Updated: Oct 31, 2021
If you do any sort of logic, philosophy or critical thinking course, you will come across the false dilemma, otherwise known as the tendency to black and white thinking. Salespeople have played on it for years ‘either you purchase new double glazed windows from us now, or the ones you have will fall out.’ Of course there are many other possible options in between. One of the sad consequences of debate in recent years, accelerated by social media, is the increase of this black and white thinking. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in education, politics, and general discourse if we could see the return of nuance? More nuance, less noise.
The reality is that most of the important issues in life are complex. Generally when someone tells you the answers are really simple they’re probably selling you something! For instance, there are all manner of complexities around Britain’s relationship with the EU but a debate that framed the question as ‘either you care about Britain’s sovereignty or you do not’ was unlikely to get to the bottom of them. Similarly in education the idea that either we love children and want to empower them to succeed or we want to exclude kids for the wrong colour of sock - would seem to be an oversimplification. We miss the ability to have an intelligent discussion about all manner of things that exist in between. The vast majority of issues are complex and exchanging short sentences on platforms where we descend into our natural tribes is unlikely to do them justice. Most of the time the words agree, disagree, right and wrong over simplify. The phrases 'to some extent' 'generally true except when..' 'do you have further evidence' and 'I agree with your first 3 points but aren't sure about the fourth.' convey far more. Reality is often complex.
Heroes and Villains
Issues are complex precisely because people are complex. Yet a lack of nuance also means that we cast people into the role of either hero or villain. There are very few people who are 100% villain, and I’m pretty sure that there are no people who are perfect 100% heroes. Was Winston Churchill a hero or villain? Is he a great war time leader or a person with deeply unpleasant racist views? Sometimes as in this case, both can be true. We have to be wary of putting people onto pedestals and defending them at all costs, yet equally we mustn’t be too quick to confine people to the bin because of things we disagree with. The politician whose views on A,B and C we rejected may have a valid view on issue D. The senior manager that we dismiss because they were wrong about X and Y may be right about Z. The educator whose views we reject on teaching methods, technology, and behaviour might just have something worthwhile to say about assessment. Even if they are only partly right on one thing, their ideas are worth considering on that issue. It might just help us refine our views
Attached to our Ideas
One of the reasons we default to black and white thinking is that once we have reached a decision about an issue, we become attached to this decision and in a sense we find our tribe. We are Leave or Remain, Conservative, Labour or Liberal, believer or atheist, pro or anti lockdown, traditional or progressive teacher. This emotional attachment to our decisions and inability to see subtleties or an the alternative point of view is called cognitive dissonance by psychologists. Once we have reached our conclusion we are sure we are right, we interpret evidence that supports our view favourably and discard anything that doesn’t fit with our view. It is actually harder to look objectively at evidence than we think. This is exacerbated by social media where we can create an echo chamber following similar people and joining groups with similar views. Sometimes we are not even looking at the evidence for the other point of view. We don't want to see it.
It is hard to escape the echo chambers we create on social media and in real life. If we are to understand those who differ to us, perhaps those that we think are mostly wrong, we have to take steps to understand their views and to seek out nuance and possible middle ground.
Why not follow different people on social media, particularly those of a different political or educational persuasion to you. That way we avoid having a narrow view of that idea based on hearsay that distorts their actual point of view.
We also need to go wider than social media. Finding quality newspapers or TV programmes that explore issues at length takes time and yes, we are busy, but if we are serious about understanding issues then needs must.
It is also worth asking lots of questions. Last summer a friend who was struggling to get his head around the BLM protests asked his network whether they had personally experienced racism. The articulate and detailed replies he received from some of his black and mixed race friends were powerful and I suspect challenged some of his assumptions. Asking honest questions that seek to understand is a powerful tool in getting closer to the truth
As well as asking questions of others, asking ourselves the right questions matters. Here are some possible questions: Could I be wrong on this? What evidence would confirm my view? What evidence would mean I have to re-think? Could we both be partly right? Is there a middle option? Does it have to be A or B? Is there a C, D or E? What am I not seeing?
It is easy to assume that we are right and others are wrong. We all do it from time to time. Yet intellectual humility requires that we think carefully and consider the nuances of important topics rather than just adding to the existing noise.