One of the worst aspects of social media is the reign of binary thinkers. Binary simply means “something made of two things or parts” (Merriam-Webster). A binary thinker, then is someone who thinks there are only two ways to see an issue. This method makes everything an either/or proposition.
Whether you realize it or not, we’ve all been trained to think this way for years. Two minutes of social media consumption shows just how wildly successful the training has been. How did we get here? By two steps of a kind of social peer pressure.
First, the options are prepared for us. If a large group of people are all going to be binary thinkers, they can’t just all be making up their own options. They are being presented to us through the press, education, and popular culture. You have Fox News and you have MSNBC. You have Vox and you have the Daily Wire. You have The Young Turks and you have Prager University. You have Republican and you have Democrat, and so on. Imagine going to a restaurant and being told they only serve two items. You can either get a Hawaiian pizza (ham and pineapple toppings) or a mushroom and swiss burger. I hate both of them.
We are told, though, that in our political and cultural discourse, we’re either on team Hawaiian pizza, or team mushroom swiss burger. These are the options from which you must choose. There are variations in the options we are presented, but only slightly. You can find Tea Party-ish and libertarian Republicans, and you can find socialist Democrats. It’s like being able to get extra pineapples or extra mushrooms. It’s different, but only by degree.
Part two of the programming is the truly nefarious part. Not only are you led to believe you have to choose a side from pre-selected options. Once you’re entrenched on that side, you are led to view anyone on the other side as opposition. You don’t like Hawaiian pizza, but you absolutely hate mushroom swiss burgers, so if you only have the two options then Hawaiian pizza it is. The only problem is, the restaurant is going to tally up everyone’s orders and whichever item gets the most orders will be served to everybody.
Now you’re obligated to despise the mushroom swiss fans, regardless of whether they actually like the sandwich or not. Maybe they dislike it just a little less than you do, but it matters not. You are now at odds with them and must defeat them. If Hawaiian pizza wins, they’ll hold it against you. If mushroom swiss wins, you’ll hold it against them.
Real life simply does not work this way. A restaurant wouldn’t last a week with such an absurd setup. You’ll just drive to the restaurant down the street with 40 items on its menu and unlimited substitutions. Because it doesn’t have any competition, a government can make the game last a little longer. Its fate will nevertheless eventually be the same. Collapse is inevitable…unless people stop playing the game.
I’m going to give you three reasons why you should stop playing the game, and then I’ll show you how.
Binary thinking accepts false dichotomies.
I want neither ham nor pineapples on my pizza, but I like the crust, sauce, and cheese underneath them. I can’t stand mushrooms, and though I can live with swiss I would much rather have a different cheese. So, I make substitutions. I choose what I like, and I leave off the rest. Here’s the secret: you can do the same thing with your political views. You are under no obligation to accept the whole of what is offered to you. You can make substitutions whenever you want.
If you don’t pick and choose on a case-by-case basis, you will unavoidably be stuck with rotten options at some point. The obvious current example is the implicit question presented to us on social media: “Who are you with – the police, or black Americans?” You do not have to choose between those two. There is room for all kinds of nuance on this issue, yet every single day I see my Facebook friends accepting the false dichotomies and choosing one side or the other.
Binary thinking dehumanizes people.
You rob people of their humanity when you lump everybody into Team A or Team B. The greatest example you’ll ever see occurred in January 2018 when English journalist Cathy Newman interviewed Jordan Peterson on Britain’s Channel 4 News. The interview went viral both for Peterson’s calm, composed, answers (20 million YouTube hits to date – you can watch it here) in the face of Newman’s repeated attempts to assume Peterson’s beliefs. The image here captures the kind of back and forth that occurred over and over throughout the interview, as Peterson would state a finding from his research only to see Newman attempt to sum it up with a wildly different conclusion, led by the phrase “So you’re saying…” (a line that was memed for months).
She assumed she knew everything he believed. As a binary thinker, she thought that she believed one way, and people who disagreed with her believed the opposite. Because of this she showed no interest in listening to what he actually said – in her mind, she already knew.
How often do you see this same interaction on Facebook? “Well, I think A.” “Oh, so you’re saying you hate B?” That’s not how humans work. Sometimes people who are on team mushroom swiss aren’t actually that big of fans of mushrooms, and maybe you could find common ground with them… but because they aren’t on team Hawaiian pizza, you assume you already know everything about them and their preferences.
