Citing the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh in particular, Andrew Sullivan claims that America is a land of brutal binaries. On the surface, his idea appears sound. Scratch the surface, however, and the idea breaks down. The problem is that “brutal binaries” sell. They grab attention. They serve to mobilize. They excite the base, the partisans, people who love to bicker.
But the notion that every issue is reducible to a binary, a 0/1, on/off, win/lose, is most often simplistic and misleading. Perhaps we should think not of computer binaries but of scales. Entities with power put a finger (or more) on the scale to tip things in their direction. Even as they do this, they claim the scale is equally balanced for all or even tipped against them. In short, we need to think not about either/or or on/off binaries, but about who has the power – and what they’re willing to say and do to keep and extend it.
Again, my point is to avoid binary computer-speak. The notion I’m 100% right, you’re 100% wrong. Those who describe debates as “binary” leave no possibility for change or compromise. They see only unbridgeable divides. This is a satisfying notion to the powerful, for they don’t want change. They want to keep the status quo because it profits them. They’re happy to see Americans bickering and fighting and shouting — even as they quietly reap the profits.
So I despair of America’s so-called binary debates. They divide us, distract us, and make us angry. We shake our heads in despair, thinking there’s no way to reach “them,” the other side in the “binary” argument. The truth is different. Polling data suggests Americans are far more in agreement than we are in disagreement (consider wide support for a higher federal minimum wage and for universal health care), but all we hear about is the divisiveness. Again, this serves the powerful. They’re happy to see us fighting over the scraps as they feast on the choice cuts.
Rather than shouting at each other, Americans need to work together in good faith. Forget the false binaries, America. The world is rarely a 0/1, I win/you lose, black/white place. Even when the scales are tipped, as they so often are, there is common ground. We’ve found it before – we will again.