Here's a new year's resolution that would help everyone in transit and sustainable urbanism.
Now and then, I will step outside of the binarisms that energize me.
Or perhaps more simply,
I will find and explore more dimensions.
This is not vague spiritualist babble. Here's what I mean.
A binary conflict (or binarism, or dualism) is simply a pair of opposites that engender strong feels of attraction or repulsion toward one end or the other: Capitalism vs socialism. Competitive vs collaborative. The underclass vs the overlords. Labor vs. management. Car-centered thinking vs. sustainable transport options. Buses vs. trains.
If you have a strong attraction to one of these poles over the other, then whatever the conflict is, it's really "us vs them". And that engenders excitement. If the "us vs them" binarism did not fundamentally animate us to action and joy and devotion, nobody would care about sports.
Here's why I'm thinking about this:
This blog normally putters along around 2000 pageviews per day, more when I post more often, lower in the holidays. Now and then, though, I take on some piece of journalism that expresses ignorance about the whole project of creating viable alternatives to the private car. I did that on December 29, making an example of Brian Lee Crowley's anti-transit rant, and of the Globe and Mail for publishing it without fact-checking and without marking it as opinion.
(As I wrote that last sentence, my pulse went up a bit. That's part of my point. Bear with me.)
I didn't promote this post more than any other, but Twitter exploded with retweets and and favoriting, driving traffic to be blog. Troops briefly rallied to my side. Why? I had stepped into a known position in an already-mapped binary conflict between people who believe in sustainable transportation options and people who advocate car-centered thinking.1 So it was easy. It drove traffic. It was fun watching all that approval pile up.
But remember when George W. Bush said "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists"? If you think of that spatially, he was saying: "the universe consists of only one dimension, and along that dimension there are two poles with nothing in the middle." These are the two foundational assertions of the polarizer who invests in binary conflict as a way of life:
- All meaningful points of view are on the line between A and B.
… and then, as it heats up …
- There is not even a spectrum of options between A and B. There are only the extremes.
Polarization is both claustrophobic and deafening. If you're stuck in the binarism of "sustainable transport vs car-dependence" to the point that you can't hear someone who's thinking "liberty vs control," you're trapped. It's no better than being stuck in "labor vs management" or "poor vs rich". Critical thinking, the kind that makes us smarter, is multi-dimensional. It may try on a binarism, see how it works, even advocate it as practically useful for certain purposes. But it knows how to consider other binarisms, try them on, and it knows that they're all approximations of what really matters.
The catch, of course, is that action requires some loss of awareness.
Watch a cat. Cats have an awake and scanning state where they are aware of a three dimensional environment. But then they get interested in something: food, prey. As the cat's pulse rises, its focus narrows, and at the end, when it's ready to pounce, its world is virtually one-dimensional and polarized: me and the thing I want.
Briefly losing awareness of multiple dimensions seems almost inseparable from action. (I explored this idea more here, when I argued that considers every possible perspective in detail is never an action plan.)
Binary conflict rallies the troops. Binary conflict raises hell. But it's the opposite of critical thinking; it's one-dimensional, claustrophobic. There's nothing wrong with it, but we have to be able to move back and forth between binary conflict and broader, more open thinking. Ultimately, we have to be able to choose to do it, consciously.
In the moments between the bouts of us vs. them conflict, step into another dimension. It's still hard for me too, so it's my resolution for 2014. Feel free to join me.
1 although the absence of widely accepted terms for either of these positions suggests a certain space inside the binarism, perhaps other dimensions waiting to be released. You could also argue that my specific suggestions in that post were in the spirit of this one, though I'm not sure that's why it was so popular.