The End of Binary Faith

2011-04-13 09.47.57

Binary Faith is a faith in opposites.

It is the faith of the modern world in labels. Labels serve to identify who we are and more importantly who we are not.

It is what election campaigns are about.

It is what modern religion and anti-religion are about.

It is about our modern consumer choices.

It is about moral debates, advocacy, outrage and campaigns for righteousness.

Binary faith is based on creating a world of perception in distinctly defined terms of good and evil.

We are all Suckers

In the end we are all suckers. We suck because we believe the labels represent reality. We want to believe, need to believe, and so we believe. And we get sucked into a binary faith that divides the world into good guys and bad, where we are always on the side of good.

We believe in the campaign ads, and the opinion pundits, and the advertising and even our family members and neighbors.

We believe, not because they are right, but because we want to believe that they are right. We want to believe because we don't know what to believe. So, we end up believing just about anything that relieves us of the conflict of having to choose good over evil.

We choose sides because we have never learned how to stand on our own. We let others do our thinking for us. As a result, we never figure out just how manipulated we have become in the modern world of binary choices.

You can tell when people have been hooked by binary faith. Their language is filled with talking points. Simplistic statements that are intended to clarify, set apart, and remove all doubt as to the veracity and validity of their individual faith in this person, ideology, product or group. They are not statements that open up conversation, but are rather closing statements to a case that can only be made by saying, "I'm not like them!"

They laugh, cheer and celebrate when the other side is caught in some humiliating turn of phrase.  Sarcasm and condescension is the core manifestation of the binary trap we find ourselves in. We laugh along with those posing as superior intelligent beings, wanting to be like them. In reality, we show ourselves to be weak, pathetic, ill-prepared to deal with a world that is not binary. It is the basis of both comedy and political commentary today. It is shallow and non-intellectual, condescending to the listeners and demeaning to those who are the subject of derision. 

These people, often quite intelligent, with advanced degrees from prestigious institutions, have stopped thinking, and have become automatons. Automatomic thinking is thinking that occurs in a closed system of self-verifying statements, hermetically sealed off from any real, rational debate about what or who is good or evil. It is built upon the need for confirmation basis to validate one's own superior opinion.

With these closed cultures of opinion, no outliers are permitted. No real questions are allowed. Only those questions that prove the superiority of their group's position over against the inferiority of their binary opposite.

For all the connection between people the internet has brought to our world, it has not solved the problem of binary faith. In fact, it has accelerating its advance as it is easier to find and exclude people who either share or reject one’s faith.

I use the language of faith because in many respects this is the religion of the modern age. Binary faith is a belief system that provides meaning within a cult-like social structure. It is cult-like because for true believers, it is a faith that excludes the heretic and unbeliever.

For faith seekers, binary faith provides a basis for identity and acceptance into a community of faith whose demands are simple. Just believe and never doubt. Total compliance, no questions asked and inclusion is ours.

Modern Day Good and Evil

The supreme problem with binary faith is its inability to be honest about the real world. Binary faith is an answer to a dualistic abstraction of what is good and evil. “We are good; they are evil.” Simple faith for complex times.

The reality is that each person, culture, ideology, nation-state, religion, and political movement is a rich mixture of good and evil. Behind every evil act is some value which has been twisted for evil ends.

There is no way to absolutely separate good and evil as totally distinct entities. They live like kudzu vines intertwined around a forest of trees. Virtually impossible to eradicate the parasitic vines without killing the host.

So it is with the world as it exists. To rid the world of evil requires us to separate it out from that which is good, and then eradicate it. However, this takes us back the old binary trap of only two choices, choose the good or the evil.

But life isn’t so simple. It is much more complex, and the complexity requires us to be alert, reflective and aware of what is present before us.

The problem is that binary faith doesn’t want that. Good and evil are situational choices we make every day. We create good lives by making good choices, and evil by bad choices. It seems like a simple binary choice, but it is not. They are choices of degree and intention, choices of how my personal preferences affect the lives of others, measured in degrees of change and significance of impact.

To make good choices we need three things.

First, we need a community that is open and hospitable to people outside our faith.

The best description of this sort of community that I have found comes from the ancient Christian writer Paul, who in a letter to a church in the Greek community of Corinth that is caught up in its own binary trap. He used the metaphor of the body to describe the kind of faith community this church should exhibit. The metaphor follows a understandable line of thought of contrasting various body parts to show how each is essential to the function of the body. He may be writing about a specific church, but it applies to every faith system, regardless of type. Near the end of this metaphorical reflection, he writes this words.

“On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:22-26)

In a binary faith, we individually determine who is the weaker, the less honorable, the least respectable person in society. These are the people we reject because they represent the other side, or those we feel that must be protected because they are unable to think for themselves and stand on their own.

The result is a faith where suffering is not shared, and honor offered only to those who are most the single-minded and fanatical in their belief. 

Good and evil aren’t binary forces. They are complex choices that either create the kind of community Paul illustrates or destroys it. Communities that are not based on demonizing the other are places where one may discover, in one’s self, how to deal with the tension between the forces of good and evil that are within each one of us, and then learn to create goodness in ways that build alignments between opposites.

Second, we need a clearly defined value system.

This value system cannot be binary, but universal and holistic. It must be able to state what is the good for all humanity. It cannot simply be a belief that divides the world into two classes, good vs. evil. Or a system that is simply self-serving.  Many universal, trans-cultural values may require my own self-sacrifice to be fully realized. This is antithetical to a binary faith.

Imagine a political faith or a commercial faith where these values are prominent.

Third, we each need to be persons of character.

This means to live a whole life, not some perception of life based on our political and consumer choices that we've been suckered into. For our identity to be based on who we are, how we relate to others, and how we live our lives each day requires us to not divide the world into good and evil, haves and have-nots, in and out, weak or strong, honorable or dishonorable, acceptable or rejected.

