by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

There is something to be said for having no choice in the matter. The easy targets (pardon the pun) are uniforms and the military. Rows and rows of unvarying and consistent soldiers paraded with clock-work precision having only to listen to orders and take commands, and certainly never having to worry about what to wear. Rejection of such uniformity and militaristic deportment would weaken the system. You’re either in or out; for or against. The choices are mutually exclusive. There is no room for Namby-Pamby conduct.

Beyond uniforms and the military the less persuasive arena of such blunt performance is dichotomous thinking, framing issues in terms of opposites such as yes/no, on/off, reason/passion. By way of example, if one extrapolates (another unintended pun) the discourse to bipolar behaviour the unattractiveness of opposition is instantly revealed.

There is, however, an appeal to binary thinking. It is its purity and order though lurking in the shadows is the element of hierarchy. Not so readily apparent is the component of dominance which is built-in to binary thinking, an obvious example being male/female, though it is less punishing when framed as yin/yang. Beyond the sexist environment there is also right/sinister which has its inherent ingredient of superiority, the value-laden difference between good and evil. Remember though that there can be no good without evil any more than there can be night without day. In that respect binary thinking is a device to develop language and provide a structure. We did not inherit language, we have created it.

On a clinical level the preference for binary thinking (that is, the allure of opposites) is that it facilitates resolution. From the thesis and antithesis comes the synthesis. This is the venerable tradition of dialectical thinking, though if one clings steadfastly to either/or there are no intermediate possibilities. Returning to the military vernacular for a moment, even competing battles (though designed to produce a single answer or winner) can result in a draw, a recognition that things may have to be left unreconciled and unresolved.

In the everyday world, the employment of binary thinking can allow one to withdraw from complicated personal tangles and debates. By abstracting opposite views (that is, distilling them to precise terms) the conflicts become more manageable and less obfuscated. By contrast it might be argued that the creation of such dichotomies is an attempt to avoid nuance and refinement, not to mention balance and cooperation. It is undeniable that the charm of binary thinking lies in its simplicity. On its face, at least, it eliminates a lot of discussion. Here again, however, the classification of complex information, as for example like/hate, tends to create positive and negative poles. Nonetheless, we humans are generally uncomfortable when events or ideas are unreconciled and it is expedient to harmonize our souls by discovering what is black or white. Nonetheless, the characterization of someone as evil is perhaps too unconditional because it excludes the possibility that there is some good in the person. The theoretical boundaries of words begin to collapse upon examination.

At times the use of binary opposites appears rather silly. In the Income Tax Act for example, there are references to residents and non-residents, the attempt of the draftsman of the legislation to capture the opposites. The word, however, becomes cumbersome when used in the expression “I am not a non-resident”. Such codswallop betrays the unambitious use of language. Such language is also found in expressions by which lawyers seek to avoid proscribed offence. For example, it has been said that the Courts cannot generally force someone to work; so, when a strike ensues, the application is made for a cease and desist order (which is shortened for “cease and desist from not working”). More tarradiddle!

In the end, apart from the philosophical manipulations of the subject, the frozen truth is that it is easier to handle things when they’re reduced to mutually exclusive opposites. Its avoidance of compromise compels especially motivated people to conduct their affairs with rigid accuracy where no shortfall is abided. This, of course, isn’t to say that it is easy adopting binary thinking, but it is designed to cultivate a critical division between possibilities, often resulting in the creation of a superior product. Binary thinking is the elemental machinery of thought.