Binary Choices

The media favors reporting in terms of binary choices. Maybe we, the consumers of media, are easily beguiled by them because that is the way we naturally tell and listen to stories.

Binary choices work best because they are easy. Democrat versus Republican, Black versus White, Good versus Evil, Have’s versus Have Not’s, Easy versus Hard, Cheap versus Expensive, Efficient versus Wasteful, Happy versus Sad, Secure versus Insecure, Fearful versus Fearless, Us versus Them, In versus Out, Fight versus Flight.

It’s a very long list. You can fit a lot into a handy binary schema.

We are told there is a presidential race now limited to two figures. We have Donald Trump v Hillary Clinton if you accept the media’s insistent theme “do the math and resign to the inevitable”. Cruz and Sanders are seen as desperately flapping their arms as the hook pulls them off stage right and stage left respectively. Nobody else is viable, so why “waste” time even thinking about them?

If you value your time so preciously, you will focus on the binary choices. You have concluded this is the way the election process works, and you have gotten used to it. Pick your poison. Choosing one of two is better than not choosing at all. Choose even if it’s only a choice between the bad and the least bad. Hold your nose and vote. If you don’t vote, you are going to be a bad actor in the binary schema. If you forfeit your choice, you are really choosing sides because you are aiding-and-abetting the bad over the least bad. So get used to it: you’re choosing. There is no such thing as a boycott or abstention. You are not an innocent by-stander. You are an accomplice.

Many who assume this line assume themselves to be ‘practical’ analysts of the situation. They obviously like the mathematical simplicity of binary choices: One versus Zero. It is a digital world after all, ruled by binary choices. It’s so powerful, yet so elegantly simple.  It is also determinist.  It is forced format. It is divisive.

Picture Yoda. Do or do not. There is no try.

It almost sounds like the perfectly unambiguous mantra for a binary theorists’ reductive argument except that it is really the voice of a mentor trying to inspire a pupil to believe sufficiently in his aspirations, to act on hope despite the odds. ‘Do’ act on hope, but ‘do not’ sit idly by. Remember that both Yoda and Luke were in the position of Total Losers at this point in their story, malcontents in a galaxy administered by Dark Siders and populated by an array of mercenaries, swindlers, cynics, petty tyrants and cute teddy bears, all of whom were mightily oppressed and disorganized. Until they weren’t.

Okay, you say, that’s just a latter day fairy tale. It isn’t real. It wasn’t meant as “practical” advice. There is no realpolitik there. Until there is.

For all the hue and cry over Donald Trump’s candidacy and the fearful chord he strikes in the hearts of many Americans, he was a mere externality to government until he wasn’t. A peripheral character. A wannabe with a delusional sense of self-worth. Now he is a dagger pressed against the heart of the Free World.

And the anointed foil to Trump the Evil is who?

Hillary the Good? Only for an ecstatic core. What it means to most candid binarists is Hillary the More Powerful, Hillary the Not-Trump, which boils down further to Hillary the Mitigator of Greater Harm, which is to say Hillary the Diluter of Toxic Contamination, and eventually Hillary the Least Worst.

Of course, the swing-binarists must be taken into account and they view Trump v Clinton as Outsider versus Insider. They are hugely disgusted with Insiders as a class. Just how disgusted remains to be seen, but figures suggest a large number of them have already leaned toward Trump. Remember: true binarists “do” or “do not” vote. There is no try.

True terror for a binarist results from the realization there is choice lying outside the prescribed range. Why do you suppose third party candidates are so reviled in this country? Why do you suppose they keep coming back?

I am faced with binary choices all the time just like you are, but I know that is not the only schema for life or its situations. Do you really think you live in a world of Man Versus Woman? Do you honestly think is it good to pit Straight versus Gay? Do you honestly think binary choices must absolutely be linked to other binary choices—are Straight versus Gay choices also Good versus Bad ones?

I am pretty sure you don’t really think this way, but I am also pretty sure you won’t consciously think about the permutations that flow from whatever first set of choices you are given. You certainly react to the first set but, if you are like most people, you won’t think about it much beyond the second or third set before you get tired of the process and just want to get on with your life. Leave the complicated philosophy to people willing to blend—Hegel or monks pondering Yin and Yang instead of Yin versus Yang.

Binary choices are easy to construct, easy to communicate and easy to accept because they can capture a theme by defining it in terms of its extremes. Works well for numbers, algorithms, but I don’t think it works well in most human affairs.

Do we really want our lives to be the average of least bad choices?

I don’t. The average of the least bad excludes the value of “try”. It presumes extremes are known and fixed. I think history demonstrates the contrary, don’t you?

True or False?


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