Reality check: The world isn’t binary

Abstract: Binary thinking is a devastating human weakness…

You can bet your next Christmas bonus that George W. Bush will never be included with Mandela, Lincoln and Churchill as a political figure with the capacity for inspirational, statesman-like oratory. However, there remains one speech he delivered where he, albeit unwittingly, managed to encapsulate the reason there’s a propensity within the human condition for social upheaval, the likes of which we should expect closer to home in the period leading up to elections.

In the days that followed the 9/11 attacks, the world scrutinised Bush for leadership and direction; and he replied in force on 20th September 2001 with a rally of fighting talk before a joint session of congress in which he drew a line and laid down the parameters for his war on terror. The standout message was the following: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”.

For Americans it seemed a logical precept, but for the rest of the world it was a false dichotomy – many countries managed to balance a resentment towards American braggadocio with a condemnation of terrorism. But Bush was simply echoing the threatening “you’re either with us or against us” rhetoric ejected by a number of figures throughout history, including Mussolini, Lenin and George Orwell. In fact Christian fundamentalists preach peace but often lean on a quote from the Bible in which Jesus is supposed to have said, “Whoever is not with me is against me”.

The result of such rhetoric is an entrenchment of the belief that social constructs can be, or invariably are, binary; that is, there are two possible options of stance. For example: you’re either for or against abortion; you’re either conservative or liberal; someone’s either innocent or guilty, rich or poor; or, the classic South African construct: black or white.

The reality, of course, is that there are no clear-cut binary human categorisations. Even the condition of being alive or dead invites debate whenever a patient is being kept alive by machines.

The problem with binary categorisation is that it generates polarisation – people become split into two tribes; and, given the human inclination to favour emotion over rational judgement, such camps see the other as villains and bristle with distrust and suspicion. All it takes is a spark to create all-out war. Sectarian violence based on self-created, and arguably, pathetic religious, cultural, ethnic, or tribal polarisations are the brutal embodiment of such binary categorisation.

Examples of justifiable and very real binary relationships, do exist however; but for those you’d have to look to science. For example in astronomy a ‘binary star’ is a star system composed of two stars; in biology, binary fission is the splitting of a single-celled organism into two daughter cells; and in chemistry a binary compound is one that contains two different elements, for example H2O. However, importantly, in these examples the split is not confrontational; both units co-exist in some measure of harmony.

Of course the most familiar example of a harmonious binary relationship in science is found coursing through the arteries of information technology – the modern expression of Morse Code: data in the form of strings of bits – or binary digits – being the smallest unit of data found in a computer, and having a binary value of either 0 or 1. However, even that difference isn’t so cut and dry. Scaling down into the elusive arena of quantum computing, a qubit (quantum bit) can exist in a supposition of both states, meaning it can represent a ‘0’ or a ‘1’ simultaneously. So, even in the cold, calculating world of physics, there’s a case for ambivalence.

Back within the fallibility of the human condition, perhaps the best way to demonstrate the ill-effects of binary conditioning is to revisit one of the most infamous experiments in human psychology: the Stanford Prison Experiment. In August 1971, Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo constructed a mock prison in the university’s basement and randomly assigned each of 24 male students to the role of either prisoner or guard.

Almost immediately the students adopted the behaviour they identified with their categorisation; the social condition became polarised; and it degenerated into a classic ‘with us or against us’ scenario. The ‘prisoners’ rebelled and the ‘guards’ reacted with brutal suppression, subjecting the ‘prisoners’ to episodic violence and psychological torture. The experiment was terminated after six days, but it remains a caustic reminder of how a separation into binary thinking can explode into aggression. Ironically, such behaviour was paralleled in one of the most notorious episodes of Bush’s ‘war on terror’ – the events at Abu Ghraib Prison.

But, some may say, Abu Ghraib, Stanford University, Bush’s warring ultimatum, and the violent expression of binary conditioning are miles away from the fabric of South Africa’s rainbow nation social and political landscape. That would be naive. Simply Google “ANC” and “with us or against us”, and you’ll uncover a vast repertoire of fighting talk, from politicians on both-sides of an artificially entrenched political divide, which echoes Bush and threatens to resurrect itself as we edge closer towards elections, launching us into all out war.

Originally published in the March 2014 edition of Leadership magazine.