The Trouble with Binary Thinking

Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report discussed the magical implications of getting out from under the influence of the mass media and popular culture, and thus from the dumbing-down effects these things exert on the mind. That’s a crucial step, but it’s only a first step, because as soon as you extract all that thaumaturgy from your mind, something is going to fill the resulting void.

Entire industries exist to see to it that what fills the void is simply another version of what you tried to get rid of. The sorry fate of the so-called Voluntary Simplicity movement of a few years back makes a good case study of the way these industries work. It was a bad move right at the beginning, to be sure, that the founders of the movement watered down Thoreau’s original and far more powerful phrase “voluntary poverty” so that it didn’t frighten their middle-class target audience. As soon as the idea began to attract attention, that first mistake became the opening wedge that admitted a series of marketing campaigns that pitched supposedly “simpler” consumer products to a mostly privileged audience at steep prices.

Before long a glossy concept magazine packed with ads surfaced on the newsstands, and the whole mvoement devolved into one more mildly exotic lifestyle choice for bored yuppies who were tired of the older options for conspicuous consumption and wanted to try a new one. Not simplicity, but a set of abstract cultural representations of simplicity that were heavily marketed to sell products, became the hallmark of the movement, as torrents of overpriced goodies manufactured in Third World sweatshops and marketed through lavish catalogs and websites came to define what had started out as a not unreasonable attempt to raise questions about the contemporary cult of clutter. What Thoreau would have thought of all this, while stepping out of his shack at Walden Pond with an ax in his hand to split firewood in the chill October air, does not bear imagining.

My more perceptive readers may have grasped from this example one of the reasons why I persist in using the old-fashioned and hopelessly unpopular word “magic” for the inner disciplines and traditional philosophies I’ve been discussing in the current series of posts. “Magic,” like “voluntary poverty,” is an unappealing focus for mass marketing in the context of today’s popular culture. Repackage it under some more comfortable label, and it’s a safe bet that within a few years at most your new label will have been hijacked by the thaumaturgists of marketing and advertising departments, turned into yet another cheap sales pitch, and used to pimp attitudes and ideas, as well as products, that are antithetical in every way to what your label was originally intended to mean.

That’s exactly what happened to the New Age movement, which started out as an intriguing attempt to find common ground between cutting edge sciences, traditional wisdom, and the experiences of contemporary visionaries, before it got mugged by the marketers in the dark alleys of the early 1980s. For heaven’s sake, Gregory Bateson used to count as a New Age thinker. What he would have thought of today’s New Age scene—well, let’s just say that if he suddenly stepped out of a shack at Esalen this evening with an ax in his hand, I’m not sure how confident I would be that he had firewood in mind.

Still, the machinations of marketers are not the only difficulty that has to be faced here. Certain inborn habits of the human mind, even in the absence of modern mass media or the equivalent, tend to leave a nasty trap in the way of the aspiring mage, or for that matter anybody else who recognizes that there’s something wrong with the worldview of a dysfunctional culture. Enough of my readers may have one or another part of their anatomy caught in the jaws of this particular trap that it’s probably wisest to follow the approach standard in magical instruction—that is, to present the model as an abstraction first, and only then move into the potentially controversial territory of actual examples.

A bit of jargon will unfortunately be necessary. Human beings, according to the teaching you’re about to receive, normally think in binaries—that is, polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites. That habit is universal and automatic enough that it’s most likely hardwired into our brains, and there’s good reason why it should be. Most of the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah are most efficiently sorted out into binary pairs: food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and so on. The drawbacks to this handy set of internal categories don’t seem to bother any of our primate relatives, and probably became an issue—like so much that’s part of magic—only when the rickety structure of the reasoning mind took shape over the top of the standard-issue social primate brain.

The difficulty, like so many of the difficulties that beset humanity, is one of overgeneralizing a good idea. There’s no significant middle ground between food and nonfood, say, or between predator and nonpredator, and so the reactive response we’re discussing excludes the possibility of middle ground; it’s either edible (or considering you as edible), or it’s not. The more complex classifications that the reasoning mind can use, though, admit of a great deal of middle ground, and so do the equally complex relationships that develop in societies once the reasoning mind gets to work on relationships between social primates. When we have the opportunity to consider such things carefully, it’s not hard to see this, but the hardwired habit of snap judgments in binary form is always right below the surface. In most cases all it takes is a certain amount of stress to trigger it. Any kind of stress will do, and over the years, practitioners of mass thaumaturgy have gotten very good at finding ways to make people feel stressed so that the binary reaction kicks in and can be manipulated to order.

