It is Necessary to Push Back on Partisans Who Insist on Binary Thinking

A general principle is that all cognitive and emotional awareness operates by a binary-processing system. This “base-two” compass is an integral part of the phenomenology of the mind. The mind has a normal, innate predilection for establishing pairs, emerging as dynamic opposites, and then using these to discover meaningful relationships and to establish policies. The “two-ness” proposed here is an emotional polarization between distortions: ideal versus negativity. For example, envy’s polarizations trigger all forms of hatred, fear, inordinate anxiety, suspiciousness, and pessimism. Any possible good experience is devalued. Negativity takes the form of seeing “black spots” on what is perceived. The mind perceptually and conceptually grasps reality as if it comprised polar contrasts – extremely positive or extremely negative. Evaluative discrimination when not extreme alerts us to what is safe versus unsafe, pleasant versus unpleasant, good and bad, and adaptive versus maladaptive.

Envy integrates both emotional and cognitive frames of reference early in development. Envy adds a lasting attitudinal bias to all mental perspectives throughout life. Put differently, envy provides the capacity to notice differences and impute value judgments of superior versus inferior to that recognition of difference. Over time, this sets up strong personal attitudes that reinforce values and preferences – what is important and less important. These then drive behavior and contribute to how choices are made – consciously, unconsciously, and reflexively. ‘Healthy’ groups are not those that avoid conflict and never fall prey to binary thinking and polarization. This is impossible in any case and would arrest progress and development even if it were possible. Rather, healthy groups are those that allow a third element to emerge. With the arrival of a third element, the dynamic shifts from a binary one to – at least potentially – a more balanced and inclusive one.1

Neoliberalism seeks to reduce the role of government through policies that maximize individuals’ responsibility by meeting their own needs through their labor market participation. Such policies reflect an ideological preference for private control over governmental expenditures that developed in response to economic instability and various social and political challenges to governmental authority starting in the 1960s and 70s.  Support for neoliberal policy grew with a period of reduced taxation and tremendous capital growth for many wealthier middle and upper class citizens. Many poorer citizens were not able to benefit from this period of growth but often supported neoliberal policy reform based on rhetoric that espouses citizens can achieve greater independence and economic self-sufficiency by incentivizing paid labor. This support can partly be explained by power differentials between the state and economically marginalized citizens that is exacerbated in this context where discourses of economic stability and individual responsibility are painted as binary to redistribution and welfare expenditures.2

Kierkegaard claims everyone harbors a fear of being alone, forgotten by God, overlooked by his friends and relatives. He concluded that it was in our anxiety that we come to understand feeling that we are free, that the possibilities are endless. Even though anxiety can ignite all kinds of transgressions and maladaptive behavior, we should recognize it as a dual force that can be both destructive and generative, depending upon how we approach it. Kierkegaard argues anxiety is essential for creativity – if there were no possibilities there would be no anxiety. The way we negotiate anxiety plays no small part in shaping our lives and character. The weakness of the mass media remains an inability to transmit tacit knowledge and an inability to deal with complex issues, so they tend to focus on the unusual or sensational, and the promotion of anxiety and fear. Confirmation-bias draws us in to the one-sided outlets, and the cognitive dissonance pushes us away from conflicting ideas.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett discovered that the rise in income inequality in a country, a region, or even a city correlates significantly with most psychosocial health indicators. The rise of income inequality is a typical feature of a neoliberal society. If we consider the consequences of neoliberalism on a more psychological level, it is not too farfetched to say that neoliberalism turns us into competitive individualists. If you combine that with an economic meritocracy, you create a system of winners and losers, on an individual level. The step towards loneliness, anxiety, and depression is very small in such a binary system. Such a system makes us unhappy because we are social animals, we need one another, and we thrive in groups. But also, because self-fulfillment of the individual, the right of everyone to achieve their own unique way of being human, needs social justice, sustainability and security.  The neoliberal system goes against that crucial aspect.

