state and end support for terrorist organizations. Iraq must be rebuilt with the assistance of the United Nations. Palestinians will have to police themselves and quash terrorism, or Israel will have the right to defend itself against the fledgling state. And Israel will have to withdraw from Gaza and all but a short security zone along the Green Line — one that excludes the settlements. Then the region may slowly recover from this thousand-year thrashing.

* * *

It would be easy enough to dismiss any call for a new way of thinking as starry-eyed idealism, but an important piece of the foundation has already been laid. Few believe that the technological revolution will bring peace, love and understanding, but it has already yielded a freer, more open society, one in which more people have access to more information, possessed of the tools necessary to both contribute to the community and succeed within it. The internet may not change the world — the millennium and the millennial market seems a long way behind us now — but technology and globalization will make broad, relational thinking increasingly easy to understand, even necessary.

During the Clinton years, the White House famously employed a technique misleadingly termed triangulation to control the political agenda.[31] But it was less about finding a third way than about splitting the difference, finding a defensible middle ground between extreme views. It worked well enough for a while, but it was finally ineffective. When the bubble burst, America found that it had not come very far at all, and indeed may have taken a few steps back — a desperately imbalanced society with extremes of wealth and poverty that has mislaid its sense of civic purpose. Its hypocrisies have not gone unnoticed. Much of the rest of the planet either resents or in many places loathes American exceptionalism, its sense of entitlement, even its professed ideals. In the decade following September 11th, the U.S. and its allies must accomplish a great deal more than it did in the decade preceding it. The terrain will be much less forgiving.

The need for a more imaginative mindset is pressing, even urgent. There is no life at the poles, or at least not much of it. The action is south of the Arctic and north of the Southern Ocean. We live there; we must think there as well. Just as the beauty of black & white photography lies less in pure blacks and perfect whites than in the 11-tone gray scale, we must learn to think across a continuum. The power of an Ansel Adams print is less in the intrinsic majesty of Half Dome, which is photographed thousands of times each day, than in Adams’ mastery of the zone system, a rigorously calibrated method of controlling exposure, development and printing to maximize range and density. The zone system is famously difficult. Adams used it to locate as many as 25 gray tones, but most photographers have happily abandoned the zone system in favor of the tinkering pleasures of Photoshop. As citizens, however, we don’t have that luxury. We must think broadly on an open plane. That will require courage and, like the great basketball player, a sense of where we are. We don’t think that way, but we should.

Notes

[1] See, for example, Patrick Tyler and Janet Elder, “Polls Finds Most in U.S. Support Delaying a War,” New York Times, February 14, 2003, A 1; John Allen Paulos, “Polls, a Proverb and the Price: Gauging War Sentiment in the U.S. and Elsewhere,” ABCNEWS.com, March 2, 2003 Available online at: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/scitech/WhosCounting/ whoscounting030302.html; Warren Hoge, “Parliament Backs Blair on Iraq, but Vote Bares Rift in Labor Party,” New York Times, February 27, 2003, A 12.; Richard Bernstein, “Continental Reaction: Speech Praised by Europe’s Politicians, but Public Is Still Unpersuaded,” New York Times, February 6, 2003, Sect. A, p. 21.

[2] Plato, Phaedo, in Plato, The Collected Dialogues, Hugh Tredennick, trans., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999, pp. 40-84.

[3] See, for example, Judges 3; Exodus 1:1; Habbakkuk 1; Psalm 9:17; Daniel 12:2.

[4] See, for example, anything in Exodus, but particularly Exodus 12; Psalm 136:10-16.

[5] See, for example, Matthew 25:46; Luke 16:19-31.

[6] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, New York: Vintage, 1989, pp. 122-27.

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann, trans., New York: Random House, 1974, sections 285, 341.

[8] Thomas Bulfinch, Mythology, Modern Library, 1998, Chapter XXXVII.

[9] John Bowler, Oxford Book of World Religions, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000, p. 565.

[10] St. Augustine, “On the Nature of Good,” in The Essential Augustine, Vernon J. Burke, ed., Indianapolis: Hackett, 1974, sections 1-25.

[11] F.C. Copleston, Aquinas, London: Penguin, 1991, pp. 156-172.

[12] G.J.C. Lokhorst & Timo T. Kaitaro. “The originality of Descartes’ theory about the pineal gland,” Journal for the History of the Neurosciences, 10, No 1 (2001): pp. 6-18.

[13] Descartes, “Meditations on the First Philosophy,” in A Discourse on Method, Meditations and Principles John Veitch, trans., New York: Everyman, pp. 79-88.

[14] Spinoza, The Ethics and Other Works, ed. and trans. Edward Curley, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 48-55; Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, E.F.S. Payne trans., New York: Dover, 1966, pp. 153-165.

[15] Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, New York: Norton, 2003, p. 21.

[16] Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, New York: Vintage, 1989, p. 175.

[17] Lao Tse, Tao te Ching, Stephen Mitchell, ed. and trans., New York: HarperCollins, 1988, section 2 (“Being and non-being create each other / Difficult and easy support each other / Long and short define each other / High and low depend on each other / Before and after follow each other”).

[18] Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Walter Kaufmann, trans., New York: Random House, 1967, ch. 1-5.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, Wade Baskins, trans., New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965, pp. 12-14.

[21] Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983, pp 227-280; Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory, Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 110-131.

[22] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory, Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 169- 188; Terry Eagleton, “Towards a Science of the Text,” (1976) in Marxist Literary Theory, Terry Eagleton and Drew Milne, eds., Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

[23] Isaiah Berlin, “The Hedgehog and the Fox” in The Russian Thinkers, London: Penguin, 1994, pp. 22-81.

[24] John Updike, The Rabbit Novels, v. 1 & 2, New York: Ballentine, 2003.

[25] “Matisse Picasso,” Museum of Modern Art, New York: February 13-May 19, 2003; Henri Matisse, Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, John Golding, John Elderfield, Anne Baldassari, Pablo Picasso, Kirk Varnadoe, Elizabeth Cowling (contributors), Matisse Picasso, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002.

[26] Gary Tinterow, Genevieve Lacambre, Deborah Rolden (contributors), Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting (Metropolitan Museum of Art), New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2003.

[27] The seminal article is James Watson and Francis Crick, “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” Nature, April 2, 1953.

[28] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 46-66.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Basic Books, 1999, pp. 3-9.

[31] See, for example, the overheated rant by the otherwise talented Chris Hitchens: Christopher Hitchens, No One Left To Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, New York: Verso Books, 1999, pp. 23-53.

Peter Lurie is general counsel of Virgin Mobile USA, a wireless voice and internet service. The views expressed are his own.