I love to debate.  My friends roll their eyes when I use the term “devil’s advocate” because that means I’m about to get started.  I love trading ideas and learning about the world through someone else’s perspective.  It’s probably the writer in me because I love characters, and you can’t understand characters unless you can analyze the world through their eyes.

One thing that usually riles me up the most, though, is binary thinking.  It happens a lot when you’re arguing with someone.  Here’s an example:

Me: “I don’t believe that education should base grades on standardized tests.  These tests don’t promote problem-solving skills.”

Other Guy: “Then you think children should never take tests?”

Me: “No, tests can gauge rule memorization, which are the building blocks of certain studies of knowledge.  But children would be better off individually evaluated on how they can use those rules in practice.”

Other Guy: “Then you think grading should be subjective, completely up to the teacher?”

Me: “Not subjective.  It can still be results-based, but teachers shouldn’t grade just on the solution.  They should grade based on how they solved the problem.”

Other Guy: “Doesn’t that put a huge burden on the teacher?  Isn’t it impractical given classroom sizes?”

Me: “We could hire more teachers.”

Other Guy: “So what you’re really saying is that you want to increase educational spending and increase the burden on taxpayers.”

And now we’ve lost the original point of the talk.  Suddenly, I’m a pro-liberal looking to stick it to the American taxpayer, rather than making a comment on how our educational systems are run.

What happened in the above conversation is what I call binary thinking.  It means that when you make a statement, you don’t look at the whole crux of the topic, but instead focus on one issue and then turn your opponent’s idea on its head by suggesting that he’s supporting something which he’s not talking about.  Note that I was talking strictly about basing grades on standardized test scores.  The Other Guy used binary thinking to make me an “anti-test taker,” which was not my original idea at all.  Then we went down a spiral of narrowing our conversation on one part of a whole idea, twisting and turning on opposites and “black or white” issues until suddenly, we’re immersed in politics and taxes.

It’s hard to escape binary thinking, the idea that when we discuss topics, we narrow it down to its basic elements and discuss only those points.  Unfortunately, the more we do this, the more we run the risk of missing the entire point of the discussion and instead mire ourselves in polarizing topics that segregate us into camps, rather than bringing us together to solve problems.

I try, whenever possible, to keep in mind the point of the conversation.  And even though I love playing devil’s advocate, you shouldn’t shoot down ideas based on one small negative outcome.  The best outcome is when a team works together to solve problems by combining ideas into greater ones, not tearing them down to their base elements and declaring them dead.

-Deborah Fike

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