“Binary choice” is the phrase Wisconsin Republican, Paul Ryan, used during the 2016 presidential election to describe his reason for supporting Trump over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Ryan acknowledged throughout the campaign that both candidates were flawed but Trump was the better of two options, the only one who would help Republicans advance their legislative agenda. “It really comes down to a binary choice,” the speaker said during his weekly press conference about moving forward with the GOP’s plan or leaving in place the 2010 health care law. Unfortunately, one doesn’t have the luxury of equivocation. President Donald Trump is forcing everyone to take a position on what kind of America this is going to be — in essence, to define again what American “nationalism” means. Trump has given Americans a binary choice: Either stand with American principles, which in this case means standing in defense of the Squad, or equivocate, which means standing with Trump and white nationalism.

The National Rifle Association is ‘successful’ at forcing ‘mythic binary choice’ on gun control. One can be pro-second amendment and for common sense gun reform.  One can be a gun-owner and want leaders to do something. However, the NRA has managed to use, what you could describe as the myth of its power, to cower politicians into fear and make the debate a false binary choice: you are either for the Second Amendment or you are against it, you are either against all gun reforms or you want to take away everyone’s guns. More and more feel “strongly” that action on this front has been inadequate. Many see a third option: Universal background checks with integrated databases, limiting gun sales to only adults over twenty-one, banning bump stocks, banning high capacity magazines. Having much stricter requirements for buying semi-automatic assault rifles also seem to have broad support.

Justin Amash from Michigan complains, “With little genuine debate on policy happening in Congress, party leaders distract and divide the public by exploiting wedge issues and waging pointless messaging wars. These strategies fuel mistrust and anger, leading millions of people to take to social media to express contempt for their political opponents, with the media magnifying the most extreme voices.” The binary nature of partisanship in our system echoes every other social conflict we have and rolls them into one sweeping, deafening, zero-sum contest for the soul of the nation, making our political system unworkable. Amash’s identification that the two-party system is in a “partisan death spiral” – cries out for more political parties rather than get rid of partisanship. The DeVos family announcement that they would no longer contribute to the Amash’s campaign coincides with his criticism of the education secretary’s boss. Can Justin Amash break binary politics in Washington?

The effect of seeing politics as a polarized binary field is that any other possibility for organization is not given a strong voice, or even a place at the table, and most candidates must align themselves within the spectrum of that binary. Simple examples as they play out in US politics, include issues such as “pro-Life” vs. “pro-choice”, where there is no real room to accommodate within the system someone who says “Hey, let’s focus on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies”. If the discussion is about taxes, the options are “tax more” and “tax less”. Creative solutions, which do not fit into that system do not fit into the binary and are not heard. In addition, any politician who does not match the binary on all hot button issues is marginalized and voters who do not match are left out. Justin Amash announces that he is leaving the Republican Party, his political home of the last ten years.

Human life is an emotional roller coaster, and when confronting emotionally charged events, individuals, and groups instinctively frame their predicaments in a binary way – as a polarity encompassing a dimension of choice with two mutually exclusive alternatives. Events are thus construed as dilemmas to be resolved in favor of one alternative or the other. However, the inherent tension leading to polarization conceals an important developmental opportunity, if we “hold” the tension long enough to permit exploration, differentiation, and resolution by a third mediating element. However, the two-party system in America means that the political process essentially remains binary and produces ever less cross-partisan coalition building.  Politics is not binary. The gerrymandering of election districts and the importance of campaign finance both protect incumbents in an anti-democratic manner. They diminish, if not eliminate, the relevance or attractiveness of middle-of-the-road candidates standing for election in either party. They only further cement the ossification of the U.S. political process.

1  Frank J. Ninivaggi.  (21 June 2015) “Twoness:” the Mind’s Binary Code.

2 Sarah Parker Harris, Randall Owen, Karen R Fisher, Robert Gould. Human Rights and Neoliberalism in Australian Welfare to Work Policy: Experiences and Perceptions of People with Disabilities and Disability Stakeholders.

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