Watching the virulent reaction of the Nigerian Government to any form of critique made me realize how much we engage in binary thinking. Binary thinking is when we construct polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites: Good and Evil; Predators and Preys; Angels and Demons; Sun and Rain; Old and Young; God and Devil; Rude and Respectful. This habit of grouping things in starkly opposite groups is most possibly one ingrained in us for a good reason. Why? Back in the perilous early ages, most of the snap decisions our ancestors were forced to make had to be efficiently sorted out into binary pairs: predator or non-predator, ally or foe, food or non-food and so on. It was efficient as it helped our ancestors think on their feet and make snap decisions that possibly saved their lives.
Drawbacks of Binary Thinking
The drawbacks of binary perspective were never an issue until humans advanced cognitively and higher reasoning became more important. In current times of multipart relationships and an increasingly interconnected world, the use of complex thinking becomes more important than rapid gut instinct.
Oversimplification of Complexity
Yet, the instinct to make those quick extreme classifications lies underneath the surface. And they exhibit themselves more frequently in countries that struggle for basic needs such as food and security. A struggle for the basics draws out the basic mindset. So with a 61% poverty rate, it’s easy to understand why such a mindset is widespread in Nigeria. Here’s a few we make: The North is either full of Boko Haram members or freedom fighters; no average Northern citizens who just want a normal life. President Jonathan either has friends or has enemies; no concerned individual has a right to critique anyone in Government without an ulterior motive. Essentially, we classify every action as either good or bad and the context never matters. It creates a very limited perspective that prevents one from taking in the whole data along with the context. We reduce the complexities of life to a Hollywood/Nollywood script where the bad guys are ugly, loathsome, and vile, while the good guys are handsome, charismatic and pure.
Creation of Worse Classifications
Moreover, when we create neutral binary classifications, we run the risk of having negative sub-classifications creep in. In Nigeria, men and women: strong and weak. Igbo and Hausa: *insert your negative ethnic extreme biases here*. So what might start off as an innocuous attempt to simplify things might metamorphoses into something more sinister.
Lack of Creativity
Good decision makers have the ability to see between and past the lines: you can call this creativity. Binary thinking prevents one from seeing the myriad of choices that exists; instead, it limits one to their primary selection. In Nigeria, when policies fail to materialize any real results, we dump them in their entirety; when a simple modification or tweak might have been enough to actualize results. How can a nation have a long-term plan when each successive administration reviles that of the previous and has a new ‘agenda’ of its own?
Curtailing our Binary Perspective
First, to fight back against such binary mindset, we need to recognize the binaries that are imbibed in our processes. Second, when we come across such binaries, we need to actively search for a third option. Usually, finding the third makes it easy to see that there’s a whole lot more options/classification we fail to consider. Then, we’re less likely to vociferously hold on to our own opinions while vilifying contrary opinions. There’s two popular sides of a coin…and there’s the middle.