Character comes from daily making choices that elevate the world we live in rather than destroying it through division. These choices are informed by learning to think for ourselves, listening to others and deciding a path in life that leads to being the person that our values say we wish to be. For this to happen, we need to be clear about what we believe and have a community of people who are willing to share in the suffering of people. As a result, it will be a community that also celebrates and honors each person in their advancement in the character of their living.

I realize that this may sound like I'm advocating a kind relativism that is at the heart of the modern notion of tolerance. I am not. I find tolerance, as presently practiced, a condescending mask towards the other, and a faith unable to address genuine issues of good and evil.

I don't believe all people are essentially good or bad. I do believe that some people choose to be evil, violent and destructive, and should be understood in this way. I believe that good resides in each person, yet at war with those inclinations toward evil that fills our world with hatred and arrogance.

I am not saying that all faiths, ideologies and beliefs are the same. I believe that there are a universal set of human values that have always existed that if lived fully would create a better world.  

The End of Binary Faith

The end of binary faith comes in the collapse of faith into no faith and alienation from the connections that bind people together in community. I believe this moment in history is coming. The ideologies and institutions of the modern world are built upon a binary platform. It is not sustainable. What follows is not better.

Our hope is in ourselves to create communities based upon value systems that include all people without dividing them into preferential categories. These communities will thrive or fail on the character of the people in them.

This is part of the future that I see coming. It is not all bleak, but hopeful. It is though because I am convinced that once a person decides to think for themselves, to reject the binary designations of society and create communities of character, then the strength and sustainability of society will grow.

Of course, we must stop being suckers if this is to change. We must stop being manipulated by those who see us as mindless sheep willing to do their bidding.

I am not a utopian. I don't believe that if we are just nice to one another, the world will be a better place. That is a strategy of mindless tolerance of evil that clearly exists in our world.

I am a realist. I see the end of binary faith as a realistic hope for how we might live in peace and harmony in the future.


An Idealist in the midst of Cynics

COL-ICON

An old friend sent me the following note that is worth discussing.

Hey, Ed! I have a topic that I would love for you to address. What happens when a true believer and a cynic are put together on a work team? Or, perhaps more difficult, when there is a faction of true believers and a faction of cynics?

In my situation, I tend to be a bit "rah rah" and idealistic. Most of the others on my team find fellowship in a cynical viewpoint. It's sort of the difference between putting up those "success" motivation posters and putting up the despair.com posters. (I certainly see the humor in the despair posters, but when they represent an approach to life, I find it sad.)

Anyway, I think you get the picture. From my viewpoint, I think it's important that I value where they are coming from and have compassion for my co-workers like I would anyone else, but I also have a preference for people who appreciate the efforts our company makes to promote some sense of common cause (after all, if the company doesn't make money none of us have a job) and I find life is challenging enough without having to endure negativism about everyone and everything. Put it this way: Many of my co-workers would find your blog to be the very type of thing that they see as unappealing, touchy-feely, idealistic nonsense, while I eat it up. Anyway, I'd love for you to talk about this.

Of course, I had to laugh - "touchy-feely." What? No Kum Ba Yah?

There is lots to say about this topic.

Idealists often want to escape from the harsh realities of life and work. Cynics want to avoid their own responsibility for it. Both are inadequate.

Both are products of human experience that provide the idealist and the cynic a way of managing the emotional demands of life and work. This is isn't touchy-feely. This is the hard edge of reality folks. Our attitudes and behaviors are the result of experience. They are not rational, but more emotional. We rationalize them to give us a reason to act a certain way. But they certainly are not touchy-feely.

I'm a realist, who is also a recovering idealist/cynic. I've been both during my adult life, and neither were effective in helping me develop as a person or develop my work.

What may be viewed as touchy-feely is not a superficial approach just to make everyone feel good. Instead, helping people face reality that is both realistic and opportunistic is my aim. We each need to recognize our potential at the same time recognize the problems that we create in our life and work.

The situation that my friend describes is a management problem. And most managers are not equipped to deal with it. Why? Because most are not trained to deal with people, but with policies and processes. Even in the best of organizations, people and their relationships are a secondary consideration. Why? Because the perception is you can't quantify relationships. I don't agree, but that isn't the point here.

Now, what does my friend do? Do he go confrontational? Does he go touchy-feely? Does he ignore them? Does he push or pull for improvement?

First, recognize that the world isn't perfect, and none of us are.

Second, recognize that a person's negativity is telling you what they care about.

Third, recognize that maintain high standards of performance in life and work require us to lose the fantasy world of idealism and cynicism.

By embracing reality as it is, we see both the opportunities and the problems that are within our control.

The Five Questions - Work-Life Coaching Guide

Check out my Five Questions That Every Person Must Ask . Use this guide to stay focused on what is ultimately important, not what is inconvenient, uncomfortable or irrelevant to your life and work.

I also recommend two books.

Leadership & Self-deception by The Arbinger Institute describes how we put ourselves into a box to avoid having to take responsibility for our life and work. We want to blame our difficulties on other people, situations and circumstances over which we have no control.

Read the sections in Jim Collins' book, Good To Great on The Stockdale Paradox. Here's an earlier post where I wrote about it. Admiral James Stockdale has been an important influence on my thinking for over twenty five years. I think Collins perspective on him provides some helpful insight for how to function in a corporate environment today.

In the end, the best relationships are those where mutual service, respect and trust are the guiding values. Where they are missing, the challenges of attitude and behavior will be evident. Stay true to your own ideals, without being idealistic, and you'll grow to learn how to be effective in a challenging situation like the one you describe.

Thanks for asking. It is a great question.