Is social media driving a binary outlook on life?

If you dive into Instagram, Twitter or any other social media platform in 2022, you’ll very soon be inundated with people asking you to vote in their latest poll. These polls are incredibly simple to create and seem to be popping up literally everywhere. People want to know your opinion on everything from pop culture to global politics. Right or wrong? Good or bad? Cool or lame? 

Pressing a button and registering your vote may seem innocuous, but is this binary way of thinking actually changing our outlook on the world in general?

The growth of a binary worldview

Humans like to put things in boxes. We LOVE to categorise the world around us and believe that the universe can be broken down into simple categories.

The same desire to pigeon-hole and categorise exists in the digital age. But there’s a growing trend for opinion, discourse and ethics to be broken down into a overly simplistic binary framework. Instead of accepting the complexity of life, we try to break everything down into two simple options. Something is either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, with no nuance to the argument, or flexibility to the rationale behind this decision.

But can everything in life really be so binary? 

  • Does someone’s left or right-leaning politics make them either right or wrong? 
  • Can pop culture decide if a celebrity is either wholly good or wholly evil?
  • Is the joke told by an edgy comedian either outrageously funny or totally abhorrent? 

The answer is that most issues can’t be broken down into a simple ‘yes or no’ format. People, issues, opinions and morals are complex and nuanced things. We can’t simply click on ‘Yay!’ or ‘Boo!’ in an Insta story to come to terms with these complicated and subjective issues.

The complex nature of humour

In a world with such a simplistic, binary outlook, it’s inevitable that misunderstandings and miscommunication will arise – especially in an area as personal as humour. Humour is subjective. Humour is also all about context. Take away that context, and you create the potential for someone to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. 

A joke can be hilarious to one person, in the right context. But taken out of this defined framework, the joke could well fall flat. In fact, someone may well find the joke offensive or insulting. The truth is that there’s no such thing as a universally funny joke. Nothing is hilarious to everyone, all the time. You could perform the same comedy routine to two different audiences, on two different nights, and get completely different reactions to the jokes on each occasion.

There are narrow-minded traditionalists who will loudly proclaim ‘Oh, you can’t joke about anything anymore! It’s PC gone mad!!’. But that’s clearly hogwash. The incredible range and breadth of comedy material on TV, in comedy clubs, on YouTube and on TikTok pretty much blows that idea out of the water.

You can make a joke about anything. Literally anything. But when we try to judge that joke and fit it into a binary mindset, that’s when the problem starts.


Crowbarring the human experience into a binary grid

The point I’m making here is that technology and social media are having an impact. What social platforms are trying to do is make the human experience (and human morality) fit into a nice logic grid, where everything can be filed under either X, or Y.

This binary approach is great for creating data and showing results. It’s also often used as some kind of proof that your opinion is somehow ‘better’ than someone else’s. ‘I’ve got 2 million likes that say your argument is bollocks’ etc. But, at base level, this is a deeply flawed way of examining any kind of opinion or argument.

An opinion isn’t ‘right’ just because it receives a lot of unanimous ‘Yes!’ votes. And, conversely, a viewpoint isn’t wrong just because it gets very few ‘Yes’ votes. 

What’s needed is an understanding of nuance and a proper ability to debate the point – rather than puerile name-calling, pointing of fingers and pigeon-holeing. There’s a whole spectrum of opinions and ethical positions that could come into play. And they aren’t always polar opposites. 

The impact of a more binary kind of politics

Most human experience is far more complicated than we imagine it to be. Nowhere more so than in politics. On the surface, many developed nations offer you a narrow range of political parties to choose from. Your party is either left-wing and socialist or right-wing and conservative/neo-liberal. But the reality is far less simple.

As an electorate, you could choose from:

  • A Green candidate, with progressive policies around sustainability and a clear focus on combating climate change.
  • An old-school Labour/Labor candidate who supports trade unions, strike action and the rights of the working person.
  • A Centrist socialist who believes in a fairer distribution of wealth and equality for all, but is hesitant about supporting strike action.
  • A moderate right-winger who believes in tradition and the monarchy, but also places great emphasis on values and integrity.
  • A hard-right neoliberal who thinks that privatisation is the key to all society’s ills and that low taxes are the way to a healthy state.
  • A far-right racist who peddles in hate and whose policies are both xenophobic, narrow-minded and offensive.

Politics is far from being a two-horse race between left and right-wing. There are subtle differences in opinion, even within the same party. But the way that political discourse is presented to us online, doesn’t reflect this. A quick dip into Facebook or Twitter will reveal that binary nature coming into play again.

For example:

  • Are you red or blue in your politics?
  • Are you pro-Brexit or pro-EU? 
  • Do you promote equality, or do you safeguard your own privilege?
  • Do you believe in female reproductive rights, or are you a ****? (sorry)

By dividing politics and society into an ‘us and them’ scenario, the people who are REALLY in control can leave us to squabble over these binary arguments. And that’s highly divisive at such an important point in history. There are bigger fish to fry than whether the red team or the blue team are right. With the Earth burning and sinking in equal measure, we need a kind of discourse that returns to nuance, debate and (crucially) real practical solutions.

Ditch the binary attitude and embrace the complex

So, before you click ‘This cat is lame’ in the next Instragram story poll that pops up in your feed, think about what you’re getting involved in. Does it matter what you think? Does a 75% response for ’So lame!’ actually make the cat lame? No, of course it doesn’t. These, after all, are just opinions, not objective facts.

When we’re talking about big and important moral and ethical topics (and heaven knows there’s plenty of those to talk about in 2022), let’s try to not drive things down this binary route of ‘right and wrong’ or ‘good or bad’. 

Opting for a binary world view does nobody any favours. It places a false narrative over a human experience that’s both subjective and unendingly complex. An ‘X or Y?’ option in an Instragram poll can never do credit to this.

So, ignore the social media polls for now. Instead, let’s open our eyes and our minds to embrace the true complexity of the life, experience and the universe.

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