Next Item In Pandora's Box: Dichotomous Thinking

Dichotomous thinking is categorizing observations in one of two diametrically opposed groups.   Everything is white or black, good or evil, virtue or sin, heaven or hell, spirit or body, day or night, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, in light or darkness.  G.B. Shaw said there are two kinds of people in the world, those who lend money and those who borrow money.  This kind of reasoning is intrinsic to an authoritarian personality (not that Shaw was) and makes thinking easy, because all the nuances or shades of gray that are part of nature can be ignored and disregarded.

The very first line of the Bible sets up a dichotomy:  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the Earth…” 

It goes on,

Gen 1:3-4 Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  God then separated the light from the darkness. 

So when W. Bush soon after 9/11 declared, “You’re either with us or with the terrorists,” I knew we were in for trouble.  He never asked himself, what is it about our behavior that might have caused these to people to sacrifice their own lives just to get revenge (and do so in such a painful and horrific way)?  How can hatred run so deep?  Instead, he told the American people the Twin Towers were destroyed because the terrorists were “jealous of our freedom.”  I’m afraid there’s more to it than that.  It would be laughable if it weren't so serious. If you were jealous of the wealth or lifestyle of somebody on the other side of the world, would it make sense to travel across the globe to blow them up and yourself along with them? 

Consider the nightmare this man’s Sunday School training has wrought on America and the world.  The horror of 9/11 ruined this country.  It changed everything.  Trillions of dollars wasted so we can’t repair our schools, bridges and roads.  Ubiquitous paranoia—just think of all the time wasted at the airport and elsewhere on stupid, unnecessary security checks—like making a 90-year-old great grandmother pass through an infra-red, curtain-closed, all-body scan.  Thousands of GIs killed in ghastly explosions, thousands more limbless or mentally traumatized to the point they’ll never be the same.  W.’s immediate response was to launch “Operation Shock and Awe” which murdered thousands of citizens of Baghdad who had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11.  To my mind, “Shock and Awe” will go down in history as a national disgrace. 

History is replete with examples of dichotomous reasoning causing horror.  Here’s a similar event in history: 

Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830-1916) goes down in history as one of the most conservative rulers since Caesar Augustus.  One of his many titles was Apostolic King of Hungry and he probably thought the Divine Right of Kings was legitimate and a great idea.  Like W. Bush, he was a conservative who allowed or permitted almost no social changes or reform during his 68-year, iron-fist rule over much of central Europe.  He was from a military family, brought up to be a firm ruler with strict devotion to God and the Bible, (just like Bush Jr.  Bush Sr. was the youngest American pilot to serve in WWII and destined by God to rule.)  The emperor is noted to have said there are two kinds of people in his kingdom: teutons, who were meant to rule, and slavs, who were born to obey. 

So when his nephew Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in June, 1914, the emperor was morally outraged at such a stark, arrogant, and in-your-face act of war.  His nephew was shot by a teen-age Bosnian nationalist in Sarajevo who was tired of living under the oppression of holier-than-thou foreigners (much like dead Iraqis.)  The event was a conspicuous example of chaos theory in that the archduke’s driver finally found the right road after getting lost, completely by luck.

What did the emperor do to show his outrage?  Within weeks he ordered his army to teach the upstart subservient Serbia a lesson. You know, give 'em a wake-up call. The assassin’s group, who called themselves the Black Hand, numbered no more than 19 to 20, about the number in the gang that brought down the Twin Towers.  The Austrian army invaded northern Serbia with five divisions and proceeded to shoot, bayonet, or burn to death 39,000 villagers, mostly farmers and their families, who had nothing to do with the assassination.  The Emperor’s Biblical training and dichotomous thinking led to the onset of WWI, hence the annihilation of much of Europe with over 50,000,000 causalities!   

So, by comparison, America was lucky get off cheap for eight years of having a fundamentalist Christian president who talks to God.  Compared to WWI, what’s a few thousand sacrificed soldiers, a few million Iraqi and Afghanistan non-Christians, an economy in shambles with rampant unemployment and an infrastructure falling apart?  At least we learned the difference between good and evil. 


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Comment by Rich Goss on November 6, 2011 at 7:45pm

As far as President W. Bush goes, the only point I was making was that due to his Biblical thinking and limited broad education, (as far as I can see he knew very little about genetics, bio, or science in general) the man’s impulsive response to the “pure evil” of the 9/11 atrocity was to kill thousands of innocent Iraqi families in Operation Shock and Awe, plus embroil the country in a decade-long, no-win, corporation-friendly war.  


The Pentagon has 800 generals on the pay role and around 800 military bases dispersed around the world.  One of those bases is in the country of the birth of the holy prophet of fanatically religious people.  W. shouldn’t have been using terms like “pure evil.” 


Sixty Minutes just aired a show on lobbyist scum bags Abramoff and Ney, which worked the Congress during this period.  Unbelievable what they got away with!   They’re a lot closer to “pure evil” than the people of Baghdad yet they're still alive. 


Comment by Ann N. on November 5, 2011 at 11:03pm

I believe in shades of grey, but knocking down the World Trade Center is as close to the pure evil end of the spectrum as you can get. There wasn't a rational "because" reason for doing it. The reason WAS religion. As such I DON'T need to waste my time trying to understand what point they were trying to make. I don't know what point they were trying to make, I never made an effort to learn, and I never will. I refuse out of principle.

