The Spectator
founded 2004 by ron cruger
A place for intelligent writers
A place for intelligent readers
 by Jon Burras
2016 Spectator Ron - The Spectator All Rights Reserved
Your comments about this column are welcome ~ e-mail Jon at
The Dangers of Black and White Thinking
        Perception is a large part of our reality. How we interpret our world is not necessarily how the world really is but how we see the world through our particular viewfinder. Two people can be observing the exact same thing and come to completely different conclusions.
        America seems paralyzed in how we see the world. We seem to be split into two different factions. The world is not the problem but perhaps our manner in which we tend to observe it that needs to change. Most Americans are taught to see in black and white terms and will come to conclusions about topics with either a "yes" or "no" answer with little wiggle room in between. This way of thinking has led to much of our paralyzed and polarized world.
        Black and white thinking begins early on in grade school. We are given our number two black pencils and instructed to take a test with "yes" or "no" answers. This way of studying and testing is repeated over and over again until one finally graduates from college. We are not taught to think critically or to see the world from various angles. Hence, we develop a black or white thinking pattern that cannot see beyond our own righteous point of view.
        Black and white thinking shows up in many areas of our lives. For instance, when it comes to food you are either on a diet or you are not on a diet. How about enjoying a lifestyle of just sensible eating? When it comes to politics you are labeled as either a Republican or a Democrat, either Progressive (liberal) or Conservative. Somehow we do not allow people to vote their conscious and think outside the political box that they are aligned with. It is as if we are cheating on our political party if we think for ourselves and outside of party opinions. You are either a CNN person or a Fox news advocate based on your black or white thinking (CNN being liberal and Fox being conservative).
        We tend to attach labels to people and put them in boxes without any gray area in which to move around. For instance, we label people as either a "good" person or a "bad" person based on one event or on a pattern of behavior. Instead of judging the behavior we most often judge the person. A good person could do a bad thing and now they are a bad person. We somehow believe that if someone does something bad that they could have never done anything good in their lives and the rest of their life is completely wiped away by one bad action. Actor Mel Gibson went on a drunken tirade about Jews and now any good that he might have done in his life has been wiped away. Paula Dean, celebrity chef, reported used the "N" word way back when and now has no credibility. Activist Jesse Jackson was caught with a mistress and now any work at reforming social issues has been wiped away.
        The automobile industry remains frozen in black and white thinking when they build cars with only one horn. If you don't hear any horns you assume that everything is fine but when you hear a loud horn you assume that someone is angry at you. You quickly come to the conclusion that you are being scolded if you hear a loud horn or you are innocent of any wrong-doing if you are not blasted by a loud horn sound.
         What would happen if we were given more than one choice of horn for our cars? You might have horn number one that said "hello" to people whom you knew while horn number two might be the flirtatious horn that is used when you wanted to get the attention of someone whom you wished to get to know better. Horn number three might signify a "thank you" to someone who might let you cut in front of them (like truck drivers flashing their lights) while horn number four meant that you wished permission to cut in front. Finally horn number five is used when there is danger (like the fact that someone is backing out into you) and horn number six signified that you wish to tell the other driver that he is a "moron" and should not be driving. If we had more choices of which horn to use we would have a much clearer sense of ourselves on the road. Just hope that you don't accidently hit horn six (you moron) when you wanted to hit number two (I am flirting with you).
        Society currently is struggling with black and white sex issues. In the past we assumed that marriage was allowed just for a man and a woman. After years of this traditional practice the law of the land has now expanded to include marriage between a man and a man and a woman and a woman. This certainly throws off our black and white thinking selves. Homosexuality is becoming mainstream and out of the black and white box. Add to the mix the fact that there are many who label themselves as "bisexual" (attracted to both males and females). The black and white model has a difficult time relating to this.
