The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Rush to Judgment:
Binary Thinking in a Digital Age


I liked a lot Anthony McIntyre’s piece of March 14 on Sinn Fein’s growth and why Gerry Adams will play around with the almost ethereal existence of the IRA until its disbandment suits his designs. And then he will bring the curtain down. Below are some thoughts triggered by Anthony McIntyre’s arguments.

Michael Youlton • 2 April 2004

Contrast and opposition is power. The greater the distinction between one position and another, the stronger its credentials. Humans have an almost universal impulse toward opposition: every analysis of a concept or thing reverts to a sketch of its converse. Since dualism is invariably invoked as a conceptual tool, we don't notice its role in structuring our thoughts, in shaping and finally constraining our understanding. After thousands of years of a binary approach to political, philosophical, economic and sociological problems, we have let our imagination ossify. We are three-dimensional beings imprisoned within a two-dimensional perspective.

Banners and slogans are distilled ideas: they reduce thought to the basics and that is our weakness. In the run-up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, for example, a baldly dualist perspective worldwide changed the terms of debate and made a peaceful resolution impossible. 'No Blood for Oil' chanted ‘our’ side - 'Anti-war Is Pro-terrorism' echoed the hawks. Many wanted a more finely-tuned discussion about the long-term effectiveness of inspections backed by a UN controlled process of checking Saddam and gradually dislodging him from power. Polls taken in February suggested that such a policy had the support of majorities the world over, even in the US, but it was a position that required elaboration and compromise. But real men don’t compromise – like they don’t cry as we all know This alternative position never had a chance. Loud voices hijacked the debate and marched off in opposite directions, bullhorns blaring. Polarized ranting made real discourse impossible. It always does. And tragedy follows invariably. ‘It wasn’t our fault’ my comrades say. Sure it wasn’t.

We shouldn't have been surprised. Dualism is older than organized religion, as old as philosophy. Plato distinguished between forms and the world, the ideal and the actual instantiation. The Bible is an extended rant of good and evil, of us (the chosen people, and then those who follow Christ) against them (Egyptians, Canaanites, Romans, sinners -- a medley of unbelievers). The Old Testament chronicles the mostly horrific tribulations of a tribe: its interactions with other, less durable populations, and its efforts to secure God's blessing (if not reliably his aid), while diverting his wrath to others.The New Testament is an extended meditation on Saints and Sinners (no pun intended – M.Y.) and the paths to heaven and hell.

Zoroaster, who lived in the 6th century B.C., believed the world to be a product of the struggle between Ormuzd and Ahriman, light and wisdom on the one hand, darkness and evil on the other. The Manicheans, a hybrid of Gnostic and Zoroastran thought, with a helping of pre-Islamic Persian pantheism, posited a world perfectly divided between good and evil, the former represented by the spirit and the latter by the body, the two spheres radically and irrevocably distinct. Although Catholicism rejected Platonic dualism in favour of monotheism, a God-centered unity, St. Augustine remained preoccupied with the difference between physical and moral evil, and Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics distinguished between spiritual beings and the bodily matter that the spirit animates. Our very own Catholic hierarchy here continues on the same path.

To jump forward, Descartes, Spinoza and Schopenhauer all grappled with the same duality. The last mentioned believed that it was impossible to quite distinguish between body and soul, and for that reason the nature of consciousness was unknowable. Saxophone players since Woody Allen and soccer players since Maradona have tended to agree.

Methinks (in the form of a summary of the above): The mind is a system of organs of computation designed by natural selection to solve the problems faced by our ancestors in their foraging way of life. There is no soul in the machine. Rather, the machine is constituted to create the effect of a soul; the machine is so finely calibrated that it is conscious of its existence and its potential for nonexistence.

* * *

There have been many efforts at synthesis – all of them unsatisfying. In Buddhist cosmology, yin and yang are opposing forces, similar to the old concepts of good and evil, which comprise an overarching whole, the Tao. Dissatisfaction and ill-health result from an imbalance between these two forces, and happiness is closely tied to an individual's ability to get the balance right. Yet the basic organizing principle of Eastern thought is plainly dualist, for harmony requires a synthesis of yin and yang. Enter Mao Ze Dong and his analysis of ‘Contradiction’.

