Black-and-white thinking? Come on, we ALL do it!

I’ve thought for a long time that black-and-white thinking is one of humanity’s biggest problems. But trying to eradicate it with more black-and-white thinking is just ridiculous.

When I was a medical student doing a psychiatry rotation, I noticed that all the white coats, myself included, had a powerful desire to be seen as absolutely NORMAL.

The feeling came out of nowhere the first day we started seeing psych patients. Some of them weren’t free to leave the building. There was an unspoken fear that we caregivers might be, in some unseen way, indistinguishable from the patients. It was both a subtle and a consuming motivation that made everyone subconsciously try to act and speak as if they were hyper-normal in every conceivable dimension.

I’ve rarely felt anything like it since.

In those days on the psych wards, one big sign of derangement to avoid was “magical thinking,” which meant believing in anything that wasn’t established by science or grounded in secular Western middle-class society.

Since LLUMC was a religious institution, Christianity was begrudgingly considered OK on the psych wards, or at least not necessarily equal to magical thinking… unless the patient thought he or she had an unusual religious purpose in life such as being Jesus Christ, a delusion that was said to be “not uncommon.”

Between the lines, we knew that any “visions of grandeur” might put us at risk of being too similar to the inpatients. And while there was no chance of being locked up for it, a med student couldn’t hope to pass a psych rotation where the people evaluating you thought you were basically nuts.

So if anyone had a personal relationship with God that meant everything to them, as I did (and still do), she or he had to be careful to tuck it away along with any secret hopes of someday becoming objectively great by doing extremely valuable work in the world.

And of course, some of us tried to down-size our ambitions and become genuinely satisfied with the psych ward’s prescribed mediocrity.

That never worked for me. I couldn’t escape my burning desire to do something great. I still can’t.

But to this day I’d never admit such a grandiose hope to a shrink. Only to you.

I wonder if the new boogeyman for med students on psych rotations today is black-and-white thinking.

It’s finally becoming a mainstream negative, which would be a good thing if it were opposed logically rather than in binary terms, such as the current “normal versus borderline personality disorder” dichotomy and other B&W approaches.

If you want to really insult a thinking analytic person, say that she’s a black-and-white thinker. The accusation is powerful and leaves a red mark.

It usually comes with the assumption that black-and-white thinking is always narrow-minded and inappropriate.

But it ain’t necessarily so…

Simple arithmetic, for instance, is black-and-white. No one will accuse you of B&W narrow-mindedness if you lower your guard and admit that you believe one and one equals two.

But with imaginary numbers (i.e., the “lie” that a negative number can have a square root), math itself enters a gray zone with the letter “i” keeping track of imaginary calculations.

So math starts out black and white but, like fiction, merges truth with imagination. Neither math nor fiction is really lying because the letter “i” and the word “novel” tell us we’re sort of pretending. Both explore the human experience by merging black-and-white foundations with a story written in symbols.

Physics is similar. When you calculate a coefficient of friction in a college Physics lab, it’s black-and-white Newtonian work. But if you’re ever trying to decide which version of string theory clashes the least with your classical Einsteinian bias, you’re quickly up to your eyeballs in shades of gray and spectrums of color.

Ironically, the popular all-or-none belittlement of B&W thinking, typified by the picture above, misses all the boring details of reality and winds up in subtle hypocrisy where the only black-and-white thinking it allows is its own binary criticism of black-and-white thinking.

Splitting humanity into “black-and-white thinkers” and “normal in-color thinkers” may be useful to some shrinks, I guess, but for the rest of us, it’s often used as a polarizing weapon to belittle people and silence unwelcome ideas.

Case in point…

To convince people that there’s no such thing as good and evil, some have associated good and evil with the dreaded black-and-white thinking. Some have claimed that the scientific version of Deity (the Intelligent Mind within the Quantum Field) isn’t concerned with such black-and-white matters as good and evil.

But does this make sense?

Can the rape of a child, for instance, be seen as morally neutral in the eyes of an intelligent Universe and the Mind that fills it?

Perhaps the Quantum Mind of God is not as preoccupied with negative judgments as our fading Western traditions tell us.

But this Mind is smart enough to write original DNA code. We are the products of that code. Most of us feel deep empathy for suffering children.

How then could the Code Writer be incapable of empathy, or reject the truest words to describe our human predicament: good and evil?

The best thing about humans is our capacity for compassion and empathy. These traits simply must have been written into our DNA by Someone who knew them. But we’re supposed to believe that the Code Writer is a stranger to empathy and suffering? Too broad-minded to see the difference between right and wrong?

This kind of thinking isn’t rational.

While black-and-white thinking is obviously one of humanity’s greatest limitations, the binary mindset that now pretends to oppose it is unwittingly promoting it by using shame to paint negative emotions on unwelcome ideas.

The situation is analogous to William Cooper’s old videos from the 1990’s where evil attempts to overcome evil. His conspiracy theory describes secret societies that plan to rid the world of evil by killing billions of people with viruses, then following up with a “benevolent” dictatorship run by the murderers.

But fighting fire with fire doesn’t work in the realm of good and evil. A pretty ending can’t overcome an ugly plot.

Morrill Talmage Moorehead, MD