Binary Thinking: The Greatest Challenge for 21st-Century Humanism

Binary Thinking: The Greatest Challenge for 21st-Century Humanism October 15, 2018

Photo Credit: Eric Muhr,
Photo Credit: Eric Muhr,, CC0 licensing.

Let’s begin with a story.

As I write, it’s a cold day in Medellín–which I’ll thank you to pronounce “meh-deh-JEAN” from here on out, in keeping with the local Spanish. (See: Key Terms for more.)

After eight months in my new home of Colombia–two “o”s, you heard me: spell it right!–I am now so acclimated to the mid-twenties-Celsius weather that a rainy 17° morning has me shivering in a long-sleeved jacket. But I’m laughing at myself, too, because I’m thirteen generations Canadian, and I was running at -14° in the pre-dawn just this past January in Ontario. Of course I have to chuckle at my current goosebumps, because it’s only cold out relative to my new norms, not my experience overall.

Human relativism at its most obvious and quotidian, right?

And yet… ours is a world that makes a big to-do whenever confronted with the hard fact of perceptual relativism. Social media has a field day when people see different colours on the same dress, or interpret different syllables from the same sound cluster. In so doing, news outlets bolster the idea that sensory differences are somehow a new discovery for our species.

And why not, when novelty is useful for the industry’s profit margins?

To be fair to news conglomerates, though, humans are also easy prey for binary thinking. In general, we prefer solid causal connections–even self-destructive ones–over arbitrary explanation. Something is either right or wrong. Someone is either with us or against us. Y either follows from X, or it doesn’t. Sure, we might believe our time as sentient beings is brief and of no concern to the cosmos. Still, we’re going to look for answers as to why our marriages didn’t work, why our parents failed us when we were small, why we haven’t yet earned a corner office or six-figure salary.

…Because there has to be an answer, right?

And if there isn’t, we’re just not looking hard enough.

The Thin Line Between Binary Thinking and False Dichotomies

In consequence, when something seems to risk our pursuit of certainty, we pay attention. By sensationalizing breaking points in Western narratives of objective reality, the media simply feeds into the worst of these cravings. It upholds objective truth and binary thinking as the status quo, while also trying to be the first to break them down.

And because binary thinking isn’t easy to escape, even the attempt tends to prompt counterexamples of how things simply are or aren’t. There are, for instance, only “two sides” to the Nazi question: either you’re against them or you’re at least passively supporting their agenda. Seems simple enough, right? But the problem is that this counterpoint tells a story of humanity in which Nazism retains central importance. In so doing, it discounts ideological models with other possible centres. It frames a policy agenda where everything is either for or against Nazis.

Don’t we realize, though, that we’ve already lost the plot if the greatest moral quandaries of our time include “Are you for or against Nazis”?

In this column I hope to advance other ways of thinking about secular storytelling. What do I mean by ´secular storytelling´? I mean the stories we tell about the nature of reality and our social responsibilities to one another within it. I mean the stories we tell–religious and non-religious alike–outside the parameters of spiritual faith.

Now, one of those responsibilities arises immediately from the fact that I’m writing as a Canadian ex-pat in Colombia. Indeed, this column is specifically titled “Another White Atheist in Colombia” because it’s important to remember that my perspective has a specific history. Is it the only history? Of course not. Is it the most important history? Heck no. As such, while advancing 21st-century humanist practice, I hope to elevate other voices as much as possible, and to speak for others as little as possible.

(And oh my yes, hold me to account if and when I fail.)

The Optimistic Take-Away

For now… at this juncture, certainly, it might be difficult to imagine a different kind of social discourse. We are embroiled in news cycles and academic dialogues suggesting that our current focusses are the only possible centres of debate. That our current vocabulary is the only acceptable vocabulary for advocacy. And this rigidity emerges in discourse around quite a few of the most urgent issues of our moment. It affects debate on immigration, the political spectrum, the nature of democracy, the economy, technology, social justice, and global peace.

But with enough exposure to a new climate, we can change our expectations for what passes muster in critical debate. We already have in the opposite direction, haven’t we? Gradually numbing in these last two years towards previously unheard-of levels of U.S. presidential vulgarity, overt partisanship, and public temper?

It might be disheartening, but there is also strength to take from how quickly this reality emerged. After all, if the switch could happen so fast, perhaps the reverse can, too.

I mean, if even a dyed-in-the-wool Canadian can learn to feel the chill 6 degrees from the equator… really now, how difficult can it be to shift the heated centre of our most vital humanist debates?

