Touch of grey

touchofgrey2There’s this funny thing about humans – we seem to have this problem with counting above, “two.” I mean, of course we can do it, but we prefer not to. So every time we have to make a decision, we try to cut our choices down to two. And to make this easier, we tend to resort to superlatives, and try to push choices to their extremes so we don’t have to qualify our decisions any more than is necessary. By this I mean, good or evil, liberal or conservative, smart or stupid, healthy or toxic, nature photographer or lowly peon…

Now, all I can do is speculate on where this comes from. The most obvious, perhaps, is to say we have a two-sided brain that shows distinctively separate traits between the sides, and thus forces us to choose either left lobe or right, but I suspect that’s just a coincidence – pop neurobiology, as it were. The same holds true for our bilateral symmetry: two arms, two legs, two eyes… too easy.

No, I’m inclined (from my vast uneducation) to think it’s a survival trait. Fast decisions mean quick responses, which can make the difference between life and death when the choices are serious, and it wouldn’t take long before the fast deciders outnumbered the ponderous thinkers when you’re talking about getting the hell away from saber-tooth kitties, or turning the Flintstones-mobile away from the cliff. As the old joke goes, you don’t have to run faster than a lion to escape it, you just have to run faster than your buddy.

The problem with this whole “two choices” thing is, we don’t live in a world of black and white. There are a whole lot of grey areas – in fact, everything is. So when we resort to trying to categorize our choices into one of only two bins, we end up having to change them to fit. Sometimes, a lot. But are we making decent decisions if we change the details so we don’t have to think too hard?

Our brains are amazing things, capable of tracking billions of bits of information, though most of that seems to be annoying tunes. Douglas Adams once observed, however, that we can calculate momentum, wind resistance, and gravity so quickly that we can actually catch a thrown ball, and this says nothing of striking it with another object and redirecting it in an arc out of reach of outfielders. We can calculate the growing distance between two headlights and determine that an oncoming car is not only not far enough away, but approaching too quickly to pull out in front of (except, of course, in North Carolina, where people seem to have lost the ability to do this).

So, two choices? That’s ludicrous – we can handle hundreds without breaking a sweat. But we avoid it, over and over again, and try to make everything good or bad, rather than dealing with simply, “A is better than B, but not better than C.”

Even worse, we fall for a really bad trap, the trap of, “my mind is made up.” Having narrowed our choices down to two and slotted each to their own side, we refuse to reconsider, or readjust if we receive further qualifications. That’s part of the problem in dealing with absolutes – you can’t have something that exceeds them. You can’t have something that’s darker than “black” or brighter than “white.”

But there are no absolutes in our world. There is nothing that is absolutely good, nothing that is perfectly black – the Hubble telescope demonstrated this nicely with its Ultra Deep Field photos (and yes, if you haven’t seen these, follow that link). Everything is shades of grey, everyone is somewhere in the middle. They may do things we agree with (by which we call them “good”) and may also do things we disagree with – and I’ll bet vast sums of money, this can be said of everyone we’ll ever encounter, no matter what our criteria. For instance, I can hear someone denigrate photography and still not consider them evil incarnate (though it’s a struggle).

Right now in the US, our political system has become so ridiculously polarized that the current president, considering socialized health care reforms, is routinely compared to Hitler! There is such a thing as trying to avoid using any brain cells at all no matter what, and this is a prime example. And after all, Hitler routinely executed the mentally ill, which would have eliminated those making the argument in the first place. We need to stop using our two bins and start actively considering all of the factors involved in any decision. It’s certainly possible to disagree with various factors within reform programs, but to compare all such programs to a genocidal maniac is evidence that we’ve allowed this quick-decision trait to exceed our brain’s primary function.

In the photo above, the lighthouse is painted black and white. But the black and white portions both have their own light and dark areas, and in fact, the bright areas of the black stripes are brighter than the dark areas of the white. And as much as I hate analogies, this is an illustration of seeing things for what they are, rather than going for the quick answers. We’re better than that.

3 comments to Touch of grey

  • The Manatee

    I see a really cool effect in the picture. The lighthouse (I’m sure) is a solid, straight-edged object, but in the picture (I guess because of the black and white against the background) looks like seven separate “slices of lighthouse” that have been rather poorly stacked. (Unless North Carolinians have also lost the ability to use plumb lines to good effect).

    • Al Denelsbeck

      There is slightly more at work here, in that there are windows alternating up the sides of the lighthouse, following the circular staircase. The frames are obvious in the white portions, considerably less so in the black, but they provide most of that weird effect I think.

      This, by the way, is Bodie Island lighthouse south of Nag’s Head, North Carolina, not to be confused with Hatteras, the one that dodged the incoming tide… ;-)

  • The Manatee

    After I made my original comment, I looked at the picture again and realized what you point out in your comment. I really is odd.