Black-or-White Thinking, an Example
From a Reader’s Digest letter of a couple of years ago, under Points to Ponder
Updated 2023-12-11. My current effort on “Improving Your Knowledge” made me realize I should improve this post on the problem of black-or-white thinking.
Senator Elizabeth Warren misses the point when she uses the expression gun violence. The enemy in our society is violence of all types, and if we take away one tool, those who are driven to hurt others will find another. Instead, we should focus on what causes people to act out.
-T. H., Williamsburg, Virginia
You don’t leave the front door of your house open when you go out, reasoning that a thief will get in if he’s determined to rob you. No, you make it harder for any potential thief to get in.
You reduce the threats that you can. You don’t ignore all threats because there is one threat you can’t eliminate.
Ignoring Important Factors in Reasoning
Careful reading of the letter above leads me to a few points.
- We should pay attention to causes that lead to a violent mentality, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore tactics that lessen the chances violence will strike us.
- We already know a fair bit about what causes people to act out violently.
- Many cases are situational and immediate. Once the moment has passed, so does the deadly impulse.
Letter’s Black-or-White Assumptions
- “those who are driven to hurt others will find another [tool].” All perpetrators of violence are driven to violence that continues until their desire is satisfied.
- If you remove any tool of violence, there is another tool which the perpetrator will use.
Each statement is presented as either true or false. The argument is based on all-or-none (i.e. black-or-white) thinking, ignoring that each perpetrator has their particular motivations that affect their timing and acts of violent.
Most beliefs in real life are not black-or-white and to base decisions as if they are led to short-sighted solutions that can have undesirable side effects, such as mass killings because assault weapons are allowed.
Real Variations Missed
- Perpetrators of violence have different characteristics. Some plan violence. Some impulsively act violently. Some accidentally cause violent deaths.
- The tool of violence selected is not always the result of a conscious decision. The tool is often picked from whatever is handily available at the time the violent impulse comes to mind.
- The various tools that can be put to violent use have different characteristics. An automatic firearm can kill 30 children across a wider physical space in just moments, while a knife-wielding assailant has a more circumscribed radius of terror.
Only occurrences are true or false, black or white. Unfortunately, we use the word ‘facts’ for beliefs that underlie Explanations, evaluations, or predictions.