Parents, don’t succumb to a binary world of simplistic-thinking


Slightly more than a month ago, I wrote what I called a ‘truth’ letter to my sons. It’s a letter I hope they will read one day when they’re old enough to understand. And one I hope contains truths they too will embrace as their own some day.

For like it or not, this isn’t a world that gravitates toward truth anymore, even though everyone claims they want it. And maybe at some level, they truly believe that’s what they are actively pursuing.

But when you peruse any news and info platform these days, you increasingly come away with the feeling this entire world is pretty much split down the middle on just about everything — race, religion, politics, climate, economy, and nearly every conceivable social issue.

Welcome to this “binary world” of simplistic thinking!

We live in a “binary world” of simplistic-thinking

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Few would argue we live in an increasingly complex universe.

In my view, ever-advancing technology is the main driver of this current complexity. Our senses are so saturated 24/7 with all manner of electronic distractions now, who’s got time to “pause (long and hard enough) for a cause”?

Least of all, causes that require us to think things through carefully. Like modern challenges to the foundational concepts of gender, marriage, and parenthood as we have known them for centuries. Or the resurgence of bigotry and racism as we become increasingly locked into our own echo chamber comprising people exactly like us.

Why is this happening?

Well, the need for speed trumps everything in today’s hyper-drive existence. The desire to move rapidly to the next endorphin-charged moment is all-consuming.

And thanks to social media, we’re hurtling further and further towards a world of non-stop hustling. To produce the next creative content we hope will go viral. To lust after that 10 seconds of TikTok fame to gain eyeballs, likes and followers. And like drug addicts, to crave the next media fix as soon as the last one is done. All the while denying of course that we are, in fact, addicts.

Of the many fallouts arising from this disappointing turn of human history — one I think isn’t dissected enough — is how we’ve become simplistic in our thinking, and oh so “binary” (either this or that; either for or against)!

If you’re not for us, you’re against us

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One contemporary example is the recent brouhaha in my nation as our parliament convenes in the coming days to repeal a law that criminalizes sex between men.

Not going to get into the messy and convoluted debate on this touchy issue here. Maybe in future posts.

However, among the many things that bother me about this whole LGBTQIA+ issue is the way it’s being handled. Just like other contentious issues in society such as capital punishment, abortion, or euthanasia.

It all boils down to this: if you’re not for us, you’re against us!

This is classic binary thinking that leads unfortunately to simplistic conclusions and, I hate to say it, muddled minds.

I don’t believe people today are naive enough to ignore the fact that these highly-charged issues are complicated and messy. In fact, my guess is people are all too aware!

Unfortunately, that’s the crux of the problem.

With so many distractions, and so much going on today, who’s got the time to wrestle with these convoluted matters? Instead, let’s just stay silent and neutral, shall we? Let’s leave it to the powers that be to sort it out, even as we keep busy (because, well, we are!).

Who knows? After a while, maybe things will settle down and the matter will resolve itself.

No? Never going to settle nor be resolved? That’s fine too. So long as it doesn’t enter my abode or bother me and my family like some unwelcome visitor at my doorstep frantically ringing the doorbell, I really don’t have to address it, do I?

We can choose action or inaction. But we can’t choose outcomes!

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In many ways I get it.

Simplistic thinking is always easier, the way true/false or multiple choice questions (MCQs) often are. Especially those MCQs where you have three simple choices – Agree / Disagree / Undecided. We’re more likely to respond to such questions readily, with their pre-packed answers that keep it simple and neat versus, say, essay questions which require more planning, research and thought.

Heck! Whether at work or at home, don’t we already have enough problems to deal with daily? Why bother with all these social issues that require us to read up, think hard, and process harder? Let someone else tackle them.

As a parent now of 13 years, I have to say that choosing simplistic thinking and inaction on any or all of these hot-button issues may indeed be the default approaches many parents and individuals in society take.

However, life is such that just because we may choose our approach to pretty much everything, we rarely get to pick their outcomes or consequences.

Like running a red light at the traffic junction. Or eating spoiled food. Or staying silent or ignorant about the issues that shape our world. Sure, we may think we can get away with nothing more than a speeding ticket, an upset stomach, or a preferred pronoun at the end of our LinkedIn profile name as a conciliation to peer pressure.

But make those same choices too often and the inevitable consequence will come a-knocking. Eventually.

A fatal accident. A surgery to pump your tummy and have you hospitalised for days. A confused and warped sense of self-identity that could end in suicide. (By the way, it’s World Suicide Prevention Day today, and global suicide statistics continue to look dismal)

For the sake of our children, stop simplistic thinking!

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I know my last point might sound fatalistic and alarmist.

I wish it were so, I really do.

But as I said at the beginning of this post, the news we’re daily bombarded with now doesn’t really leave us with any other conclusion. Especially us as parents.

If we continue to stay ignorant or respond to any contemporary issue with simplistic thinking answers like: “but that’s how it’s always been”, or “don’t argue; just listen to your parents and do as you’re told”, or “this is just wrong. Period”, then this madcap world we’ve inherited now shouldn’t come as any surprise.

So parents, what can we do to reverse this downward spiral into a binary world of simplistic thinking?

How can we “unsimplify”?

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The following ideas from an email newsletter I recently read might help (thanks Jon Tyson!).

1. Interrogate our thinking

For a start, let’s recognise that we all have a personal history that informs the way we think. Our family of origin, religious background, education, experiences and exposure to the world shape how we interpret things. We should take time to interrogate our own thinking, and then explain to people the convictions we have developed and the lenses that have shaped them. Then we can say with confidence, “…here is where I am coming from and why.”

To that end, self-awareness and reflection are absolutely essential.

2. Make our case convincingly

Next, accept that we live in a pluralistic society where we are called to balance rights and responsibility, freedom and boundaries, the individual and the whole.

As such, we have to participate in a shared social contract. Because our world, especially today, no longer holds to any single moral framework.

So we must all the more as parents make the case to our bewildered kids for why our convictions are true, benefits society, and enables human flourishing. ‘Principled pluralism’ is what American philosopher and theologian Richard Mouw calls it.

We need to articulate a robust, life-giving argument and philosophy that engages all who live in our world today. 

In short, no short-cuts parents!

Fair warning!

But be warned.

As Tyson aptly pointed out in his newsletter, embracing these ideas will lead to nuanced thinking (the antithesis of simplistic thinking).Unfortunately, such thinking will be “…penalized in a sound bite culture, and emotional appeals will do better in the short term than well-reasoned arguments.”

Meaning we’ll be viewed as counter-cultural by all and sundry!

He goes on to say: “It’s hard to create space when people are in the grip of anxiety and their sense of self worth or identity is threatened.”

Thankfully however he does conclude with a hopeful note: “But when done from a place of love, with gentle and careful instruction, we can help people understand a more mature way of processing and responding to the things in our world today.”

Starting with our children.

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