Reflections on the Value and Folly of Binary Categorization (Guest Blog)

ImageAnother great post by my Anglican friend Carson Clark over at “Musings of a Hardlining Moderate” on the benefits and dangers of binary categories, which we are all guilty of committing. I believe that such categories are dangerous to thinking and living wholly in this world. Too often we fall into the either/or way of thinking rather than embracing the paradox, the nuance, and the gray. We need to learn about the both/and. Give this a read. Very helpful stuff here:

Reflections on the Value and Folly of Binary Categorization

By Carson Clark

Fellow Christians,

Binary categorization isn’t innately wrong. Indeed, it can be a helpful shorthand when there’s need of brevity and/or simplicity. Here’s a sample of binary pairs we all understand and use: left and right, up and down, wide and narrow, life and death, good and evil, true and false, big and small, tall and short, conservative and liberal, introvert and extrovert, masculine and feminine, joy and sorrow, hope and fear, open and closed, inside and outside, freedom and captivity. Such concepts are helpful. They provide a manageable schema that enables us to not only make sense of the world but to communicate with one another. To suggest otherwise would be nonsensical foolishness. Yet that isn’t the end of the story. We’ve all known far too much life for that. Each of us has daily experiences evidencing the existence of grey, medium, moderate, ambivert, moral ambiguity, etc. The trouble, then, is when we pragmatically and/or stubbornly insist upon binary categorizations where there clearly exists nuance, tension, ambiguity, paradox, and the like. It’s a plain misrepresentation of the facts, which I find unacceptable.

Throughout my life I’ve largely seen Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. portrayed as either a saint who positively transformed the American cultural landscape OR a sinner who was an adulterous hypocrite. Likewise, I know a good many people on both sides of the political aisle who insist that Democrat = good and Republican = evil, or vice versa. Look, binary portrayals are untenable in both situations. They just plain don’t comport with reality. As Christians we believe that all people exhibit the paradoxical human condition of the imagio dei and the fall. It’s inevitable that people, and the organizations they form, will reflect and magnify that tension. Yet people still insist upon such narratives because they want an efficient, easy-to-use, black and white world. Allow me to be candid. In my strong (yet hopefully humble) opinion, binary categorization is helpful when one discerns that the need of the moment is brevity and/or simplicity, but it’s nothing short of intellectual dishonesty when we knowingly distort reality in order to contort the complex world into such simplistic categories. There are issues of deceit and volition in there that ought not be ignored.

I conclude with one of my favorite quotes:

One of the best contributions which Christian thought can make to the thought of the world is the repetition that life is complex. It is part of the Christian understanding of reality that all simplistic answers to basic questions are bound to be false. Over and over, the answer is both-and rather than either-or.” – Elton Trueblood


About Joel

Joel is a 32 year old currently residing in the southeastern United States. His interests lay in philosophy and theology. He is a writer for The Christian Watershed.

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