Binary Divisions

DuskA snowy day, not much accumulation, just a few inches of fluff. Still, the morning reveals a perfect mid-winter snowscape. These mornings seem increasingly endangered, and I was grateful for the snowy day.

A couple of nights ago  I listened to a marvelous essay on BBC Radio Three. The piece by Gwyn Maxwell explored the ways binary thinking, and digital technologies, have diminished our ability to deal with complexity and to show empathy and care.

The essay left me pondering Gwyn’s words. It seems to me that in just and sane cultures people from diverse perspectives can sit together and think through the needs of the community. When folks stop speaking together, and by speaking I also mean listening, violence becomes increasingly likely.

I was reminded of Tolkien’s Ent Moot, or any number of Indigenous practices, ways of speaking together that place a high value on listening thoroughly. These ways of sharing give time to what each person has to say, steadfastly refusing to rush anyone. They stand in exorbitant contrast to our local city council meetings where citizens are lucky to receive two minutes of speaking time, and where it is unlikely any of the counselors will actually be listening. Then there is the din of national politics.

The task is not necessarily to agree. Rather, the great need is to carefully compare notes, and to find the shared commitment needed to address the real needs of the community. Often this means taking the time to address the fears, hopes, aspirations, and dreams of those in the room, and to make sure that everyone who wants to be is in the room. Only then can we begin to find a way forward towards shared vision and healing.

This practice of listening carefully and acting for the common good has never been easy. Often, the needs and aspirations of community members appear to be irretrievably at odds. I often think about the desire on the part of African Americans and Native Americans to be truly free, and to actively participate in the social and political life of the country. This desire has repeatedly come up against a profound fear on the part of many white people, in both the south and the north, who were desperately afraid more engagement by people of color would diminish European-American culture and ways of life.

By the 1960’s something had to give. Images of police and white supremacist violence, shown nightly on national television, did much to highlight the brutality of segregation, and the desperation of may in Native America, and little to address the deep fears that saturated white communities. Television made civil rights changes inevitable, but did not recognize the profound polarities that divided people along racial and ethnic lines.  In a sense, only one story was being told, and there proved to be few opportunities for everyone involved to compare notes and address the real concerns of both sides.

One may argue that the absence of real, straightforward, honoring conversation among all the protagonists set the stage for ongoing conflict, and set a place at the table for the profound evil we now confront. Ideology and greed too often trump conversation, encourage a winner-take-all style of governance, and promote violence. As divisions, real and imagined, within our societies deepen, we are sorely challenged to resist binaries and do the challenging work of building communities of conversation and complexity. The alternative is unimaginable violence.


9 thoughts on “Binary Divisions

  1. I don’t know about you Michael but I have noticed everything needs to be shortened, for I and others can’t have long conversations anymore, or write at length, or even send a hand-written note. I blame social media and its speed, but it’s more than that. I think we have too much information, now. And that causes the chaos we are seeing.

  2. Exactly. Complexity is something that is “inefficient”, and our modern culture tries to streamline, codify, and simplify because it makes it easier to move large numbers of people and commodities around. Reducing the complex to the merely complicated means you can just add more linear steps but don’t have to worry about holding contrasting realities simultaneously. We can send a rocket to the moon and bring it back again, but can we as a village help our children reach true maturity in thought, morals and health? Rocket science is complicated. Maturity and wisdom is complex. Business success is complicated. Cultural success is vastly complex.

    1. I often think about complex evolving systems, such as the Amazon. They tend to be both complex and diverse, each attribute becoming increasingly dependent on the other as coevolution plays out over very long time frames. I think of these processes as actually three sided: complexity, diversity, and time.Together, complex self-organizing systems evolve, yielding levels of interaction and interdependence that are almost incomprehensible.

  3. You just gave me an explanation for what I’ve been wondering about – what motivates white supremacists, what are their unmet needs that then lead to over-compensation in the ugly perversions we are witnessing. Thank you.

  4. You are good to express, what is going on Michael 🙂
    I agree so much, when the people are not heard, they will find a way to become heard, no matter if it goes through violence. Peaceful talking and listening demand people are willing to do both and take the needed time for same, which seems even more difficult.

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