If anyone has given a great deal of thought to how we use information and the consequences of using information in different ways, it is Steve Jobs. When he said, “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive….”, I could not agree more. Goal-directed thinking can lead to individuals coming together in a constructive way, while dichotomous thinking can separate people leading to destructive tendencies.
A very learned individual questioned the “us vs. them” flavor of some of the posts on this blog. In the post entitled “Can we Negotiate with Iran?” I originally referred to the alleged attempt by the Iranian government to kill a Saudi diplomat on U.S. soil as “… another salvo in the ongoing war between problem-solvers and noise-makers.” I had to go back and forth many times on this issue. Was I being too dichotomous? Dichotomous thinking is a problem when it replaces needed goal-oriented thinking. There are, however, situations in which dichotomous thinking is appropriate. I am trying to encourage people, not to reject dichotomous thinking outright, but to ask “Is this dichotomy justified?” Clearly there will be times when the source of a disagreement will stem from a disagreement over whether a particular dichotomy is justified. While coming to this realization may not solve the dispute, I suggest it may still lend useful clarity to the underlying issues.
In the case of this particular post, I finally decided that there was a degree of small-mindedness on my part. While I consider the dichotomy to be extremely important, the true battle line is between the actions (problem-solving and noise making) more so than the individuals. I have since made a small modification to the post. I consider this an example of how the problem of the overuse of dichotomous thinking is a problem that can interfere with its own solution.
While one can understand and sympathize with the anger and hatred many Libyans must feel towards Qaddafi and his regime, the goal of creating a just and democratic nation is threatened by the desire for revenge. In a world where dichotomous thinking is automatically held suspect, arguments against revenge would carry a great deal more weight. The arguments would go “We must reconcile with THEM, not because what they did was OK, but because revenge is a distraction and does not help us achieve our goals.” “Revenge just makes more dichotomous noise.” “There is no problem for which revenge is a solution.”
The beauty of the Martin Luther King “I have a dream” speech, to me was its call to being goal-directed and avoiding dichotomous noise. In essence his dreams are his goals. He is often characterized as promoting non-violent protest but I suggest that he goes beyond this. When he said “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline” and “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people….”, he was speaking out against dichotomous thinking. He knew that, for the civil right movement to be successful, it was necessary to remain goal-directed and that vilification of whites would be as counter productive as violence.
After one too many conversations with people who think 9/11 was an inside job, it’s hard not to wonder if the alleged plot by Iran to kill a Saudi diplomat on U.S. soil is not also a fabrication aimed at manipulating the U.S. public into yet another war. If our government is actually capable of such deception, there is probably nothing we can do about it anyway. Whether this is a fabrication or a genuine plot by the Iranian government, it is important to keep in mind that it does not represent the aspirations of the average American or Iranian. Either way, the goal is to generate dichotomous noise. It is another salvo in the ongoing war between problem-solving and noise-making. Given the degree of cynicism around the world towards the U.S. government it is important to keep in mind that there will be many who will believe the Iranian version that this is a U.S. fabrication. Assuming the plot is real, the U.S. should make pubic every shred of evidence. The goal of the informational attack should not be to show that “Iran is bad“. The goal is to strengthen the hand of the sensible people in Iran. As long as the Iranian government believes it can benefit from making noise it will continue to do so. An exaggerated response by the U.S., as is being called for by our noise-makers, will only strengthen the hand of the noise-makers in Iran and bolster the argument that this is a U.S. fabrication. This is another example of how national boarders separate problem-solvers while leaving a direct line of communication between noise-makers.
Is cancer is bad? Is impotence bad? Is death bad? When a patient approaches a doctor for help, there is presumably a less than trivial probability that something bad may happen to that patient. The goal of the physician is to decrease that probability. The ever growing body of medical literature provides information that can assist the physician, but the difficulty is in applying population-based study results to an individual patient. There is a growing trend in the evidence-based medicine community to include patient values in the decision making process. The recommendation the physician makes should take into account the degree to which a patient fears the different possible bad outcomes. To highly sexually active individual, becoming impotent may be far worse than having a form of cancer that will not cause symptoms or death. This is another example of the important distinction between having access to information and knowing how to use it. As always, a clear understanding of the goals is crucial to the appropriate use of information.
Corporations are highly goal-directed entities. They are directed towards the goal of making money. As a result, they do not tolerate dichotomous noise well. Individuals may work for corporations for their own selfish (dichotomous) reasons, but the decision whether or not to keep them is ideally based on their contribution to the central goal. The goals of government are not as well focused nor are they as easily measured as the simple goal of making money. Without the strong framework of a clear goal, dichotomous thinking runs wild. There are self serving politicians chosen by an electoral process that typically goes to the highest bidder, with the final decision made by a population that pays as much attention to dichotomous noise as to actual issues. There are lifelong career bureaucrats who’s greatest skills are accumulating praise and deflecting blame. Everywhere you look, partisanship is the law of the land. What’s the answer? A public that continually asks three things: What is the goal? Are the proposed actions consistent with achieving the goal? Is dichotomous thinking interfering with achieving the goal?
Is the elimination of the tax cuts for the rich really class warfare? A lot of the communist rhetoric was based on the dichotomous notion that the rich are bad and should be punished. Communism is a failure because it ignores the contribution rich people make to society through the creation of organization. We live in an entropic universe where it is always necessary to do work to create order.
The goal of government revenue is to create the organizational structures that the private sector cannot. The rich will make whatever arguments they can to keep as much of their money as possible. Their goal is primarily to protect what they have and to get more. Entitlement programs actually do represent, as the rich would say, “the government taking our money and giving it to poorer people.” That said, the way to keep the argument as far away from the “class warfare” concept as possible is to avoid the dichotomous aspects of the debate.
The focus of the debate has to be on the degree to which government revenue creates the “domestic tranquility” that permits the rich to achieve their goals. No one should discount the possibility that the Occupy Wall Street movement could spiral out of control. The fairness argument revolves around the long list of benefits the rich disproportionately enjoy, including interstate highways, bridges, airports/TSA, courts, not to mention our military which supports corporate interests around the world. Arguments that go “You are bad because you are greedy” just lead to responses such as “If we give them an inch, they’ll take a mile,” So as always, I advocate focusing on the goal-oriented arguments and avoiding the dichotomous arguments.
In discussing the issue of whether Chris Christi will run for president, Howard Kurtz on CNN pointed out the short attention span of the mainstream media (Reliable Sources 10/02/11). Bored with the current candidates, they seek something new. The goal of the corporate media is first and foremost to make money for the stockholders. As Kurtz later points out “ratings are a reality”. So what is the goal of the audience? Is it to be informed? Is it to be entertained? Likely some combination of both. I do not believe in criticizing the media, they are doing what we expect them to do. The problem is with the small mindedness of the audience.
By criticizing President Bush’s aggressive anti-terrorist policies in his Cairo speech, did President Obama increase or decrease our standing in the world? That depends on which part of the world we are talking about. If we divide the world into problem-solvers and dichotomous noise-makers, he clearly decreased our standing among the noise-makers. America is less of a tough guy and less scary. Among many who believe that solving problems requires more than just “Kill the bad guy” he showed a more guts than President Bush ever did. Whether the assassinations and stepped up drone strikes now make President Obama appear hypocritical is a separate but important issue.