         To add fuel to the fire we are now challenged with our sexual identity. Before we just assumed that there were two sexes—male and female. Now most of us are becoming aware of a third sex—transgender (also referred to as intersex or hermaphrodite). Some individuals feel as if they were born in the wrong body and choose to undergo a sex change operation. We also have transvestites (usually men dressing as women). No wonder the country is struggling with which bathroom to use.
        The internet uses this black or white thinking to lure us into one's approval. When purchasing a product or visiting a web page we are invited to leave a "like" or "dislike" calling card behind. Are there not any other choices? How about adding a "maybe", "not now", "let me think" or "I'll get back to you on that"? Why only "yes" or "no" when we could have so many more options? What would our real lives be like if we were given as many choices as we are given "emojis" on our cell phones or computers?
        This black and white thinking permeates throughout our culture on many levels. One is either a good person or a bad person. We quantify law enforcement as either a "good cop" or a "bad cop". When someone commits a crime he is now and forever labeled as a "criminal". One day he is a normal citizen and the next day he is branded with the label of "criminal" that never goes away. When someone turns eighteen he is now considered an adult and has the ability to reason right from wrong as if some magical power were bestowed upon him. Before this magical moment he was considered a juvenile and not responsible for his actions. He was viewed as not adult enough to know the difference between right and wrong. An eighteen year old who robs a bank may go to jail for ten years or more. A seventeen year old who robs a bank will go to juvenile hall and most likely be set free by his twenty-first birthday.
        Come election time we are besieged by maps of how voters vote. Blue states are considered Democratic states and primarily on the upper East Coast and the West Coast while red states are primarily found in the middle of the country. Wouldn't it be nice to see some pastel states or a mix of tangerine or burnt orange? Imagine if the creators of crayons were responsible for our political spectrum and not political pollsters, as we would have far more choices than the traditional two that we currently have.
        Dualistic thinking often gets us into trouble in many places from cocktail parties to courtrooms. How many social events do you hear people gathered around debating whether you are "pro-choice" or "pro-life"? How many are embroiled in the debate "pro-Israel" or "anti-Israel"? Do you believe in marriage equality or the sacredness of marriage between one man and one woman?
        In the court of law we are asking judges and juries to find fault in people. We want a "yes" or "no" answer. How many times are we stuck in the gray area of life? A person might light an illegal camp fire that turns into a raging brush fire that burns down 3000 homes and kills five people. The jury finds him guilty of murder, gross negligence and a host of other crimes. Is he not just guilty of lighting an illegal camp fire and his penalty should be just a fine of $300 and a month of community service? When looking for guilt we often "throw the book" at people for minor acts because we are not able to look into the gray window of life and instead blame someone for things that were never intended. Instead we should be looking at grayness in a courtroom and have a "responsibility pie chart". A responsibility pie chart is a way at looking at an entire event and dividing the responsibility up accordingly. Someone might be convicted of perhaps twenty percent of a crime but not the entire crime. In the case of the brush fire, the person who lit the campfire might be twenty percent responsible. The fire authorities might be another twenty percent responsible for not having enough resources to put out such a fire. The homeowners might be sixty percent responsible for building their homes in a wooded area with tall dry brush around their home.
        For instance, in recent racial issues where a suspect is killed by police, we often either find the police officer guilty or the suspect guilty. Our black and white model says that if one is innocent than the other must be guilty. In most cases there is more to it than that. The suspect might be seventy percent guilty because of his actions and failure to comply with the law. A suspect might be guilty of an original crime, followed up by waving a gun at a police office, resisting arrest and other charges. The police officers might be ten percent guilty for using excessive force or not being sensitive to cultural issues. The police department might be twenty percent guilty for improper training of officers. But in black and white thinking, one must be guilty if the other is innocent. Our way of thinking will not allow us to assign partial responsibility to anyone. It is either all or nothing. 
        We see black and white thinking in our body issues. How often have you heard someone say that their back went out? If their back goes out then their back must also go back in at one time. The reality is that most people have a back that is nearly always in spasm and all it takes is an afternoon of golf or a sneeze to push it over the edge. The back was existing in the gray area of life before it ever went out.