“So you’re saying…” casts a person as you want to see them, not as they are. But every single human is a unique individual. To assume you can know everything about them and how they think without taking 2 minutes to learn their perspective is incredibly dehumanizing. It’s why we don’t listen to each other, and it’s a big reason why we don’t respect each other. Don’t dehumanize people by assuming you know them just because they aren’t on your team. You wouldn’t want someone to do that to you, so don’t do it to them (Matthew 7:12).
Binary thinking ignores truth.
When you are led to believe you have to choose between one of two options, neither of which are particularly pleasing, you eventually start overlooking flaws in your option and strengths in the other option. Because your goal is beating the other option, you think you have to do this. You may know deep down that pineapple has no business being on pizza, but when you get in the trap of binary thinking you suddenly forget this, because to admit it would be ceding ground to the mushroom swiss crowd. Similarly, you may know deep down that people on the other side of a cultural issue have some valid points, but it can be incredibly difficult to be honest enough to admit that.
Everybody can nitpick the tiniest flaw in the other side’s argument while turning a blind eye to the problems on their own side of the fence. Again, we are trained to do so. And, again, Jesus tells us not to do that (Matthew 7:1-5). It does not make you weak to call out the flaws of your side. It makes you truthful, which makes you far stronger.
Beyond that, binary thinking by necessity has to put a stop to any truth that does not fit the narrative. Traditionally, people have ignored or explained away truths that don’t fit in with their team’s narrative. We’re now entering an era in which a discussion of facts is not allowed and is grounds for “cancelation” if the facts don’t support the narrative. That’s a dangerous place to be, and every Christian should have a problem with such tactics.
You are allowed to create your own menu. In fact, it’s incredibly important that you do so. It’s the only way to stop playing the game, start focusing on truth rather than sides, and start viewing people as humans. Here are a few practical examples.
You can believe that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have questionable histories with women. You can admit that both Donald Trump and the Clintons had ties to Jeffrey Epstein. Binary thinking leads people to defend their team’s guy at all costs while attacking the other team’s guy. Reject such thinking.
You can acknowledge a valid criticism against your politician or ideology without immediately jumping to “Oh yeah? Well the other side…”
You can believe that much of the COVID-19 response was mishandled based on bad or premature conclusions without buying into the idea that it’s a hoax. Conversely, you aren’t throwing all caution to the wind if you admit that the CDC and WHO have been wrong on a thing or two. You may be more cautious, or you may be less cautious. That does not mean everything the people on the other side believe is wrong.
You can believe the media exacerbates many of the problems in our country and still believe the problems exist.
You aren’t inherently condemning every police officer or accepting the entire agenda of critical theorists when you say that there is a widespread problem in the way black individuals are policed in our country.
You can evaluate each police killing case on its own merits. The George Floyd case was not the Rayshard Brooks case, which was not the Tamir Rice case, which was not the Michael Brown case, which was not the Botham Jean case. Binary thinkers (on either side) come to the same conclusion about nearly every single case, proving that it’s not about siding with truth but siding with a team.
You can be against racism and still think that the violence and destruction of property caused by the rioters was not acceptable, and you can think that the violence and destruction of property caused by the rioters was not acceptable and still be against racism. You don’t have to choose which one you think is wrong. Honest people simply call bad actions bad, period. Binary thinkers give a speech as to why bad actions aren’t as bad when their team does it.
You can be patriotic and still understand the point Colin Kaepernick was trying to make.
You can be strongly against racism while still strongly rejecting the world’s framework for correcting it, and you can question and reject that framework without giving up your status as an anti-racist.
The best thing you can do any time a new issue arises is to reject the menu that is handed to you. Do not accept the box Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, or social media want to place you into. Don’t order the Hawaiian pizza or the mushroom swiss burger. Choose a “build your own” meal, in which you get to parse out the issues that are right and wrong without accepting all of the things you don’t like from Team A or Team B.
People will dislike you for it, but your primary obligation is not to be liked. It is to be lovingly truthful. Love people enough to kindly tell them the truth and you’ll make the kind of difference we all want to see in the world.