Then we have Nietzche and many ancient Greek derivatives with their Apollonian (representing order, reason, clarity and harmony) and the Dionysian (denoting wild creativity, free-spirited and usually drunken) principles. Nietzsche believed that the strong-willed could balance Apollonian and Dionysian forces. Very few, except the chosen ones, would be capable of such mastery, usually effected through dedication to a particular art or sport, and then only briefly. At those moments of crystalline balance, the over-man would gain insight and knowledge.

Closer to my heart, Marxists, for all our revolutions, are equally traditionalists in this respect. Dialectical materialism set religion against science, capital against labour, elevating in each case the latter as the determining factor in any inquiry into the structure of society. The kind of idealism Plato advocated was useless if not misleading was it not? Rather, society was better served by an analysis of how material factors, such as the means of production, determine the social and economic structure of society. Lenin followed with his imperialism v revolutionary nationalism and the masses v the vanguard party.

More than ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, political theory remains stubbornly dualist, despite the evidence that there are more than two positions on the political spectrum. If the 20th century taught us anything, it is that political thought cannot be divided neatly into left and right, good or evil or right and wrong. Indeed, the political landscape is less a continuum than a circle, with the fascist right and the revolutionary left staring at each other on the dark side of an increasingly unpleasant territory that is now adjacent to the fundamentalist domain.

Influenced by many of my teachers, I group thinkers as either hedgehogs or foxes: hedgehogs know lots and lots about one big thing, while foxes know many things. John Updike divides all humanity into rabbits and bulls. Rabbits dart about to survive while bulls plod on, unwavering and always certain about rights and wrongs, e.g. the recent debate in ‘The ‘Blanket’ between Ruddy and McCann re: the Ardoyne suicides).

I don’t believe in Platonic hedgehogs anymore, nor do I dream of thoroughbred rabbits. Except for the true believers, that I have learnt to distrust, we are all mutts. Everyone, going about their daily lives, will be both a taurine rabbit and a twitchy-nosed bovine. A healthy society understands that there are no pure positive and negative liberties, that free speech means little for the starving and the exploited, that violence is part of the human condition.

Dualism may be hardwired into our genes. The chemical structure of DNA is helical, two strings of sugar phosphates wound round each other and connected by supporting trusses of hydrogen, dangerous if detached or misaligned. Watson and Crick understood that the binary nature of DNA was its critical trait:

The novel feature of the structure is the manner in which the two chains are held together by the... bases...[which] are joined together in pairs, a single base from one chain being hydrogen-bonded to a single base from the other chain, so that the two lie side by side... Only specific pairs of bases can bond together. ... [Since] only specific pairs of bases can be formed, it follows that if the sequence of bases on one chain is given, then the sequence on the other chain is automatically determined....the specific pairing….immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

The DNA influencing the way we think? Why not? Natural selection operates upon genes, not species, so the evolutionary success of the genes we cart around with us -- or, more accurately, the genes which utilize humans as a useful reproductive vessel -- may be attributable to the kinds of thoughts they determine. Humans may not be walking and talking dualists, but genes certainly are.

I accept that dualism lies at the heart of life. It should not then be surprising that given the chance to build the ultimate machine, we based it on zeros and ones. Just as the DNA structure determines replication and reproduction -- the laws of life -- computer code controls software and, more broadly, cyberspace. As written constitutions identify and protect values, computer software preserves certain values at the expense of others. Code is law. And code, at heart, is binary.

* * *

I accept fully, therefore, that our genetic and computer codes may be dualistic, but I’m convinced our thinking must not be. Dualism, which originated as a theory about the structure of the world, has calcified into an analytical set piece.