        We also talk about our "good knee" or our "bad knee" as if we were giving grades out to our body parts. If one has 20/20 vision they are considered to be in the healthy range and anything less than that is considered defective. A blood pressure over 120/80 will automatically trip the warning bells as you have now crossed over the magical line from health to disease.
         Polarity in our thinking is often seen in marriage. When we are at the alter with someone we make a commitment to be with them for the rest of our lives. We assume that this is a 100% commitment which is rarely the case. If you flirt with someone at work you might only be 95% committed to your spouse. If you view pornography you might only be 98% committed to your spouse. How many good marriages have ended because of the fantasy illusion that marriage is 100% commitment—you are either true or have cheated? Our black and white thinking culture teachers us that if you have one flirtatious event than you must not be committed.
        When science classifies alcoholics they either say that one is either an alcoholic or not. The scientific model does not allow for a gray area. According to this model, one either has a genetic defect or one does not, not matter how little or how much alcohol one consumes.
        When we are examining a rape case we wish to prove guilt or innocence. Sometimes it is not that simple. For instance, in a date rape where two people know each other things might have been consensual until they were no longer consensual. "Yes" really did not mean "yes" and "no" did not mean "no."
        Religion often throws us into the world of black and white thinking as well. How many people consider themselves religious but do not belong to an official religious institution? You either believe in God or you are considered an atheist. There is no middle ground to consider. If you are a Christian you are given two choices—heaven or hell, angel or devil, good or bad.
        We check boxes on our college applications and U.S. census bureau polls as to our ethnicity. More and more people are from mixed parents these days. Where do they fit in? They are not white, black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American. Where are the Crayola crayon people here? Multi-racial and multi-ethnicity people do not fit into the square boxes that society has conveniently set up. There is also the "one percent rule" where many believe that if someone is one percent black then they are labeled as being a "black". If there ever was a case for "fuzzy" math than this is it.
        Our traffic lights are set up to participate in this black and white world. We are offered virtually two choices—green or red (go or stop). A yellow is thrown in for good measure but it is mostly meaningless. Most people have to guess at how much time between the green and red lights. We set ourselves up to fail and to create enormous amounts of stress. What if our traffic lights were set up like those in a drag strip with seven lights that go from yellow to green or if you had a set of flashing green lights that alerted you to the time between the green and red. Better yet, imagine if we had a digital picture of a green egg timer that showed the sand dribbling out. For now we are stuck with a system that causes panic and indecision. We are stuck between red and green when entering an intersection while not being sure to step on the gas or slam on the brakes.
        On a world stage we often demonize dictators and world leaders. We view outrageous behavior and will call the leader a tyrant or cruel dictator. Sometimes these leaders actually did some good things that most fail to recognize. For instance, Saddam Hussein, considered a relentless dictator in Iraq, granted many equal rights for women and higher education to all. Most still see him as evil. It was reported that in Italy in the 1930's Mussolini was a cruel dictator but he is alleged to have "made the trains run on time." Black and white thinking forgets about what good he might have done.
        We somehow have come to believe that two people with entirely different viewpoints cannot both be right or both be wrong or both be partially right or partially wrong. It does not compute that there could be more than one correct answer. Our second grade mind cannot perceive in gray thinking as it searches out either the white or the black response. We are still stuck in old thinking and have not learned to see the world with multiple answers.
         Our society is embedded with this polarizing thinking, from our sexuality to our religion, from our politics to our car horns. Walk a mile in someone else's shoes and see how they see the world. Spend time with others unlike yourself and experience a whole new perspective. Get a box of crayons and draw a picture on the sidewalk and realize that the world is not just black and white but filled with a multiplicity of color and range. Find your second grade self again that found dragons in clouds and amazement at how an ice cube could melt. What a different world it might be if we spent more time with our crayons and less time listening to the political pundits.