Be careful of framing issues in binary terms

One of the observations I have been making over the past couple of years is that many people and the mainstream media, in particular, like to frame issues in binary terms.

Example: People are born gay or they aren’t.

Example: Obesity is a disease, not a willpower issue.

The binary narrative is tempting.  It’s simple to understand. It allows you to take a stand on an issue, often in direct opposition to others (which I think is detrimental).  But the truth is often, if not almost always, more complex.

For example, is it really accurate to say people are either born gay, or they aren’t?  Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that people are born with a certain level of attraction, or at least level of non-repulsion, to the idea of intimate relationships with the same sex … and that that attraction can be many different levels of weak or strong?

In a way, the binary nature of the original question forces people to take the complete opposite stance just because it’s the viewpoint they are most familiar with.  “Either a person is heterosexual like me, or they are 100% flaming gay.”  A hypothetical person, however, who gets the benefit of a more nuanced approach might initially be turned off by the 100% “gay” crowd, but then realize that there are folks in the middle who seem to be more like himself and yet aren’t all that bad (or at least, in his mind, easier to relate to).  And thus the bridge to understanding builds.

In a way, saying people are born gay or they aren’t, is like saying people are born tall or they aren’t.  In fact, many different factors contribute to one’s height, and it doesn’t seem like a stretch to suggest that this must be the case for one’s sexuality as well.

Or take the obesity issue.  Willpower, many say, is the answer.  In fact, that’s the narrative all diets try to sell to people, isn’t it?  But if we think about it in analog terms … it’s not so hard to imagine that certainly there have been times when I sit in front of things I shouldn’t eat, and I eat them.  And then it’s not so hard to imagine that it probably is a little harder for other people to not eat that cookie, and for some, maybe it’s really hard.  Sure, a gun to the head might stop them from eating it … but there’s a level of attraction to that cookie and it’s got to be different among different people. Suddenly, we realize that willpower isn’t the whole issue and maybe we should work through different avenues and approaches to help different kinds of people to reach their goals.  Now, that actually seems like a much smarter approach than taking on all kinds of schedules and being told not to eat things because if you do, you’re a bad person.

One of the reasons people embrace the binary narrative is that the analog scale creates complicated decisions when the outcome itself must be binary.  For example, mental illness.  How mentally ill does someone have to be before you deem them a danger and lock them up off the streets?  There will be some people that are clear and present dangers, and many people who are completely sane.  And somewhere in that middle grey zone, there will be some people who probably don’t deserve to be locked up and are, and there will be the occasional person allowed free that ends up hurting people.  That is an uncomfortable outcome, to be sure.  Or how about elderly folks that are getting too old to drive?  When do you take away a driver’s freedom because the risk to others is too great?  If you think that’s complicated … than what about codifying such practices into law?  The law does not deal well with such analog situations.

Once one realizes that many issues framed in arguments in the media are not truly binary, the nature of those issues becomes much more clear and less controversial.  Binary questions are really, in many cases, intellectual trick questions, and nothing more.

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