Beyond Binary

As political polarization proliferates, it’s beneficial to explore realms of thought that are not limited to left vs. right and us vs. them. Personally, I’m partial to philosophy: it’s impossible to reduce all of philosophical thinking to, say, Epicureans vs. Stoics without ignoring the deep and unique contributions of Platonists, Aristotelians, Taoists, Buddhists, Confucians, Hindus, Christians, humanists, skeptics, existentialists, and many more.

Matters are similar in psychology, populated as it is by Freudians, Jungians, Adlerians, behaviorists, cognitivists, humanists, and adherents of more recent trends like evolutionary psychology and positive psychology.

Or consider music, with its many genres, sub-genres, and practitioners. Even in, say, jazz music you can experience ragtime, dixieland, stride, swing, bebop, hard bop, free jazz, chamber jazz, Latin jazz, gypsy jazz, bossa nova, and many more. The landscape is similar in literature, film, painting, sculpture, and other art-forms.

Yet in the world of politics – especially American politics with its two-party system – we are experiencing what Lee Drutman recently identified as a partisan death spiral. Although his recommended remedies are worth trying, I’d like to suggest something even deeper: ignore politics and immerse yourself in human phenomena that aren’t merely two-sided. Philosophy, psychology, and the arts are fine places to start, especially because each one has its own kind of healing powers and yields its own kind of wisdom. Perhaps if we all became more attuned to finer shades of difference in these domains we’d be less likely to tolerate polarization in politics, too. Or so we can hope.

9 thoughts on “Beyond Binary

  1. I like the idea of transcending dichotomies, many of which are false. Your solution may work in the long run, but I fear in the short run we are doomed to binary divisions, as if we are wriggling on a meat hook.

    By the way, if you interested in transcending styles, I recommend Postmodern Jukebox, a musical group that takes popular songs, even bad ones, and makes them over in new styles, often improving them in the process. All their stuff is available on YouTube.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kurt, thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the music recommendation – those are always welcome.

      A further reflection: the binary divisions we’re experiencing are exacerbated by America’s two-party system. Even though more people are nominally independents than are Democrats or Republicans, the parties receive all the media attention. And despite the cartoon-quality commentary, each party includes many viewpoints and factions. For instance: how much do classical-liberal economic conservatives have in common with an anti-conceptual street brawler like Trump? My friend Adrian Lory identifies seven different political orientations; personally I think there are at least progressive, liberal, moderate, libertarian, populist, conservative, and ultra-conservative even within American politics – leaving aside viewpoints far outside the democratic mainstream like communism (international socialism), fascism (national socialism), aristocracy, and monarchism.

      In any case, even if “we” as a society are doomed to binary divisions, my focus here is on tools and insights that you and I and others as individuals can use to overcome such divisions in our own lives. In my experience, becoming aware of a wider palette of viewpoints can help in this area. I’ll write a dedicated post about that in the near future.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an insightful post that will be lost on many people. Yet they themselves are often living examples of the variety of political views you highlighted. I know of people who have views that could be assigned to the left/right dichotomy yet are held by the same person. For example, I know someone who is pro-gun, concerned about climate change, supports covid-19 lockdowns, votes republican.

    I myself am an issue by issue fellow. Frankly, there is no political party that represents my particular combination of opinions. And I suspect I am not alone.

    Of course, the major contributor to this “Us vs. Them” mentality is the media, both mainstream and social. The constant barrage of hate-filled reportage and rhetoric blaming “them” for the ills of the world, when consumed daily, repeatedly adds to the dichotomy you are discussing.

    One of the practical things one can do is to take a news holiday. Turn off the news for a day and observe the difference in your mood and general outlook. Leave the news off for 3 days and watch what happens. There will be a sense of something missing at first, but then one’s more immediate needs and interests start to fill in one’s mental space. And I can almost guarantee it will be more pleasant than whatever might have been on the news.


    1. Thanks, Peter. I loved that post and will probably steal the phrase “low information diet”. I once saw an interview with Eric Idle of Monty Python fame who claimed he almost never watched the news. To the question “don’t you need to know what’s going on in the world?” he replied, “Nope…I only need to know if a rock is about to land on my head.” Amen!

      Liked by 1 person

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