Bite sized thought: the binary trap

I wonder a lot about why it’s so damn hard to make effective change in communities.  I think there’s a lot of reasons for that, but some of the hardest to crack are inside our own heads.

One that’s been particularly bothering me lately is our tendency to think of everything as binary- yes and no, Choice A or Choice B, no options, no middle, no other.  A project is a success or a failure, even if one day we will see it as an important stepping stone to something else.  A victim is either a martyred saint or “they had it coming,” even if the thing that made them less than a saint is quite minor. A city or neighborhood undergoing revitalization is a scary place or a rich guy’s shiny play thing. Black hats and white hats.

It’s damaging enough when we attach these kinds of playground stereotypes to people, to political parties, etc.  It might be even more damaging when we attach them to cities and communities– the complex places where we live and work together. 

The greatest damage binary thinking does to communities is that it threatens to stop us in our tracks. It freezes us. If anything we do is either good or bad, who wants to try anything new for fear of turning out to be the Bad?

We all know in our guts that most real world situations are spectrums, sliding patterns, relative degrees of one thing or another. Especially when it comes to cities and neighborhoods, with their interplay of people and fixed places and things that move through them.  Everything changes, and if we’re prudent, we’ll accept that and work within that context.

But far too often, despite that gut-knowledge, we default to the binary.  Black hats for you, white hats for us.  Or we let our politicians, or reporters, or our neighborhood leaders, hack the real world back to a black and white cartoon.  Because it’s easier that way, it gets votes, supporters. Complex stories don’t make the front page, they tell us (even though there isn’t much of a front page any more).

And when we let that happen, we pin one (or both) of our arms behind our back.  We out our own shackles on our feet, because not only can we not see the whole picture, we can’t use the whole range of options either.

In community work, true binary choices don’t usually exist. We have to shift to seeing ranges, spectrums, shades, nuances. 

Like we do in real life.

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