We have all heard—and been—those people before that rally for justice, speak up against the “bad guys,” look down on “immoral people,” and declare someone a friend or enemy.
While many of these actions may have a useful social function, the reality is that the language we use to express the ideas we carry around is not only extremely black-and-white, but also immensely limiting.
The Power of Language
In a sense language is a museum of ignorance. Every word and concept has entered language at a stage of relative ignorance compared to our present greater experience. But the words and concepts are frozen into permanence by language and we must use these words and concepts to deal with present-day reality. This means we may be forced to look at things in a very inadequate way. – Edward de Bono
Language is a museum of ignorance because it is based on separating the world into “either/or” dichotomies. Take a look at the following examples of common dichotomies that rule most of our everyday thinking:
For us, it seems very normal to divide the world into such black-and-white ways of thinking. If someone is not a friend, they must be an enemy. If someone is not right, they must be wrong. If someone doesn’t live in a democracy, they must live in a dictatorship. If someone isn’t one of “us,” they must be one of “them.”
Can you see how reductionistic this either/or thinking is? Can you see how it deprives us of our ability to consider other people’s humanity? Can you see how it easily diminishes others and amplifies our false sense of being “good,” “right,” and “civilized? Can you see how it contributes to our impoverished ability to truly empathize with others?
Either/or thinking rules our lives. It determines how we perceive ourselves in relation to other people, and other people in relation to ourselves. It determines how we feel about ourselves, other people, and the world in general, and drives the decisions we make on a daily basis.
The truth is that either/or thinking is a bit addictive. As beings living in a very unpredictable and uncertain world, either/or thinking makes everything and everyone easy to understand, predictable, and controllable. Either/or thinking divides everything and everyone in life into bite-sized, easy to process, bits of information. To the unevolved and unaware person, this is a godsend. This makes life so much easier to understand and process!
But the truth is that life is rarely black-and-white—and to force it to be so is not only destructive but highly dangerous as well.
When we see life through the lens of “either/or,” we allow for no middle ground. We allow for no neutrals. And thus our thoughts are driven by the extremist polarization’s of “this or that.” On a primal and primitive level this is useful for survival, but in our 21st-century world this thinking is ugly at the least, and extremely perilous at the most.
As thinker, physician, inventor, and author Edward de Bono points out in his book “I am Right – You are Wrong”:
Dichotomies impose a false and sharp (knife-edge discrimination) polarization on the world and allow no middle ground or spectrum . . . It is not difficult to see how this tradition in thinking has led to persecution, wars, conflicts, etc. When we add this to our beliefs in dialectic, argument and evolutionary clash we end up with a thinking system that is almost designed to create problems.
Our language, and the way we use it, provokes most of our suffering in life. In particular, our either/or thinking is the main motivating force behind:
- Religious and political wars.
- Sexual, racial, and religious discrimination/prejudice.
- Gang wars.
- Interpersonal issues of every kind.
- Poor self-esteem and self-hatred (e.g. I am a “bad” person).
Life is a Spectrum of Greys
The ideas that our language encapsulates often create rigid and limiting perceptions of ourselves, other people, and the world around us. Life is so much more complex and varied than the black-and-white, either/or perceptions we carry around with us every day.
Changing the language we use to frame and define life is an essential part of our inner work journeys; it is an essential element of our internal growth and spiritual maturation. But this is not always easy—it definitely wasn’t for me! Like me, you might have been raised in an intensely religious environment, or some other atmosphere that taught you that life was composed of “good and bad” people who were either “nice or mean” to you and were thus either your “friends or enemies.” You might have also been taught that, depending on what you did, you were either “valuable or worthless,” “smart or dumb,” or “acceptable or unacceptable.”
Remember that life is so much more than the black-and-white dichotomies we were taught since childhood. Like me, you might intuitively feel that there is something “off” with the ways we talk about ourselves, other people, and the world, and this is because life is rarely black or white. People are rarely entirely “good” or entirely “bad.” Cultures are rarely entirely “civilized” or entirely “barbaric.” And you are rarely an entirely “nice” or “mean” person.
Next time you feel anger or frustration, ask yourself, “Is the language I’m using sabotaging my happiness?”
Life is a spectrum. Remember that.
What experiences have you had with black and white thinking and its limitations?