Against Black and White Thinking

I have a young friend, just over twenty years old now, who is struggling with one-dimensional thinking.  That is, he tends to see things in black and white terms.

It’s not that he lacks brains.  He’s one of the smarter people I know.  But, apparently, one can be pretty smart and still think one-dimensionally.

Thinking one-dimensionally is a problem because, of course, it isn’t fundamentally realistic.  As you know, it’s pretty safe to say no one is perfectly realistic, but some failures to be realistic typically have worse consequences than others, and one-dimensional thinking is among those failures that tend to have bad consequences.  You can try cruising through life thinking in black and white terms about everything, but if you stubbornly persist in that error, then you will sooner or later suffer more than most of us — and most of us suffer quite a bit already.  Good luck to you, if that’s your thing!

Recently, I had a conversation with my friend about Dan Savage that fairly well illustrates his one-dimensional approach to most things.  Here’s how that conversation started:

ME: “I think Dan Savage nailed it with his campsite rule.  You know, ‘treat your lovers like you would a campsite by leaving them as well off or better than you found them.’   Seems like a good rule to me.”

HIM: “Dan Savage?  The sex columnist?”

ME:  “Yeah.  Sure.”

HIM: “But he’s a turd!  He’s total bullshit, both transphobic and biphobic.  Haven’t you heard what he says about transgendered and bisexual people?”

ME: “I haven’t heard any of that; I just know that he often gives pretty good advice, and that his campsite rule is especially good advice.”

HIM: “That’s not important.  Nothing excuses to me what he’s said about transgendered and bisexual people.”

Later on, I looked up Dan Savage on the internet to get the details of the controversy.  As it happens, it’s hotly debated whether Savage is trans- and biphobic.  And from what I can gather, I’d lean towards giving him the benefit of the doubt.  But I don’t mean to digress into an analysis of his positions here.

More importantly, my friend’s one-dimensional attitude towards Savage more or less illustrates his attitude towards most things.  About two years ago, he got his first girlfriend.  But that didn’t last long: He dumped her after discovering she had a few flaws.  Since then, he’s dated a bit but not too often the same woman more than once or twice.   Girlfriends are just one of the many things he applies black and white thinking to.

To be fair to my friend, we seem to live in an age that encourages one-dimensional thinking.  You only have to surf political sites on the net to discover that people and policies these days are routinely represented as either all good or all bad.  To far too many people, for instance, Bernie Sanders is either a saint or a demon.  There’s too little recognition that people, and most other things, are almost inevitably mixes of various traits, some of which you might approve of, and some of which you might disapprove of.  Very few of us, if any, are truly either saints or demons.  But in effect, the net seems to encourage us to indulge in one-dimensional thinking.

Of course, one-dimensional thinking is nothing new and predates the internet.  The Holocaust is the most infamous example of it in history.  Millions having nothing in common but the fact they were Jews were systematically murdered. They were as fully human as any of us today,  six million individuals, six million personalities, six million hopes, dreams, and ambitions — reduced by one-dimensional thinking to just one thing: Jew.

Thinking one-dimensionally about people is to dehumanize them.  Once you have reduced a person to just one thing — whatever that thing is — it is but a small step to condemn that thing, and by condemning it,  condemn the whole person.

I remain ever hopeful that my friend will grow out of his one-dimensional thinking.  But I worry that, if he persists in it, it will sooner or later bring him, and perhaps those around him, to mischief and suffering.

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