Recently, my wife and I were listening to an interview on NPR….I can’t even recall the subject….when we were both struck by the response given to a question.  The interviewer asked some sort of normal media “forced choice” kind of question, you know, something like ” what is correct– this thing or that thing?”  Normally, when we hear such a question, we naturally believe we have to answer with A or B.

However, in this case the respondent said something to the effect that “the issue is more nuanced than that, it doesn’t really lend itself to a binary answer.”  We both thought, “what an elegant response to the question”.  In other words, the matter at hand is more complex than something we can answer with one of two ways.

Recognizing Complexity

The fact is, most modern issues are complex.  Complexity means that some system has an interplay of interdependent parts such that when you change one thing in the system, it proceeds to change another thing which then changes another thing and on and on.  Sometimes it comes back and re-alters the thing you started with in a kind of loop.  Frequently, great complexity keeps us from realizing how what we think we want to do will actually impact things in the long run.  When these unexpected things turn bad, we call them “unintended consequences”.

Yet, we humans have a natural tendency to see things in yes-no, right-wrong, black-white kinds of ways.  Our evolutionary history has rewarded us for making quick judgments to pick one choice over another, in moments of crisis these can ensure our survival.  If a boulder is rolling down a hill towards me, my survival counts on my accessing the situation rapidly and making a quick choice to run.  No nuances there.

However as we have continued to evolve, our social systems and issues have grown in such complexity that applying quick “either-or” kinds of responses frequently are not in our best interest.  In other words, future survival requires our evolving the skill of transcending our hardwired tendencies towards black and white thinking and realize that situations are “more nuanced”.

Two Ways of Analyzing the World

There’s an old joke that I have mentioned before… goes like this:  “There are two types of people in the world, those who divide things into two categories and those who don’t.”  The joke is that the one making the statement is telling us which category they are in.

It would be easy to say that some people only use black and white thinking while others realize and weigh the nuances….but that would not be true.  Almost all of us can access and use both ways of viewing the world.  In some cases, I am binary in how I analyze a situation.  In other cases, I realize that the issue doesn’t “lend itself to binary thinking”.

However even though most of us can tap into both ways of seeing things, there does appear to be an evolutionary arc towards higher levels of recognizing complexity.  And, our world experiences tend to show us that some people tend towards either-or thinking while others are more comfortable with complexity.

For example, frequently I have written here about the theory of Spiral Dynamics which points to people evolving through a set sequence of worldviews.  The model does point out that the earlier developmental stages are more black and white in their thinking while the later stages show a growing recognition of the interplay of systems in all.  “Traditional” viewpoints are more either-or. “Cultural Creative” or “integral” viewpoints are more nuanced.

One might also consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how when we are focused on “lower needs” that are crucial to our survival, we easily slip into A or B thinking.  When our basic needs are met, we open ourselves up to higher needs of “self actualization” or “self transcendence” where we are more aware of the interconnectedness of everything and our personal role in that system.

The point is this — as we meet basic needs and free ourselves to evolve to higher ways of seeing and showing up in the world, we become more aware of how things are connected….we transcend either-or kind of thinking….but….and this is a very “big but”….such either-or thinking is always still included within who we are.  We can choose how to see the world.

Analyzing the “Immigration Issue”

As this is being written, we are in the midst of the 2016 US Presidential election.  There are many issues being debated that we could use to highlight the point being made here, but I am going to use the so-called “immigration issue”.

The country contains millions of illegal immigrants. Is this an issue? If so, what should we do about it?

On the one hand, Donald Trump says that he is going to “build a wall between the US and Mexico and make Mexico pay for it” while simultaneously rounding up all the illegal immigrants and deporting them. (According to PEW research, there are about 11 million such individuals although Trump frequently says that the figure is greater.) On the other hand, Hillary Clinton says that she will reduce deportation (even below the rates that Obama has required) as a part of reform efforts while building a “path to citizenship” for those who are already here.

We obviously have an “either-or” choice between their two positions!   But is our own black and white thinking leading us to the one we agree with, or are we viewing and connecting the interplay of nuances as we determine which position to support?

For example, if you say something along the lines of “Americans are losing jobs and wages to other countries and then immigrants are coming here and taking our jobs, so I am supporting Trump”, then you may be using binary thinking.

Or, if you say something along the lines of “these immigrants are doing the work that the rest of us don’t want to do and if we deport them we may both break up families and lose the people who do these jobs, so I am supporting Hillary”, then you may also be using binary thinking.

A more “nuanced” thought process would be a “both and” type of consideration.  Here is a more expanded consideration of the issue (but still admittedly limited!):

Many Americans have seen the loss of their jobs and their standard of living and we need to bring back decent wages for them by finding jobs and bringing back income protections.  What are some of the reasons that have led to the reduction of jobs and earnings for Americans and can we root out and change those conditions?  There may be ways that can do this such as placing incentives on companies to grow jobs in the US and our spending money investing in job training for individuals so they have skills to compete for the new types of work needed.

Attempting to deport 11 million people would be both inhumane but would lead to negative repercussions to our economy.  Many of the jobs being performed by immigrants are not the jobs that most Americans want to perform.  We could experience shortages in certain areas (such as food harvesting) that would lead to increasing the cost of certain products which would negatively impact everyone. In addition, people who are forced to be deported could foster negative feelings towards us and may come back to haunt us.

Building a wall is not only technologically difficult, it would be difficult to make it a true barrier.  But what about the perception of the world towards the US and how could that backfire if we are building such a thing?

Why is it that people leave their countries and come here?  (Note that recent statistics say this trend has slowed down or stopped altogether.)  Instead of deporting people or blocking them from coming here, what would it look like if we helped determine why they were leaving their country and then working with their government to the degree possible to alleviate those conditions?

What is the impact on the culture of the US as more immigrants come here?  Is this causing fear and concern among certain groups and if so, why?  How can we address those fears?

I could go on….and you could add more of your own thoughts on this issue….but I hope the point is made….this is a very complex issue and needs us to transcend our natural tendency to see it in either-or ways.  Whether you support Trump’s or Clinton’s position on the issue is up to you, but the reality is that all humans and all countries are interconnected and our solutions need to realize that.

Humanity Issues

The so-called “immigration issue” is really a “humanity issue”.  When we step back and view things with a “big picture” systems oriented  lens, most issues are. When we transcend either-or thinking, we realize this.

All humans want to feel that that they have a degree of safety and security.  This means that they can live in a country free of harm, have the ability to perform meaningful work that provides a decent standard of living for them.  They need to know that they have a roof over their heads, can get a good education, can walk the streets safely and experience their families staying together growing in love and support for one another.  They can live in a manner that allows them to be all they can be in this lifetime.

This is a need for all humans, no matter where they were born, what race they belong to, what faith they hold.

Real human issues are complex and do not lend themselves to black and white thinking.  Our future evolution depends upon our transcending such ways of viewing the world.

Mark Gilbert


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