Monday, August 21, 2017

Black and white and gray

Telling someone that they are stuck in "black and white" thinking is a modern day insult. It conjures images of the 16th century papacy wrongly insisting that the earth is the center of the universe in the face of Galileo's insights. Or more recently, the insult is applied to Christian fundies for their strict and wrong interpretations of the bible. Duality thinking is seductive because it makes the world terrifyingly easy to understand. Light and darkness, good and evil, body and soul, water and fire, ones and zeros. It's beautiful in it's minimalistic perfection. Especially when you place your team on one side and everyone else on the other side. Heaven and hell, life and death, black and white, straight lines, perfection.

We sew duality into our stories to make them captivating. Look no further than the book series that produced the first (and only) billionaire author on the planet. Millennials love Harry Potter so much that they single handedly revived a previously lame Los Angeles theme park. And who can blame them for resonating with an epic tale of good versus evil? Add butterbeer to the mix and boom, literary hit of the century.

The author, Rowling, is outspoken on social justice issues and even made Dumbledore gay and Hermione black (maybe). In light of all this, it's incredible that she had the discipline to keep Voldemort purely evil. Keeping Voldemort evil sets up the epic dualistic battle in the series between good and evil. In fact, the more evil Voldemort is, the more heroic Harry can be. I'm pretty sure all this was her ace in the hole, her special sauce, and she knew it from the beginning. We don't have many purely evil characters in our shared cultural mythos. In our postmodern age of Maleficent, humanizing the bad guy is all the rage. Or we make the evil characters so one dimensional and silly that Mike Myers can caricature them by lifting his pinky to his mouth. Yet we all agree that Voldemort is evil, even if an asinine Facebook quiz says we belong in Slytherin house. I can think of one other character in our cultural mythos that is purely evil...Hitler. The mere mention of his name silences a room, similar to he-who-must-not-be-named. Even Darth Vader got humanized in episodes I through III. By keeping Voldemort purely evil, Rowling tapped into our hard wired craving for duality.

Now, I hate to say this, but the progressives are right about spectrums, they are truly everywhere. Duality isn't real life. Real life is much messier than that. The electromagnetic spectrum is the most utilitarian and thus, famous spectrum. All visible light is contained in one slice of the EM spectrum, which is helpful for, you know, seeing things. The EM spectrum also gives us AM and FM radio, X-Rays, Infrared and Microwaves so we have a lot to appreciate. Spectrums are also found everywhere else such as the left-right spectrum of political opinion, the distribution of wealth, the varying sizes of a specific body part. Even time can be called a spectrum. On a spectrum, there are an infinite number of intermediate values between the extremes. Similarly, you can create an infinite number of spectrums from a single one. You can slice and dice the EM spectrum and end up with...a bunch more spectrums.

It's tempting to say that spectrums are the opposite of duality but that's not quite right. A spectrum still has two ends. Usually the two extreme ends are pretty easy to define. But even if the ends are nebulous they can be still be labeled as distinct from each other. In mathematics, positive infinity and negative infinity are nebulous yes, but can still be plugged into equations to get a useful value. So a better way to say it might be, spectrums are the real-life version of our idealistic visions of duality.

We love to love duality but we actually experience spectrums. Duality is perfect and real life is often messy, dull and uninspiring. True duality is rarely, if ever, observed on earth or in our known universe. And maybe that is exactly it's power. We make God exactly what we're not. We die, God's eternal. We're sinners, God is pure. Deep down, all sane people know they are imperfect. Since we can't truly inhabit the brain of another, we assume everyone else must be imperfect too, like us. But how far do you apply that? Is every single thing in the universe at least a little imperfect? God fills that gap. For the sake of our sanity, believing in God, believing in duality, gives a ray of hope in the desolate scientific/postmodern landscape.

Do me a favor and pass the Butterbeer.
William Shockley's breakthrough with transistor technology really propelled modern computing to where we are today. Ultimately, a transistor stores a one or a zero, on or off. Through coordinating millions of these transistors on a microchip, we get cat videos and Pong. Some people have taken a class in python or java and believed that was how computers talk. Well those are closer, but even python is an abstraction. At their core, computers talk in machine code. Computers talk in ones and zeros, in binary.

"Binary" is a close cousin of "duality" most often used these days in the negative sense, "non-binary." The meaning is similar to spectrums, as in not black or white but a wide range of gray. The choice of the term "non-binary" is a fascinating juxtaposition to our current age of mass produced electronic gadgets. Streams of ones and zeros are silently passing below my keyboard keys right now but the actual interaction I'm having with the keyboard is analog. In the real world, there is always a gap that is bridged at some level between straight lines and messy ones, between digital and analog. Applied to the gender debate, "non-binary" advocates abuse the metaphor, implying that they are the true humans, expressing their rainbow flag spectrums to the fullest, not boxed in by arbitrary, computer-like duality. But this doesn't answer the actual question. Of course gender and sexuality is a spectrum, just like everything else in the universe. But if some form of duality/perfection/God himself exists, shouldn't we at least try to move closer to that? Yes, it's arbitrary and we'll never actually get there, but maybe trying would do us some good.

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