resolution: find more dimensions

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.  



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.  

5 Responses to resolution: find more dimensions

  1. Eric O January 1, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

    I note that your argument on Crowley’s piece, while indulging the partisan ring, is actually not taking the bait toward knee-jerk caterwauling, but stepping aside to consider the ignored participants. Way to school us on how to unmask the careful manipulation of the debate by Cox, et al. Being multi-dimensional, it turns out, actually ends up making one a more effective debater.
    And it makes for a more interesting sport. Brilliant check hook. We enjoyed watching Crowley get spanked.

  2. Steve Munro January 3, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

    I had the same sort of spike on my site with my article about Crowley. On Dec 29, in the middle of the expected holiday lull (not to mention the worst ice storm Toronto has ever seen), page views shot up to 2,213. This continued on Dec 30 with 2,286 although views of my article about Crowley dropped to second place.
    My biggest complaint was the Globe’s misrepresentation both including the sources cited and the characterization of the author as being from a bipartisan think tank when he is, in fact, a known right winger.
    Yes, it is definitely worthwhile unveiling the hidden premises in arguments and the citations used to buttress them (for which thanks to Jarrett). But there are times when it is necessary to simply stand up and say “this is crap” that has no place in “Canada’s National Newspaper”.
    Political argument on the continuum between “A” and “B” is valid, and it is worth reading all points of view if only to hone one’s own position. (Moderating comments on my blog has been invaluable in that regard.)
    But biased misrepresentation has to be called out for what it is. I am quite sure Crowley would have no interest in actual debate because once the props are knocked out from his premise, he does not have a thesis to support on independent merits. Unfortunately, this article is sure to be cited over and over in coming months and years by those who see road building as the solution to every problem.

  3. Jeremy January 3, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

    While it’s true that there’s usually more to an issue than “my opinion” and “the other side”, in many/most cases critical thinking is what leads you to fine tune a specific viewpoint, which may or may not be in line with a popular viewpoint (though I suppose many people decide their opinion without critical thinking). The important thing is to always think critically about new information and opinions and be willing to change your views if that makes sense, as opposed to adopting the dominant idea in our academic and political discourse that progress always means compromising between two distinct viewpoints (those articulated by people with institutional power) and considering nothing else.
    Some questions you have to ask yourself when working with others are how strongly you believe in something, how important it is, and how to weigh that with the potential for progress to be made. That’s not to say I can’t have a very strong opinion or a position from which I won’t budge; just that it’s all complicated. Sometimes there can be solutions outside of a binary framework but not always. That has more to do with political realities than idealism.

  4. David in Ottawa January 5, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

    I think you’re making way too much of the Brian Lee Cowley article, in both this post and the others, especially on the point of the Globe & Mail carrying it. In your first post you even went so far as to categorize his article and his worldview as representing the Globe & Mail’s position, which to me was just as insane as the article you were critiquing.
    I knew from the moment I started reading it that it was opinion, not reporting. For one, it was marked as “Special to the Globe and Mail”. That’s an obvious giveaway. REALLY obvious. Secondly, it was in the ‘Economy Lab’ section. If you navigate to the Economy Lab page, you’ll find a bunch of other like articles on economic topics that are similarly quasi-academic opinion pieces. It’s a modern-day soapbox for economy-related articles.
    I mean, here’s one on the Harper government’s position on carbon taxes. It is marked in the exact same fashion as the Crowley article. Most of the same basic critiques would apply to that article as well, andvirtually every other one on there:
    How long would it have taken you to investigate just what the ‘Economy Lab’ section was, before flying into your own mini-rant about the Globe and Mail? . And I don’t even read the Globe and Mail, so it’s not like I had any particular prior knowledge about what the ‘Economy Lab’ section was all about. If you’re going to write a mini-rant in response to another, you might first want to do a tiny bit of investigating before doing so…
    I hate to say this, but seriously, get a grip. The Globe and Mail published a “though-provoking” article from someone not in its employ and got a discussion going. Isn’t this what a free press is supposed to be doing?

  5. Owen E January 7, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    Perhaps the most important way many of us express our opinions is through elections, which are generally set up as binary decisions (most often – “conservative” vs “progressive”). Those who care more, actively advocate a position or candidate in an election; those who care less, simply vote – but it’s basically binary at the end of the day. This is to a great degree the reason that we have been programmed to think in binary on so many issues.