That aside. Yeah, there were some huge mistakes made by George Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. I won't get into that. But as for dichotomous thinking: Christianity totally promotes dicotomous thinking. Every action is either right or wrong, no shades of grey. All the sins are listed. If something isn't a sin, it's OK. I didn't realize the strangeness of this way of thinking until I had a chance to compare it to Buddhism. If I understand correctly, Buddhists see a big spectrum where you can try to be a good person, or you can try harder to be REALLY good person, and for special periods, you can be a REALLY REALLY good person. For instance, a person might eat meat most days, but for a Buddhist holiday be a vegetarian. (Also, the path towards improvement is not totally cut out for you. You have to find it yourself with the help of lessons from those who have gone before.) I was explaining Christianity to a Buddhist foreign exchange student and I got to the part where Jesus lived his whole life without sinning. The student interuppted me by exclaiming, "But how is that even possible? Didn't he eat?!" This view of better and worse along a spectrum, where you strive to make improvements is probably the more reasonable perspective.

Comment by Rich Goss on October 23, 2011 at 9:49am

Ruth, we all see the world in different ways—a line from Mirror Reversal.  Of course "we all have polarities," but just about all our experiences and actions lie somewhere in between.  Even the toughest guy in the gang has some feminine characteristics, estrogen production, for example. 

In the case above, if W. didn't perceive the world as good and evil, instead of killing thousands and plunging America into war, we might have asked, what could have caused these people—the terrorists—to commit such an atrocious, seemingly insane actd?  Maybe having over 800 military bases around the world has something to do with it?  Especially in areas held sacred by other religions. 

If he thought this way, maybe he'd have begun to scale down U.S. intrigue in other countries instead of blowing up innocent people. 



Comment by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on October 22, 2011 at 3:20pm

Liz Langley provides examples of dichotomous thinking in Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad.

Another possible root of attraction has to do with yin/yang energy.

We all have polarities within us; one way to consider them is through the Taoist framework of yin and yang, light and dark, feminine and masculine.

“Everyone’s got both polarities,” Winston says, but in most people one predominates. “For most women, in our erotic relationships we tend to be attracted to people who hold the opposite polarity; most women are core yin—except the ones who are not.”

Neat, right? Divide everything into opposing polarities and then throw in an all-encompassing exception. So your "analysis" can't be refuted with pesky couter-evidence. No need to consider third possibilities or shades of grey.


Comment by Rich Goss on October 21, 2011 at 12:44am

John, thanks for your astute input.  You're provided an elaborate banquet but all that was needed was a postromi sandwich.  All I wanted to do is show how Biblical thinking has led the world into chaos.  Is the comparison of W. Bush's reaction to 9/11 similar to that of Franz Joseph's after the assassination of his nephew?  Both resulted in the loss of millions of innocent people.  Both were an result of an overreaction to some perceived evil. 



Comment by John Camilli on October 20, 2011 at 5:04pm

There are, however, philosophies which disguard dichotomous thinking. I can't think of the name of it now, but there is an ancient Indian (Indian, not native American) concept that translates into something like this:


Is, or

Is not, or

Is and is not, or

Neither is nor is not


This way of thinking incorporates all possibilities into one's analysis, and even makes allowance for possibilities that one cannot even consider. For example, before discovering this ancient philosophical system, I had begun writing a paper I called "The Dichotomies of Existence," in which I applied these same principals to Being. It starts a little like this:


Possibility is eternal, OR

Possibility is temporal, OR

Possibility is both eternal and temporal, OR

Possibility is neither temporal nor eternal


I made that as teir 1 of an analysis of existence which would branch downward like a family tree, some branches dying off into logical paradox while other branches continue on as logical possibilities for the existence of our universe. As such:


1. If possibility is eternal, then it is either singular, multiple or infinite in quantity...(1A, 1B, 1C)

2. If possibility is temporal, then it is either singular, multiple or infinite is quantity..(2A, 2B, 2C)

3. If.....

4. ....


And so on. Possibility establishes qualia, the second tier establishes quanta, etc. I havent gotten all that far because I keep coming up against logical contradictions that cause me to go back and alter the teirs. Anyway, its just an example of some alternative thinking that you may enjoy, in lieu of more philosophical dichotomies.

Comment by John Camilli on October 20, 2011 at 4:48pm

People will never wake up as long as they have the idea in their heads that they need to wake up. There is no 'waking up.' There is only the perspective you have right now, and it cannot be other than it is, since your perspective is carved by your experience.


This is the problem that I had even with most philosophies, after abandoning religion. They all purport some kind of enlightenment, or awakening, or nirvana, or some other bullshit idea to keep people reaching and striving. For what? Philosophies and religions are gerat at answering that question, but I think there is no answer to it, and it's that persisting question that truly blinds us. Stop seeking answers and you will find that there were none to begin with.

Comment by Maruli Marulaki on October 20, 2011 at 3:35am
Dichotomous comparisons are a good method to describe a scale with a bell curve distribution by contrasting the two extremes.
Comment by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on October 19, 2011 at 10:41pm
Sometimes I have hope when I see plots where the protagonist and audience deal with complexities and shades of grey, instead of polarized thinking.
Comment by Clarence Dember on October 19, 2011 at 9:10pm
If we learned the difference between good and evil we would stop listening to charismatic religious demagogues. But, the population has been fluoridated into a zombie like trance. They will wake up when the fluoridation stops.



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