Get in the Grey

All metaphors aside, a black-and-white thinker I am definitely not. I remain dedicated to the grey, and happily so. Yet I live in a world of black-and-white thinkers, dichromatic dreamers, and the sort.

That’s not entirely true of course. By no means am I alone out here in the grey. But let’s face it, there are those among us who see things only in extremes. The this-way-or-that-way kind of folks, the ones whose thoughts begin and end on the surface, never going any deeper, for to take a leap of any kind is to fall all the way to the bottom. It’s either the brightness of the surface or the darkness of the ocean depths. There is no twilight, no mesopelagic zone for divers of a this-or-that persuasion.

Such limiting perspectives are more problematic than you might realize. Progress of any kind, whether it involves resolving conflict or securing civil rights, is only ever impeded by two things: greed (including the lust for power) and closed-mindedness (or black-and-white mindedness, if you’d like). With such simplified thinking comes an exaggerated fear of change, and an inability to imagine potential. Black-and-white minds are locked in positions of extremity, and of all the other possibilities that may exist in any particular instance, they see only the complete opposite as the alternative.

Conservatives, Republicans, and other right-wing residents exemplify this type of thinking. In psychological research, individuals with more conservative political attitudes tend to score lower on openness to experience, a personality trait that involves curiosity, a preference for variety and diversity, and imagination. Not surprisingly, it’s also a trait that’s related to greater emotional sensitivity. Black-and-white thinkers are none of these things. It is no surprise, then, that conservatives so frequently tout the slippery slope argument when faced with the possibility of change. Gay marriage should not be legalized because it’s a slippery slope that will lead to marriage between people and animals, or people and inanimate objects. What!? (See this article titled, Bad Arguments against Gay Marriage.) The banning of assault weapons and machine guns is a slippery slope because it will lead to the banning of all firearms. Really? Change of any kind is just bad, simply because it is different; and importantly, it is feared. Historically (and presently), such fear is easily exploited, with black-and-white thinkers bowing to anyone who asserts the power to resolve the greyness.

For black-and-white thinkers, different is black when you’re white, or white when you’re black, making progress an inherently flawed and problematic notion. We live in a world where, despite having equal rights to men in the developed world, women continue to be pigeon-holed as wives, homemakers, and caretakers; where decades following the civil rights movement and an end to racial segregation, many individuals still react negatively to interracial dating (despite little evidence that race itself is even a valid construct); where regardless of the legalization of gay marriage in Canada and many parts of the U.S. (and the world), people still believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with being gay. (And if you don’t believe that any of these attitudes still exist, you should step outside your echo-chamber once in a while.) Such attitudes can all be attributed to black-and-white thinking, and although fundamentalism and religion also play a role, I believe these things are mere proxies for this way of thinking. Greyness is seldom accompanied by such rigid beliefs and morals.

The implications don’t end with politics. They penetrate the smallest details and musings of our everyday existence. I would go so far as to say that the most successful (and functional) life requires abandonment of black-and-white perspectives entirely. There is not a trauma overcome, nor a rocky relationship endured, without a little grey. Indeed, to overcome adversity (and to grow from it) necessitates the exploration and consideration of alternatives, potentials, and possibilities.

But we can learn a thing or two from the black-and-whiters. They remind us that we live in a world that need seldom be dichotomized. Reality is very rarely, despite all narrow mindsets and biases, as simple as this or that. They also show us what it is like to be closed-minded, and the potential hazards of such limited ways of looking at things. They put human progress into perspective by revealing to us what must be overcome—unfortunately, what may take millennia to overcome. We are, after all, still evolving, trapped in a never-ending twilight of biological and intellectual development, and it’s a slow-go. But if survival of the fittest should play any role, black-and-white thinking will undoubtedly fade over time, squeezed out of existence by Darwinian forces that recognize black-and-white thinking for the weaker and less adaptive approach that it is.

From the Treaty of Versailles to the abolition of slavery; from the invention of the wheel to that of the iPhone, there are few human feats that have occurred in this world without flexibility, acceptance of diversity, and a consideration for alternative possibilities and potentials. Whatever you do in this life, get in the grey. Give ideals and in-betweens a chance, and leave behind the black and white chains that surely bind you.

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