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Binary Thinking Is Preventing Us From Solving Serious Issues In American Society

By  Frank Camp

In the months following the 2016 election, the varying sociopolitical opinions of millions of Americans have been brightly illuminated. The clarity with which these opinions have been articulated has helped to reveal a troubling feature in our thinking — many Americans reject nuance, instead favoring the binary.

Most recently, this black and white thinking has dominated the conversation regarding the removal of Confederate monuments. While groups like Antifa seek absolute destruction and removal of these statues, others rally to keep them where they are. Setting aside any analysis of the validity of the arguments themselves, they represent the black and white, the binary. Anyone offering other ideas concerning the issue have been shut out entirely.

On August 9, Law Professors Amy Wax and Larry Alexander, from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of San Diego respectively, published an article titled, “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.”

The piece argues that the disintegration of certain values from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, referred to as “bourgeois culture,” are partly responsible for the breakdown in American society:

Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.

The “culture laid out the script” that led to success regardless of one’s gender, race, or heritage:

… Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

The authors list numerous antecedents to the disintegration of a healthy culture, and argue that Hollywood, academics, journalists, and others helped normalize these antecedents. They claim that certain aspects of now-accepted modern culture are ultimately unhealthy:

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans.

They readily acknowledge that the 1940s, 50s, and 60s were far from perfect: “Was everything perfect during the period of bourgeois cultural hegemony? Of course not. There was racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism. However, steady improvements for women and minorities were underway even when bourgeois norms reigned.”

For this piece, Amy Wax and Larry Alexander have been rebuked. According to The Washington Free Beacon, “a group of 54 UPenn doctoral students and alumni” penned a letter “claiming the professors were ‘complicit in’ and guilty of ‘normalizing’ white supremacy through this op-ed.”

The letter’s authors contend that Wax and Alexander are lauding “the virtues of white cultural practices of the ‘50s that, if understood within their sociocultural context, stem from the very same malignant logic of hetero-patriarchal, class-based, white supremacy that plagues our country today. These cultural values and logics are steeped in anti-blackness and white hetero-patriarchal respectability, i.e. two-hetero-parent homes, divorce is a vice and the denouncement of all groups perceived as not acting white enough, i.e. black Americans, Latino communities and immigrants in particular.”

Wax’s and Alexander’s claims rely on a simplistic, bigoted and archaic notion of culture; a concept purported to be bounded and discrete, a postulate which anthropologists “dismantled” decades ago by showing how such formulations of culture are embedded in systems of political, economic and social oppression.

The letter adds that there should be an “investigation into Wax’s advocacy for white supremacy.”

If we remove the buzzphrases like “social oppression,” and “hetero-patriarchal,” and peel back the bluster, what’s left is a very simple argument: Woven within the culture of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s were elements of racism, sexism, and classism. Because of that, the argument made by Wax and Alexander is invalid.

This is a logical fallacy known as “throwing out the baby with the bath water.” Because the bath water is dirty (as a result of bathing), the baby being washed in the water should be tossed out as well. The value of the baby is entirely discounted by the dirty water in which it sits.

Arguments like this are a result of binary thinking.

Wax and Alexander openly acknowledge the unseemly elements of the time period in order to distinguish the good. If I may beat a dead horse, they speak of the dirty water to highlight the baby.

Moreover, the ideas advocated by Wax and Alexander are indeed elements of a successful and healthy society. According to the liberal Brookings Institute, there are three simple things an individual can do that will almost guarantee them a place in the middle class: “at least finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children.”

Our research shows that of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class (defined as earning around $55,000 or more per year). There are surely influences other than these principles at play, but following them guides a young adult away from poverty and toward the middle class.

Brookings offers an example:

Today, more than 40 percent of American children, including more than 70 percent of black children and 50 percent of Hispanic children, are born outside marriage. This unprecedented rate of nonmarital births, combined with the nation’s high divorce rate, means that around half of children will spend part of their childhood — and for a considerable number of these all of their childhood — in a single-parent family. As hard as single parents try to give their children a healthy home environment, children in female-headed families are four or more times as likely as children from married-couple families to live in poverty. In turn, poverty is associated with a wide range of negative outcomes in children, including school dropout and out-of-wedlock births.

Low levels of education, premarital births, poverty, divorce, the lack of a two-parent home environment, and other related phenomena, which are often interwoven, are indeed the antecedents of anti-social behavior, joblessness, criminality, gang-involvement, drug abuse, and violence. This isn’t true of every person, but for the public at large, the trend is clear.

Wax and Alexander are simply suggesting, with backing evidence, that getting married before having children, striving to avoid divorce, working hard, and integrating with society is a means to achieve a healthy and successful culture. They are working in a nuanced manner, examining and dissecting the creature of culture in order to better understand what works and what doesn’t work while indeed acknowledging what doesn’t work.

The authors of the complaint letter, however, due to their inability or unwillingness to think in a manner that’s not binary, cannot see the good in history, only the evils of the past. As such, they toss it all out, condemning and harassing those who have a different vision, leading us back to square one.

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