If sleaze journalism has become the paradigm of our time, then the false dichotomy is the favorite tool of the sleaze journalist. “Should the president ‘fess up or should he continue to stonewall?” (Implication: We know he is guilty, we are just arguing about how he should handle it.) Or, “Will the president resign or should he be thrown out of office?” (Implication: He is going to go; the only question is how he is going to go.) Or, “But once the rumor was public, should you have reported it or suppressed it?” (Implication: The rumor was the story, not whether it was true or not. If truth were the question, the proper conduct would be to investigate the rumor.) Journalism seems to be consumed with a need to divide the world into neatly opposed choices.
But it is not just journalism. Our entire world is full of choices between two’s. Either A or B must be the truth. Or…You need to choose: Is it A or B? Or…Well, what are you going to do? A or B? Hot or cold? Light or dark? This or that?
What is really curious about it is that the vast majority of these choices are false to fact! They are theoretical abstractions remote from the world we actually experience.
You are asked a question: Is what he said true or is it false? — The most accurate answer is almost always that it is some of both.
Or another: Is it good or is it bad? — How many things do we really encounter that are wholly good or wholly bad?
Or another: Was his testimony exactly what happened? Just answer yes or no. — Well, no. Not exactly.
Our system of logic loves the two-valued question, even if it does not conform to the real world. The real world is a messy, confused place where each person moves along their own path and perceives reality from their own particular point of view. But our logic relishes things with nice, clean, antithetical boundaries.
If necessary, it creates them.
Why on earth are we like this? Our actuality, too, is a nuanced place built of shades of gray, of subtle gradations of color, while our intellectual world is hard place, full of scissions that artificially separate A from B.
There are hundred of languages and places in this world where the strict two-value question is hard to ask. Places and people whose words deal in nuances and shades of gray because that is the way they apprehend their world.
In truth, their world is not really different from ours. Why, then, do we stubbornly insist on espousing a Procrustean world view? Why do we persist in trying to cram a reluctant reality into narrow, completely theoretical boxes?
Blame it on the Greeks.
Our intellectual world has lots of different pieces of furniture. Turn over a surprising number of them and you find the label, Ελληνικής Κατασκευής (“Made In Greece.” For the fun of it, I e-mailed a guy to find out). Among these you will find the idea of the dichotomy and its cousin, the dilemma.
Today, they mean something a bit different from their original use in Greek Rhetoric. While dichotomy means a natural division into two mutually exclusive parts, it originally meant to cut a whole into two parts. Dilemma now means a choice between two equally undesirable alternatives, but it originally meant to argue from two different assumptions or premises.
What is fascinating to me about the difference between the old and new meanings is that the Greek versions meant to create two different things to argue about while our versions imply that the division is inherent and exclusive — what you might call a Boolean separation.
We can trace this change of version back to the Medieval Scholastics (which some morons have transmogrified into “schoolmen” — they should not be forgiven). Most of us remember them only as those rhetoricians whose art grew so rarified that they held interminable sessions arguing about how many angels could sit on the head of a pin. They are limned as Christian practitioners of pilpul, lost in empty clouds of theory, and history has not treated them kindly.
We may feel that they wasted their talents, but they built up a formidable pattern of thought. Armed with their own special logic, they reveled in making narrow, hairsplitting distinctions. They delighted in creating fastidious categories, hierarchies and systems. In a highly practical time and place, they cherished the value of the theoretical. The great powers of their day feared, but did not respect them.
Most of all the Church, in whose chambers they resided, regarded them with an uneasy wariness. In a world heady with the mushy certainties of blind faith, they insisted upon creating hard edges with the scalpel of a remorseless logic. In a world whose truths were unified by the great Truth, they insisted upon the truth-finding power of human intellectual vivisection. They looked and sounded suspiciously like skeptics, which was but a step away from heresy.
We usually assume that their model of thought, arid and withdrawn, the very archetype of the ivory tower, had died the deserved death of those whose core is found to be empty. That the thundering glower of the church suppressed them and intellectual freedom along with them. Above all, we assume that they died without issue. That their artificial distinctions represented a sterile digression in western thought during the Dark Ages that was long dead before the arrival of the great illumination of the Renaissance.
Maybe, but maybe not.
I would suggest their dissecting, categorizing modes of thought made such an impression that their spiritual descendants occupy every lab, drafting room and computer center in the world. That it was their obsession with ever narrower distinctions that subdivided the day into uniform hours, the hours into minutes and the minutes into seconds. In our intellectual heritance, that same obsession divided the muck into chemicals, the chemicals into elements, the elements into atoms and so on.
They originated the very idea of precision, as we understand it and divided the exact from the merely human.
One of the most fascinating (and ultimately unanswerable) questions in all of western thought is exactly what there was about our ancestors that led, in turn, to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and ultimately to the worldwide triumph of our techno-humanistic way of life.
One can, with considerable speciousness, make claims about the natural superiority of the (white) European culture, about our relative wealth of resources, our precise balance of harsh and mild climates or dozens of other notions. The fact is that peoples in Africa, the Middle East, and most clearly in the Far East made incredibly creative starts down the road to modern technology, only to fail along the way.
For some mystical reason, our serendipitous ancestors, while stumbling endlessly along the way, managed to persist long enough to reach the take-off point of technology and explode across the world. Arguably superior cultures across the world have come to accept the inevitability of our dominance while trying desperately to integrate it with their own ways of life.
Let me suggest that the heart of the technological revolution lies in the mind’s ability to make sharp corners and edges where none had been before. To cleave, to distinguish, to sort and to categorize is to lay the foundation of modern understanding. It is only on that basis that we were able build our creations. There is no more technological act than to separate tick from tock.
Because ours was a Boolean revolution.
In the very act of theoretically parsing A from B, of intellectually detaching them and placing them in opposition to one another, we begin to understand them in a uniquely modern way. That is how we created ON to counter OFF, TRUE to balance FALSE, and 0 to complement 1.
Our dichotomies and the dilemmas we torture ourselves with may be false to fact. They may not conform to reality and they may be subject to endless abuse by the intellectually unscrupulous. Nevertheless, perhaps we should at least tip our hats to those much abused tools and to those Scholastics in their ivory towers who shaped them for us.
They shaped the minds that made our world.