by Milan Vodicka, Ph.D.
No, black and white does not necessarily relate to just colors, or colors of the skin. It can be also ascribed to something else. There is “black & white” in minds, the way of perceiving, thinking, and acting. This type of behavior can be viewed as living in mind-made reality, more abstractly known as “modeling.”
It is very hard, in many cases impossible, to apprehend reality in its multitude of aspects. Hence, “modeling,” as a simplification. Something that can be extremely useful. Or not.
At the extreme, the models evolve to just pairs of opposites. This is where reductionism plays out its role. We remember the “redacted” Mueller report. “The truth, whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” Is any reduction “the whole truth?”
Here we have it, all around, especially in the news headlines. In the statements of many politicians and/or elected officials. What to make out of it, how to respond to it?
Let me investigate an example that made its way to me via social media. It is this: “If masks work why can’t Americans go back to work? If they don’t work why are people forced to wear them?” The “black & whiteness” manifests itself in the presumption “masks work or they do not work.” The pair of opposites, without any consideration to or for anything else. They either “work” or they “do not work.”
It is prudent to ask, “what does it mean, they work or they do not work?” I just saddled another horse – complexity is irreducible. Just like it is impossible to reduce and express the three variables comprising the famous Einstein’s equation (energy=mass times speed of light square) with only one or two variables, it is impossible to cover “workability” of masks with regard to the virus, Covid-19, with “it works or not” pair of opposites.
Examining this irreducible complexity, it should be apparent that masks affect the air flow from and to the mask wearer. The mask wearer may or may not be aware of his or her currently active infection. The air inflow through the mask protects the wearer, the outflow protects the “other,” a person or people outside. And – this is the most important – while the mask may not and most likely is not 100% effective (“does not work”), it reduces the probability of the virus infection. Therefore, it is effective, better than nothing (“works”).
The preceding invokes another possible frame frequently used by the “black & white” argumentation against the probabilistic take. “This preventive measure will not 100% guarantee the absence of some possible future undesirable occurrence. Therefore it is worthless.” In other words, “do nothing.” Decreasing probability of such hypothetical unfavorable occurrences is not worth the effort.
Another manifestation of “black & white” is the “one issue voter.” Or “the devotee, no matter what.” The crowning jewel is, “who is not with us, is against us.” We can see in the current political events, on the national scene and around us, where this kind of individual beliefs or convictions lead.
The crowning jewel, because the statement is a necessary and inevitable component of fascism, communism, and authoritarian systems, however they may be named. Such systems must have the “not us,” transposed and translated into the “enemies.”
The “us” and “them” are clearly discernible in the unfolding of the pandemic, in the current protests, and in the upcoming election “fight.” Mask wearers versus not mask wearers, police versus protesters, conservatives versus liberals, Democrats versus Republicans…
The mental model of “black & white,” in the extreme, leads to pathological and fanatical idealism. The adherence to the tribal, even cultist, “us versus them.” A Republican voting for a Democrat? Witness denouncements of former Secretary of State under George W. Bush, Colin Powell, who stated publicly that he will not vote for Mr. Trump. Witness the vilification of everyone – and I mean everyone – who speaks critically of actions or the behavior of Mr. Trump.
French king, Louis the XIV, famously said “I am the State.” This is also an absolutist “black & white” assertion. It shows the complexity of his position reduced to a generality. Doing that, “black& white” departs from reality. Complexity, indeed, is not reducible.
It appears relevant to address the following questions: Do we recognize the “us” and “them” in the current events? Do we understand the “us” and “them” as irreconcilable opposites? Do our speech and actions reflect the “black & white” model of those opposites?
In addition, is there, besides “black & white,” concurrently infinite number of shades of grey? Colors, perhaps?