Black and white, up and down

It’s been said that the act of planning is worth more than the plan itself. I feel the same way about the gigantic questions of existence—the specific answers we come up with matter less than the fact that we try to answer them. Why am I mentioning this to you? Because today I’d like to attempt to formulate an answer to the following question:

What is the ultimate cause of pain and suffering in the world?

Well. The first thing that comes to mind is a qualification—I am speaking explicitly of human pain and suffering. What is it that brings it about, at a collective level, and at the level of the individual? Some stock answers: ego, greed, fear, lust, expectations, wealth or lack of wealth. All of these are good candidates. But they are not my answer. No. My answer consists of two terrifyingly complimentary concepts:

Black and white, up and down.

First, “black and white” refers to a way of thought. It is binary perception, the desire to see only truth or falsity, good or evil, yes or no, allies or enemies, in-group or out-group, helpful or harmful. It is a way of thinking which seeks to reduce complexity to certainty. Second, “up and down” refers to the tendency to judge the value of everything, to squeeze the world and all its contents into a hierarchy. To say that this is better than that, to say that X is worth more than Y.

This concoction of binary, hierarchical perception may seem like a strange answer to the question, “What is the ultimate cause of pain and suffering in the world?”, but I believe it is valid. To explain why, consider the two concepts implemented at the smallest level and the greatest.

First, I’d like you to imagine the mind of someone who sees the world in rigid hierarchies and whose vision is coloured only in black and white. Further, don’t just imagine their mind, attempt to see through their eyes. How would such a person feel about someone they love? In fact, “love” itself is a strange concept for someone imprisoned in black-and-white, hierarchical modes of thought, because the only alternative to “love” is “hate”. Such a person could love their partner. They could love their friends. They could love their country and their occupation. But they will hate those who betray them. They will have a deep and simple hate of those countries and cultures that differ too greatly. The things he loves he loves fanatically because they are quite obviously better, and the things he hates he hates because they are quite obviously worse. Actually, “better” and “worse” allows for too much uncertainty—there is only the best and the worst.

Second, imagine a state where these concepts are the rule. I don’t need to encourage your imagination here—I only have to point to history, to Nazi Germany. In the Third Reich, you were either an Enemy of the State or one of the Volk. The Jews? They were evil, the bringers of dismay, the sowers of discord. They were beasts with an animal cunning, spreading corruption and weakening faith wherever they trod. A peoples so beastly, so inhuman, occupied the lowest rung on the ladder of life, and thus they were ripe for extermination. After all, every morsel of sustenance taken into a Jewish mouth was nutrition ripped away from the mouth of a member of the Master Race.

Of course, black and white thinking is something that I think we all can and should learn to move beyond. It takes little effort to realise the poverty of such a worldview. But what about hierarchies? Undeniably, they exist. Person A can be objectively better at something than Person B, for example. But problems come when hierarchical thinking is taken too far. For example, as I mentioned, competence is a thing we can sort using a hierarchy. But what about character? Some people are courageous and some are cowardly; some are kind and some are cruel. Surely a hierarchy of character exists? And what about the value of a human life? The value of a collective culture? Is one life worth more than another? Is one civilisation more worthy simply because it is more advanced, more “progressed”?

I don’t know. But I do know that binary, hierarchical thought is a wicked marriage which will always sire offspring called Pain and Suffering.