Radical media, politics and culture.

John Michael Greer, The Trouble with Binary Thinking

The Trouble With Binary Thinking
John Michael Greer

Last week's post here on The Archdruid Report discussed the magical
implications of getting out from under the influence of the mass media
and popular culture, and thus from the dumbing-down effects these things
exert on the mind. That's a crucial step, but it's only a first step,
because as soon as you extract all that thaumaturgy from your mind,
something is going to fill the resulting void.

Entire industries exist to see to it that what fills the void is simply
another version of what you tried to get rid of. The sorry fate of the
so-called Voluntary Simplicity movement of a few years back makes a good
case study of the way these industries work. It was a bad move right at
the beginning, to be sure, that the founders of the movement watered
down Thoreau's original and far more powerful phrase "voluntary poverty"
so that it didn't frighten their middle-class target audience. As soon
as the idea began to attract attention, that first mistake became the
opening wedge that admitted a series of marketing campaigns that pitched
supposedly "simpler" consumer products to a mostly privileged audience
at steep prices.

Before long a glossy concept magazine packed with ads surfaced on the
newsstands, and the whole movement devolved into one more mildly exotic
lifestyle choice for bored yuppies who were tired of the older options
for conspicuous consumption and wanted to try a new one. Not simplicity,
but a set of abstract cultural representations of simplicity that were
heavily marketed to sell products, became the hallmark of the movement,
as torrents of overpriced goodies manufactured in Third World sweatshops
and marketed through lavish catalogs and websites came to define what
had started out as a not unreasonable attempt to raise questions about
the contemporary cult of clutter. What Thoreau would have thought of all
this, while stepping out of his shack at Walden Pond with an ax in his
hand to split firewood in the chill October air, does not bear imagining.

My more perceptive readers may have grasped from this example one of the
reasons why I persist in using the old-fashioned and hopelessly
unpopular word "magic" for the inner disciplines and traditional
philosophies I've been discussing in the current series of posts.
"Magic", like "voluntary poverty", is an unappealing focus for mass
marketing in the context of today's popular culture. Repackage it under
some more comfortable label, and it's a safe bet that within a few years
at most your new label will have been hijacked by the thaumaturgists of
marketing and advertising departments, turned into yet another cheap
sales pitch, and used to pimp attitudes and ideas, as well as products,
that are antithetical in every way to what your label was originally
intended to mean.

That's exactly what happened to the New Age movement, which started out
as an intriguing attempt to find common ground between cutting edge
sciences, traditional wisdom, and the experiences of contemporary
visionaries, before it got mugged by the marketers in the dark alleys of
the early 1980s. For heaven's sake, Gregory Bateson used to count as a
New Age thinker. What he would have thought of today's New Age scene -
well, let's just say that if he suddenly stepped out of a shack at
Esalen this evening with an ax in his hand, I'm not sure how confident I
would be that he had firewood in mind.

Still, the machinations of marketers are not the only difficulty that
has to be faced here. Certain inborn habits of the human mind, even in
the absence of modern mass media or the equivalent, tend to leave a
nasty trap in the way of the aspiring mage, or for that matter anybody
else who recognizes that there's something wrong with the worldview of a
dysfunctional culture. Enough of my readers may have one or another part
of their anatomy caught in the jaws of this particular trap that it's
probably wisest to follow the approach standard in magical instruction -
that is, to present the model as an abstraction first, and only then
move into the potentially controversial territory of actual examples.

A bit of jargon will unfortunately be necessary. Human beings, according
to the teaching you're about to receive, normally think in binaries -
that is, polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which
the two things are seen as total opposites. That habit is universal and
automatic enough that it's most likely hardwired into our brains, and
there's good reason why it should be. Most of the snap decisions our
primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah are most
efficiently sorted out into binary pairs: food/nonfood,
predator/nonpredator, and so on. The drawbacks to this handy set of
internal categories don't seem to bother any of our primate relatives,
and probably became an issue - like so much that's part of magic - only
when the rickety structure of the reasoning mind took shape over the top
of the standard-issue social primate brain.

The difficulty, like so many of the difficulties that beset humanity, is
one of overgeneralizing a good idea. There's no significant middle
ground between food and nonfood, say, or between predator and
nonpredator, and so the reactive response we're discussing excludes the
possibility of middle ground; it's either edible (or considering you as
edible), or it's not. The more complex classifications that the
reasoning mind can use, though, admit of a great deal of middle ground,
and so do the equally complex relationships that develop in societies
once the reasoning mind gets to work on relationships between social
primates. When we have the opportunity to consider such things
carefully, it's not hard to see this, but the hardwired habit of snap
judgments in binary form is always right below the surface. In most
cases all it takes is a certain amount of stress to trigger it. Any kind
of stress will do, and over the years, practitioners of mass thaumaturgy
have gotten very good at finding ways to make people feel stressed so
that the binary reaction kicks in and can be manipulated to order.