We must find another model. We must bring a multivalent tool to bear on political, sociological, philosophical or economic issues. It would be rigorously open-minded, continuously recalibrated. It would cast dichotomies as guideposts rather than fenced-in camps. It would be vibrantly relational, a cross-pollinating perspective yielding imaginative solutions rather than deadening, zero-sum compromises.

The desperation that dualism yields, particularly in the political arena is a beginning. For or against Sinn Fein? Is Al-Qaeda good or bad? It is there, in this type of situation, that a multivalent tool would be most welcome and useful. As states mature, political voices accrete into major parties because they are unable to wield significant influence outside them. Opinions that don't advance a party's current strategy are shunted. A broad coalition -- a big tent -- is usually an ineffectual one. Just consider the endearing Mr. Joschka Fischer, an old friend from the barricades, now Germany's foreign Minister, faithfully serving Schroeder's Social Democrats. Or the recently evicted from power Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis – a self- confessed terrorist bomber during the time of the Greek colonels, a President of the EU – just before Bertie! Did Ahern know about the hundreds of thousanfds filched by his cronies or did he not? Anthony’s piece on Gerry Adams still rings in my ears. Was he or was he not in the IRA? As if that was what mattered in Adams’ and Sinn Fein’s current political trajectory.

In the future, all politics will be global. Against the empire. Before then, we must strive to draw political issues as broadly as possible. In the short term, this will make solutions more difficult by increasing the complexity of any acceptable compromise. It's always easier to cut a side deal; remember the popularity of the smoke-filled antechamber. But the plans and compromises brokered there don't long outlast the cigars. Or the sparkling water bottles now that smoking has become illegal down in the 26 Counties.

* * *

It would be easy enough to dismiss this call for a new way of thinking as starry-eyed idealism, but an important piece of the foundation has already been laid. Few believe anymore that the technological revolution will bring peace, love and understanding. However, we must accept that it has already yielded a freer, more open society, one in which more people have access to more information, possessed of the tools necessary to both contribute to the community and succeed within it. The Net most certainly will not change the world -- the millennium and the millennial global village market seems a long way behind us now -- but technology and globalisation will make broad, relational thinking increasingly easy to understand, even necessary.

The need for a more imaginative mindset is pressing, even urgent. There is no life at the poles, or at least not much of it. The action is south of the Arctic and north of the Southern Ocean. We live there; we must think there as well. Just as the beauty of black & white photography lies less in pure blacks and perfect whites than in the 11-tone gray scale, we must learn to think across a continuum.

The power of an Adams (not Gerry – Ansel) print is less in the intrinsic majesty of a building that is photographed thousands of times each day, than in the mastery of the zone system, a rigorously calibrated method of controlling exposure, development and printing to maximize range and density. The zone system is famously difficult. Adams used it to locate as many as 25 grey tones, but most photographers have happily abandoned the zone system in favour of the tinkering pleasures of Adobe Photoshop – a binary image editing software. Cheaper and more functional – is it not?

As global citizens, however, we don't have that luxury. We must think broadly on an open plane. That will require courage and, like Beckham, a sense of where we are. We don't unfortunately think that way, neither does he for that matter! But we should.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

5 April 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


Following the True Tradition
Eamonn McCann


Sinn Fein - Sold a Pup: Martin Cunningham Interviewed
Anthony McIntyre


Going to the Flix
Brian Mór


Reports and Inquiries
George Young


State Department Flip-flop to Offset Cory?

Sean Mc Manus


Updating Capitalist Rule
Liam O'Ruairc


The Rush to Judgement: Binary Thinking in a Digital Age
Michael Youlton


"Poor people can't be engineers" - Free Market Corruption, Neo-Liberal Pretexts
Toni Solo


28 March 2004


Trials Under the Shadow of Irish Emergency Laws
Marianne Quoirin


Sinn Fein A Dictatorship: Martin Cunningham Interviewed
Anthony McIntyre


How to Get to 2016
Brian Mór


Desert Pong

Eamonn McCann


Reading the Future from the Past
Mick Hall


Bush in Haiti: Operation Enduring Misery
Brian Kelly


No Promise, No Hope?
Danielle Ni Dhighe




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