One Note about My Golden Rule

Before I explain this other way of thinking about secular storytelling, though: a word about what I expect from those I hope will join me in this conversation. In my Comment Policy section, I try not to impose rigid rules on commenters, but there is one name that I will refuse to engage with directly, when writing from here on out about global humanist practice from Colombia. I ask you not to use it, too.

You know the name. The whole problem with Western stories of Colombia is that you know the name… and probably not much else. So! Let’s start by mending that paucity of other information. For starters:

Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, with temperate mountain cities and evocative deserts, cattle plains and coastal paradises, forests of pine and jungles of palm and range of giant cacti.

It’s a country with some 70 languages, 65 of which are Amerindian, and a sancocho of peoples–Afro-Indian communities, Arabic communities, Chinese communities, white North American and European communities, along with descendants from Spain and the region’s original indigenous tribes.

In its culture of iconography, Hindu symbolism sits peaceably alongside Catholic public displays.

Its culture of sport makes national holidays in all-but-name of any day when Colombia plays on the world stage.

Colombia is a country that celebrates its rural roots, traditions, and dishes, while also innovating in tech and energy sectors. It’s also setting substantial global benchmarks for environment sustainability through its parks.

In some ways, its food is understated–meat, potatoes, vegetables, fried vendor fare and sweets, so many sweets! But it abounds in variation. Also, there are fruits so flavourful here they put to shame most every varietal better known to North Americans.

You’ll also find that music permeates the culture here, from vallenato to cumbia to reggaeton (qué pena). Folks also sing together with more abandon (even without alcohol!), than North Americans to our own Top-40 tunes.

But most of all? Colombians prioritize time for family, and smile more often than not at others on the streets. When asked “Cómo te va?”, they answer “Bien, gracias a Dios” even when things are only so-so.

In sum, alongside hardship in many regions, there is just a wealth here of under-reported vitality and warmth.

Promises, Promises

…Suffice it to say, then, I will be talking a lot about Colombia in these columns. Obviously I will tackle its approaches to faith, but this itself ties into so much else. To understand the role of spirituality here, one needs to understand the state of its republic. Oh, and the country’s attempts at restorative justice. And how it’s coping with the Venezuelan refugee crisis. And of course, its transition from the Western-hemisphere country with the longest civil war to an economy of lasting peace.

These columns will also address life in a culture with a different brand of machista, and a culture where it is not illegal to be industriously poor: where children are not taken from destitute parents, but trundle along with them as they panhandle day and night. I will talk, too, about privatization in a culture where litigation doesn’t have the same stranglehold as in North America. Where fear of lawsuits–for better and for worse–does not dictate how people maintain urban spaces, or appropriate copyrighted materials. Where people can spontaneously open up shop to make extra money for their families.

Why should any of this matter to a North American or European reader? Ideally, these posts will offer vital reminder that our discourses are not the only discourses of note. Our ways of being, not the only ways to be. In recent years, for instance, Western atheism has been swept into nationalistic rhetoric around supposed “culture wars.” For this secular humanist, it has been quite painful to see the term “atheism” thus come to represent far more than it should. To see it used as a calling card of a different sort of tribalism, with its own implicit beliefs about socioeconomic and political realities.

When did incuriosity about the broader world supplant the sort of wonder that our ever-unfolding cosmology should especially allow for?

So, yes, I think we stand to learn from other cultural approaches to problems often locked in North American binaries. And I think that Colombia, in particular, is a striking point of comparison on a number of relevant accords. Not a perfect comparison, granted! And hardly an example of perfection, either! But both similar and different enough that it might just disrupt a kind of North American thinking that sometimes feels inevitable.

In my next post, then, I’m going to use Colombia to demonstrate some of the secular storytelling I hope to advance here. In particular, I want to tell you a story about that name, and the Netflix sensation built around it. I want to show you what our fixation on this name says about the state of North American discourse–and where that status quo can be disrupted.

Because–let me just say this, for now–the flaw in current North American storytelling about Colombia is the same flaw that emerges in our willingness to buy into “Are you for Nazis or against Nazis?” as the central moral question of our era. It’s the same flaw we’re led towards in ever-so-many news cycles whirling past us.

Yet it needn’t exist. Whatever faith/non-faith tradition we hail from, we have it in ourselves to be better humanists. To be humanists who can set aside our turn-of-the-century pedantry and face, together, the real challenges of our age.

To improve, though, we need to recognize how much binary thinking, and an overconfidence in objectivity, diminishes us all.

Thank you for joining me in the conversation.

I look forward to where it takes us in the months and years ahead.

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