That's when thinking in binaries goes haywire, the middle ground becomes
invisible, and people think, say, and do resoundingly stupid things
because they can only see two extreme alternatives, one of which is
charged to the bursting point with desire (food rather than nonfood) or
fear (predator rather than nonpredator). Watch the way that many people
on the American right these days insist that anybody to the left of
George W Bush is a socialist, or for that matter the way that some
people on the American left insist that anybody to the right of Hillary
Clinton is a fascist. Equally, and more to the point in our present
context, think of the way the peak oil debate was stuck for so long in a
binary that insisted that the extremes of continued progress and sudden
catastrophic collapse were the only possible shapes of the postpetroleum

In the tradition of Druidry I mostly teach and practice, there's a neat
mental trick for sidestepping the binary-producing mechanism when it's
not useful. It consists, first, of learning to recognize binaries at
sight, and second, when a binary is encountered, looking for a third
option that will turn the binary into a ternary, a threefold
relationship. Back in the day, beginning students used to be assigned
the homework of picking up the morning paper each day, writing down the
first nine binaries they encountered, and finding a third option to each

This useful little exercise has at least three effects. First of all, it
very quickly becomes apparent to the student just how much binary
thinking goes on in the average human society. Second, it very quickly
becomes at least as apparent to the student how much of an effort it
takes, at least at first, to snap out of binary thinking. Third and most
crucial is the discovery, which usually comes in short order, that once
you find a third option, it's very easy to find more - a fourth, a
ninety-fourth, and so on - and they don't have to fit between the two
ends of the binary, as most beginners assume. Take any political debate
you care to name; inevitably, there are possible choices more extreme
than either of the two sides, as well as choices in the space in
between, and still other choices that aren't in the same continuum at
all. Ternary thinking helps you pop out of the binary mode long enough
to see this.

What makes the process of ternary thinking fascinating is that its
effects are not necessarily limited to the person who practices it.
Fairly often, when a discussion is mired in reactive binary thinking, it
only takes one person resolutely bringing up a third option over and
over again, to pop at least some of the participants out of the binary
trap, and get them thinking about other options. They may end up staying
with the option they originally supported, but they're more likely to do
it in a reasoned way rather than an automatic, unthinking way. They're
also more likely to be able to recognize that the other sides of the
debate also have their points, and to be able to find grounds for mutual
cooperation, because they aren't stuck in a mental automatism that loads
a torrent of positive emotions onto their side of the balance and an
equal and opposite torrent of negative emotions onto the other side.

At this point, as my readers have doubtless guessed, we've strayed into
the realm of magical combat. You'll notice that lightning bolts from
wands and incantations in bad Latin are not involved; those belong to
cheap fantasy fiction, not to actual magic. Instead, the combat is a
struggle of narratives or, if you will, of ways of structuring
experience. Among the tools that practitioners of mass thaumaturgy use
to weave their spells are emotionally charged images and ideas that
trigger the hardwired binary reaction in our brains. Among the effective
options for doing battle with them, in turn, is ternary logic, which
defuses the binary reaction so that whatever issue is up for discussion
can be put back into its actual context, and is no longer seen
exclusively through the filter of food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator,
and the like.

This can only be done, though, if you've already learned how to
deactivate the binary automatism in yourself. In magic, as in so many of
the things we've discussed in this blog, the starting point is always
your own life, and of course that's unpopular; from Al Gore's carbon
footprints to all those gay-bashing preachers who end up being caught
with their boyfriends, America these days is awash in people trying to
demand changes from other people that they haven't been able or willing
to carry out themselves. That's ineffective magic in any context, and
especially so when it comes to ternary thinking. If you try to work with
ternaries when you've still got a great deal of emotion and personal
identity invested in binary thought patterns, for example, you're
probably going to fall into a binary between the abstract concepts of
binary and ternary thinking, see ternary thinking as "food" and
"nonpredator" and binary thinking as "nonfood" and "predator", and pile
on the binary reactions while convincing yourself that you've
transcended them.

I wish this were merely a theoretical possibility. Those who think it is
might be well advised to pick up a copy of Matthew Fox's book The Coming
of the Cosmic Christ (1988) and read what Fox has to say about dualism -
that's his term for binary thinking in a religous context. He denounces
it in harsh terms, but he then goes on to say that there are basically
two kinds of religion, dualist and nondualist, and dualist religion is
bad while nondualist religion is good! At one point - it's on pages 134
and 135 of my copy - he sets out a convenient list of the differences
between the two, and it's all a matter of hard oppositions between
contending extremes. All in all, it's hard to think of anything more
dualist this side of third century Johannite Gnosticism, and yet Fox, at
least when he wrote the book in question, was apparently convinced that
he wasn't a dualist.

