The False Dichotomy of Conflicting Ideas

The struggle for ideological simplicity forces a polarization in our public dialog that doesn’t match reality. This is happening constantly, all around us, on multiple topics.

Essentially, when someone has an opinion and they are presented with an alternative view, the conclusion they draw is that either they’re right, or I’m right, and since I’m right they must be wrong. The most advanced among us sometimes remain open to the other person being correct, and that perhaps we should change our opinion, but lately this approach has been rare.

The move that most seem unable to make is to realize that life is often a hybrid. This is not to say that it’s somewhere in the middle, but rather that many different things are true at the same time.

Here are some examples where people seem compelled to see the world as one or the other:

  • If women don’t represent 50% of all jobs it means there is systemic gender bias against them because their own preferences are obviously not a factor. Or, all of disparity in representation in the field must be because of their preferences, and none of it due to discrimination, because many women clearly don’t want to work in tech.

  • Islam can’t be source of beauty and peace because I’ve seen it be a source of hatred and death. Or, Islam can’t be a source of hatred of death, because I’ve seen it inspire love and peace.

  • The regressive left is harming the country, so any points that they make must be incorrect. Or, the left is always correct in whatever it fights for, so anyone against anything labeled as left must be trying to harm the world.

What seems clear to me is that the left is generally trying to do the right thing, and that many of its efforts are righteous. It’s also true that the regressive left become toxic to itself on many points, and that conservatives have something to add to the morality and happiness conversation that is not being heard by the left.

It also seems evident that Islam is simultaneously a source of medieval hatred as well as profound beauty and harmony. And there is obviously discrimination in the tech world against women—both in letting them in as well as making them feel welcome while they’re there. But it seems equally obvious that work that doesn’t involve interaction with others doesn’t appeal to a large percentage of women.

Let’s review:

  • Women are being discriminated against for, and in, coding jobs.

  • Women don’t appear to want to be coders in the same percentages that men do.

  • We should eliminate all discrimination against any women who do want to work in the field, because they’re just as competent at the job.

  • Islam is a well of primitive thought around mistreatment of women, hating gays, etc.

  • Many Muslims have become, and remain, great people precisely because of Islam.

  • The right has a sickness that needs to be opposed by the left.

  • The left has over-rotated on many issues, and some moderate conservative ideas (currently unicorns) could help us find the center that we all actually need.

Not only do you not have to choose a side on these issues, but you shouldn’t choose one. In—I dare say—most debates like this, the truth is that most sides of the argument are happening simultaneously.

Life isn’t a set of ones and zeroes. It’s nuanced and dirty, and if we are thoughtful people our opinions about the world should mirror that complexity. And If our views don’t have some sort of friction and tension in them we should be very cautious that we’ve taken an easy path and should reconsider.

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Ultimately the problem is intellectual laziness. Nobody wants that friction. They want easy. Fox News is popular largely because it’s so clean. Nothing is more pleasing in the world than knowing exactly what you believe, and that’s precisely what it offers.

Thoughtful people should remain vigilant against positions that produce no discord when they intersect with the world. Such beliefs should be seen as the most dangerous of all, precisely because they are unassailable.

This is what makes an alt-right rally—or a Berkeley mob obstructing unpopular ideas—so dangerous. It’s the fact that they’ve already decided on the matter and have stopped listening.

They’ve made their choice between one or zero, and there’s no need for them to hear about arguments for the opposite. And even less so an argument that the world is not binary in the way they believe.

This oversimplification of thought and position is something to protect yourself against. Don’t let it take you.

The next time you hear many sides of a complex topic, don’t ask which side to take and which side to vilify. Instead try to imagine reality as a hybrid of most or all these truths, and work instead to figure out the percentages.

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