Marek Warszawski

Right or wrong. Black or white. Red or blue. Binary thinking only serves to polarize us

Ever wonder why we make New Year’s resolutions?

Many people make New Year's resolutions every year but very few stick to them. Humans have been making New Year's resolutions for thousands of years. Find out where they originated.
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Many people make New Year's resolutions every year but very few stick to them. Humans have been making New Year's resolutions for thousands of years. Find out where they originated.

Lose 10 pounds and help reduce binary thinking.

Those are my two New Year’s resolutions for 2019, and only one requires further explanation. Pass the mashed potatoes and gravy.

What do I mean by binary thinking? I mean people who allow the 100 billion exquisitely designed brain cells residing inside their noggins to operate with the complexity of a light switch.

On or off. Black or white. Right or wrong. Liberal or conservative. Red or blue. My tribe or yours.

Minds with no willingness (or is that capability?) to process multiple, competing thoughts. That have become so self-righteous they cannot accept neutral, nonjudgmental facts that may run counter to their prejudiced world view.

Binary thinking is our national affliction. It’s the primary reason our discourse on everything from politics to immigration to climate change has become so polarized. And I don’t want to encourage, propagate or even be exposed to it.

As an opinion writer who gets paid to take a stand on controversial topics, my New Year’s resolution presents a practical dilemma.

I’ll certainly need to greatly reduce my time on social media – especially Twitter and Facebook, which are little more than cesspools for light switch minds.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. On Christmas morning, The Bee’s Facebook page linked to an Associated Press news story about an 8-year-old boy who died while in custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

I get that immigration and border security are sensitive subjects. But criminy, a kid died in our government’s care. Yet the reaction felt like a race to the bottom.

“Arrest the parents.”

“If the child’s parents weren’t breaking the law he’d still be alive.”

“But … nobody invited you so …”

“Fresno bee and their left wing bs misleading headline.”

“More libturd fodder.”

Protestors rally to keep families together at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Sacramento on Tuesday, June 19, 2018.

Are these people proud of themselves? Do they hit “enter” on their phones or keyboards and sit there thinking, “Yeah, that’ll show ‘em?” It only shows their shallow, binary mindset.

The vile spews both ways. The next day, Dec. 26, The Bee’s Facebook page linked to an AP story about President Trump’s surprise visit to U.S. military forces serving in Iraq.

And then came the replies:

“I figured his bone spurs would keep him out.”

“He should stay there and support the troops on the front lines.”

“He can stay there, it’s not like he does anything here other than blame Mexicans and support white supremacists.”

“Did he hand out paper towels and play dough?”

President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visited troops in Iraq on Dec. 26. It was Trump’s first time visiting the region. During remarks to troops, Trump defended his decision to pull out of Syria.

In 2019, I resolve to swerve away from this sort of keyboard flatulence. Nor encourage or contribute to it.

Unfortunately, binary thinking is everywhere. When politicians insist their policies are “the right thing to do,” it implies those espoused by their opponents are “wrong.” Doctors tell us certain things are “good” for our health while others are “bad” – even though it’s rarely that simple. Lawyers demand “yes” or “no” answers because they don’t want to leave room for “maybe.” Just about every story has a “hero” and a “villain.”

The biggest problem with binary thinking, besides the divisiveness it perpetuates, is it reduces us to binary decision-making. The whole “if this, then that” mentality doesn’t lead anywhere except into like-minded corners.

We live in a nuanced world, and complex issues require creative, multifaceted solutions. Hardly anything is black or white. But people who only see two sides of any situation (i.e. us vs. them) lose sight of the entire spectrum of gray.

In 2019, I resolve to make my readers, as well as myself, see the grays.

This does not mean I’m going to stop expressing strong opinions. That would go against my nature. As my friend and former Bee colleague John Canzano told me once, “Marek, you have 10 opinions before breakfast.”

It means seeing complex issues from more than just two sides when reporting and writing. Taking extra time to communicate with people who don’t see the world like I do. Showing understanding and expressing empathy.

Honestly, I’d like to think I do a decent job of this already.

In March, before opining about high-speed rail in California, I spent 43 minutes on the phone with someone with an opposing viewpoint, just so I could better perceive where that person was coming from.

After the column published, Assemblyman Jim Patterson thanked me for being fair. He and I may not agree on the merits of high-speed rail (and I’m beginning to doubt whether it’ll ever be built), but at least we better understand each other.

I felt pretty good about that.

New Year’s resolutions are notoriously difficult to keep, and I’ll probably have better luck shedding those 10 pounds than making a dent in binary thinking.

Still, it’s worth a shot. I’ll be ringing in 2019 with diet, exercise and an extra helping of gray nuance.

Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.