The problem with binary thinking - or, if you will, with dualism - is
not that it's bad. It's simply that it's very often overused, and even
more often used inappropriately. If you're at risk of starvation, or
being stalked by a predator, the hardwired binary reaction with all its
emotional force is more likely to keep you alive than a philosophical
attitude toward eating or being eaten. There are other times and
contexts, furthermore, in which a nonreactive, thoughtful dualism, like
the Taoist conception of yin and yang, is a very flexible and useful
tool. The point of learning to think in ternaries, in turn, is not that
ternaries are good and binaries are bad; it's that learning the trick of
ternary thinking widens your range of options. The same traditions that
taught (and teach) ternary thinking go on to explain that every number
denotes a way of conceptually dividing up the world, and teach more
advanced students how to use a range of whole numbers - anything from
the first seven to the first twenty of them, depending on the tradition
in question - as abstract models for thinking, each in its own proper
place and each with its own distinct effects.

The details of how this is done belong to the technicalities of magical
practice and so, like some of the other points raised earlier, don't
belong in these essays. The crucial point I want to get across is simply
that any binary division that comes to mind, unless it has to do with
food, predators, or a handful of other very basic biological drives,
should be regarded with a significant amount of wariness. This is
especially true, by the way, in American politics. The two main parties
have spent the last century or so cashing in mightily on the binary
reaction; their rhetoric always treats the choice between them as though
it's as absolute as the choice between yes and no, or at least the one
between A and Z. In reality, of course, it's more like the choice
between N and Q; even in the alphabet of contemporary political thought,
there are plenty of other options, and there's also the very real
possibility of bringing in, say, Sigma or Zhe from another alphabet
entirely - but of course any such variation is exactly what the two
major parties fear most, and they put a great deal of effort into trying
to forestall it.

The same logic applies to plenty of other binaries in circulation these
days. Think of the number of times you've heard people insist that doing
without some specific technology we use these days is equivalent to
doing without all technology, and going back to living in caves. Think
of the broader discourse from which this derives, in which any
alternative to continued progress along the lines that (supposed)
progress is (allegedly) progressing is equated to catastrophe. Think of
the people who insist that their political movement, or religious
movement, or activist movement or, really, any kind of movement you care
to imagine - barring the one obvious and scatological exception - is the
only alternative to whatever the horrible future du jour happens to be.

Some of these are innocent enough, but a great many more are the result
of deliberate thaumaturgy, and if you trace back the rhetoric to its
source, it's not hard to see the thaumaturgy at work. If the source is a
book, look for the couple of chapters right up front that describe the
horrible future we're going to get, barring a miracle, and notice
further on that the plan of action offered by the writer doesn't
actually promise the miracle; the resulting doublebind heightens the
stress on the readers and thus makes the binary reaction harder to shake
off. If it's visual media, watch for the same things, heightened by
sharp juxtapositions between images that have radically different
emotional charges - the famous ad run by the Johnson presidential
campaign in 1964, alternating images of a hydrogen bomb going off and a
little girl plucking daisy petals, is a classic of the type.

Other media have their own distinctive strategies of thaumaturgy.
There's a certain amount of entertainment value to be had in making such
analyses, but to be quite frank, it's more useful in practical terms to
minimize your exposure to the phenomenon. The work of noticing the
overfamiliar effects of thaumaturgy, analyzing the intended
manimpulation, and using ternary logic or any of the other practical
methods of the operative mage to pluck out one barbed emotional hook
after another - well, let's just say that it gets old very quickly, and
once the lesson is well learnt there's rarely much of a point in
repeating it.

Certainly it's possible to have a significant impact on the collective
conversation of our time without exposing yourself to the thaumaturgic
media. Though most mass media in every age are designed to force the
recipient into a passive relationship to the incoming stream of
information, disinformation, and thaumaturgy, there are always a few
options that give the individual a voice or allow a conversation to take
place, or both. The blogosphere is the current example of the species; a
lively world of noncommercial monthly and weekly journals did the same
thing through most of the twentieth century, and will no doubt do the
same thing again through the second half or so of the twenty-first.
There are other modes of shaping collective consciousness as well, of
course, with the influence of personal example standing out in many ways
as the most potent of the lot.

Still, there's another dimension to binary thinking that has to be
discussed in this context, one that reaches right down to the roots of
what this blog and the peak oil blogosphere generally are trying to do.
We'll talk about that next week.

John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids
in America {1} and the author of more than twenty books on a wide range
of subjects, including The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of
the Industrial Age (2008), The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak
World (2009), and The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival
Mattered (2011). He lives in Cumberland, Maryland, an old red brick mill
town in the north central Appalachians, with his wife Sara.