That’s when thinking in binaries goes haywire, the middle ground becomes invisible, and people think, say, and do resoundingly stupid things because they can only see two extreme alternatives, one of which is charged to the bursting point with desire (food rather than nonfood) or fear (predator rather than nonpredator). Watch the way that many people on the American right these days insist that anybody to the left of George W. Bush is a socialist, or tfor that matter the way that some people on the American left insist that anybody to the right of Hillary Clinton is a fascist. Equally, and more to the point in our present context, think of the way the peak oil debate was stuck for so long in a binary that insisted that the extremes of continued progress and sudden catastrophic collapse were the only possible shapes of the postpetroleum future.

In the tradition of Druidry I mostly teach and practice, there’s a neat mental trick for sidestepping the binary-producing mechanism when it’s not useful. It consists, first, of learning to recognize binaries at sight, and second, when a binary is encountered, looking for a third option that will turn the binary into a ternary, a threefold relationship. Back in the day, beginning students used to be assigned the homework of picking up the morning paper each day, writing down the first nine binaries they encountered, and finding a third option to each binary.

This useful little exercise has at least three effects. First of all, it very quickly becomes apparent to the student just how much binary thinking goes on in the average human society. Second, it very quickly becomes at least as apparent to the student how much of an effort it takes, at least at first, to snap out of binary thinking. Third and most crucial is the discovery, which usually comes in short order, that once you find a third option, it’s very easy to find more—a fourth, a ninety-fourth, and so on—and they don’t have to fit between the two ends of the binary, as most beginners assume. Take any political debate you care to name; inevitably, there are possible choices more extreme than either of the two sides, as well as choices in the space in between, and still other choices that aren’t in the same continuum at all. Ternary thinking helps you pop out of the binary mode long enough to see this.

What makes the process of ternary thinking fascinating is that its effects are not necessarily limited to the person who practices it. Fairly often, when a discussion is mired in reactive binary thinking, it only takes one person resolutely bringing up a third option over and over again, to pop at least some of the participants out of the binary trap, and get them thinking about other options. They may end up staying with the option they originally supported, but they’re more likely to do it in a reasoned way rather than an automatic, unthinking way. They’re also more likely to be able to recognize that the other sides of the debate also have their points, and to be able to find grounds for mutual cooperation, because they aren’t stuck in a mental automatism that loads a torrent of positive emotions onto their side of the balance and an equal and opposite torrent of negative emotions onto the other side.

At this point, as my readers have doubtless guessed, we’ve strayed into the realm of magical combat. You’ll notice that lightning bolts from wands and incantations in bad Latin are not involved; those belong to cheap fantasy fiction, not to actual magic. Instead, the combat is a struggle of narratives or, if you will, of ways of structuring experience. Among the tools that practitioners of mass thaumaturgy use to weave their spells are emotionally charged images and ideas that trigger the hardwired binary reaction in our brains. Among the effective options for doing battle with them, in turn, is ternary logic, which defuses the binary reaction so that whatever issue is up for discussion can be put back into its actual context, and is no longer seen exclusively through the filter of food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and the like.

This can only be done, though, if you’ve already learned how to deactivate the binary automatism in yourself. In magic, as in so many of the things we’ve discussed in this blog, the starting point is always your own life, and of course that’s unpopular; trom Al Gore’s carbon footprints to all those gay-bashing preachers who end up being caught with their boyfriends, America these days is awash in people trying to demand changes from other people that they haven’t been able or willing to carry out themselves. That’s ineffective magic in any context, and especially so when it comes to ternary thinking. If you try to work with ternaries when you’ve still got a great deal of emotion and personal identity invested in binary thought patterns, for example, you’re probably going to fall into a binary between the abstract concepts of binary and ternary thinking, see ternary thinking as “food” and “nonpredator” and binary thinking as “nonfood” and “predator,” and pile on the binary reactions while convincing yourself that you’ve transcended them.

I wish this were merely a theoretical possibility. Those who think it is might be well advised to pick up a copy of Matthew Fox’s book The Coming of the Cosmic Christ and read what Fox has to say about dualism—that’s his term for binary thinking in a religous context. He denounces it in harsh terms, but he then goes on to say that there are basically two kinds of religion, dualist and nondualist, and dualist religion is bad while nondualist religion is good! At one point—it’s on pages 134 and 135 of my copy—he sets out a convenient list of the differences between the two, and it’s all a matter of hard oppositions between contending extremes. All in all, it’s hard to think of anything more dualist this side of 3rd century Johannite Gnosticism, and yet Fox, at least when he wrote the book in question, was apparently convinced that he wasn’t a dualist.

