There are two types of people in the world: those who think in binaries…. And then there’s everybody else.

Whilst gender may be the issue around which the idea of non-binariness is becoming familiar, (an overdue recognition of the variety of individual experience) it is worth pondering just how much more non-binary we could all be, in relation to every issue.

We have evolved in a beautifully rich, complex, unpredictable swirling universe in which temporary states of order (like galaxies, planets, eco-systems and the species that depend on them) have emerged from the great beautiful formless underlying chaos of existence.

Faced with such an immense, unpredictable world, it is little wonder that humans have so often sought to withdraw into simplifications in a desperate search for certainty. Religion is probably the greatest example of the drug of certainty to which humans are so easily addicted. But the addiction to certainty is widespread in the form of rigid belief systems, and an obsession with being right. Complex social and political issues routinely get reduced to simplistic binaries that obstruct our capacity to understand and respond effectively.

Maybe it’s because we have a left and a right side that binary thinking seems so natural to humans, (and maybe that’s why Octopus have such large brains), but it isn’t an adequate way to carve up the world around us. Simple binaries not only misrepresent the real diversity out there, they are also a tool for manipulating how we think. Political propaganda thrives on creating false binaries to corral people to one side or another. Them vs us, the virtue signalling self vs the deficient other, the true believers vs the heretics, the noble citizen vs the deviant. Our social media echo chambers reinforce these divisions and modern life provides a constant reminder of the risk descending into this bonfire of the certainties.

The world is not neatly divided into binary couplets like oppressor/ oppressed; victim/perpetrator; ethical/unethical; goodies /baddies, but these binaries all serve to suppress discussion about the complexities, nuances and context. The Old George W Bush trick of saying ‘you are either with us or against us’ is a manipulative device to quash debate. Sadly, once people take up their position on one side or another of these binaries they often will not tolerate any genuine inquiry, or any alternative position, much less one that seeks to dissolve the binary itself.

Sadly, our use of binaries disables us from investigating a complex problem properly and working towards an effective response. For example, If we get stuck in a binary argument about whether it is overpopulation or inequality, that is destroying the planet, we lose sight of the problem itself, and the many inter-connected causes of our predicament and the many ways we could address it.

We live in an ever-changing complex universe, in which each set of current conditions lays the groundwork for the emergence of the next. Part of our problem lies not just in binary thinking, but in the broader concept of linear thinking. The very idea that history is a single story unfolding along a trajectory of simple cause and effect. As though there is a single path unfolding and that we can control and engineer our future. These are control fantasies, and frequently politics involves pitting one set of control fantasies against another. A politics based on smashing something and replacing it with a new utopian dream, has led to massive bloodshed and misery in the past and will again until we accept that we are all in this together and that even collectively we only have just so much control of our where we are heading. Whatever system we create holds within it the seeds of its own breakdown, and in that breakdown are the seeds of the next emergent state.

‘Truth’ and certainty are illusory commodities sold to us by religion, by fascism and other doctrinaire politics, by conspiracy theorists, new age gurus, charlatans and all manner of manipulators.

But critiquing the false certainty of binaries, linearity and capital T truth does not mean that we have to let go of empiricism, the possibility of evidence, and strategically informed responsiveness, quite the contrary. Once we get away from the mind-numbing need have a solid answer one way or another to any given problem, we move into the world of curiosity in which we are free to seek further information and to experiment with new ways of approaching it. Some people use science to seek certainty but science itself does not deal in certainties but in curiosity and in evidence. The conditions can change, new evidence can emerge and old certainties can crumble.

Our society no less than our wider universe is an ever-changing complex adaptive system, and we have the ability to contribute to change in every moment in numerous ways large and small, individually and collectively. We will never know the full picture, as it keeps changing and evolving anyway.

It is for this reason that we are better off basing our political instincts on our deeper values, rather than upon certainties and projected outcomes, and remaining nimble change agents open always, questioning always and alert to opportunity. We will always be facing challenges, there will always be problems to address, there will always be repair needed and renewal to nourish. We have no real choice but to work with what is, but if we keep our mind open to what is emergent we have a focus for our experimentation, our values and our hope.


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