The problem with binary thinking—or, if you will, with dualism—is not that it’s bad. It’s simply that it’s very often overused, and even more often used inappropriately. If you’re at risk of starvation, or being stalked by a predator, the hardwired binary reaction with all its emotional force is more likely to keep you alive than a philosophical attitude toward eating or being eaten. There are other times and contexts, furthermore, in which a nonreactive, thoughtful dualism, like the Taoist conception of yin and yang, is a very flexible and useful tool. The point of learning to think in ternaries, in turn, is not that ternaries are good and binaries are bad; it’s that learning the trick of ternary thinking widens your range of options. The same traditions that taught (and teach) ternary thinking go on to explain that every number denotes a way of conceptually dividing up the world, and teach more advanced students how to use a range of whole numbers—anything from the first seven to the first twenty of them, depending on the tradition in question—as abstract models for thinking, each in its own proper place and each with its own distinct effects.

The details of how this is done belong to the technicalities of magical practice and so, like some of the other points raised earlier, don’t belong in these essays. The crucial point I want to get across is simply that any binary division that comes to mind, unless it has to do with food, predators, or a handful of other very basic biological drives, should be regarded with a significant amount of wariness. This is especially true, by the way, in American politics. The two main parties have spent the last century or so cashing in mightily on the binary reaction; their rhetoric always treats the choice between them as though it’s as absolute as the choice between yes and no, or at least the one between A and Z. In reality, of course, it’s more like the choice between N and Q; even in the alphabet of contemporary political thought, there are plenty of other options, and there’s also the very real possibility of bringing in, say, Σ or Ж from another alphabet entirely—but of course any such variation is exactly what the two major parties fear most, and they put a great deal of effort into trying to forestall it.

The same logic applies to plenty of other binaries in circulation these days. Think of the number of times you’ve heard people insist that doing without some specific technology we use these days is equivalent to doing without all technology, and going back to living in caves. Think of the broader discourse from which this derives, in which any alternative to continued progress along the lines that (supposed) progress is (allegedly) progressing is equated to catastrophe. Think of the people who insist that their political movement, or religious movement, or activist movement or, really, any kind of movement you care to imagine—barring the one obvious and scatological exception—is the only alternative to whatever the horrible future du jour happens to be.

Some of these are innocent enough, but a great many more are the result of deliberate thaumaturgy, and if you trace back the rhetoric to its source, it’s not hard to see the thaumaturgy at work. If the source is a book, look for the couple of chapters right up front that describe the horrible future we’re going to get, barring a miracle, and notice further on that the plan of action offered by the writer doesn’t actually promise the miracle; the resulting doublebind heightens the stress on the readers and thus makes the binary reaction harder to shake off. If it’s visual media, watch for the same things, heightened by sharp juxtapositions between images that have radically different emotional charges—the famous ad run by the Johnson presidential campaign in 1964, alternating images of a hydrogen bomb going off and a little girl plucking daisy petals, is a classic of the type.

Other media have their own distinctive strategies of thaumaturgy. There’s a certain amount of entertainment value to be had in making such analyses, but to be quite frank, it’s more useful in practical terms to minimize your exposure to the phenomenon. The work of noticing the overfamiliar effects of thaumaturgy, analyzing the intended manimpulation, and using ternary logic or any of the other practical methods of the operative mage to pluck out one barbed emotional hook after another—well, let’s just say that it gets old very quickly, and once the lesson is well learnt there’s rarely much of a point in repeating it.

Certainly it’s possible to have a significant impact on the collective conversation of our time without exposing yourself to the thaumaturgic media. Though most mass media in every age are designed to force the recipient into a passive relationship to the incoming stream of information, disinformation, and thaumaturgy, there are always a few options that give the individual a voice or allow a conversation to take place, or both. The blogosphere is the current example of the species; a lively world of noncommercial monthly and weekly journals did the same thing through most of the twentieth century, and will no doubt do the same thing again through the second half or so of the twenty-first. There are other modes of shaping collective consciousness as well, of course, with the influence of personal example standing out in many ways as the most potent of the lot.

Still, there’s another dimension to binary thinking that has to be discussed in this context, one that reaches right down to the roots of what this blog and the peak oil blogosphere generally are trying to do. We’ll talk about that next week.