This is a concept we are taught very early in our lives. The opposite of hot is cold. The opposite of up is down. The opposite of light is dark.
Pretty simple, right?
Well, I’m here to tell you it isn’t always simple. Opposite thinking can be a very bad thing. In fact, I’m willing to bet this issue is at the root of many personal and societal issues we all face every day. And I find myself having to avoid this unintentional polarization when I write. It’s an easy trap to fall into.
First of all, let me say this is a normal way for a human to think. Our brains deal with vast, massive heaps of detail and must use some quick and dirty rules to even function. There is plenty of research on this on the InterWebs, and I encourage you to search on your own. There are also many shows, such as NPR’s Raidolab that deal with issues of how we think and how our minds/brains work. Just this Sunday they aired a fascinating story on how very fundamental language is to what we call ‘thought’. Check it out.
But back to the point. Our brains put things into categories as a way of managing the glut of data. If there is a bowl, a spoon and a container of milk on the kitchen table, then your mind will fill in some blanks and assume things like “breakfast” and “food” and perhaps “cereal” or “oatmeal” or “grits”. Nothing about the items on the table tell you that, and the assumption your brain makes could be wrong, but it helps you to make sense of random things. Think of it as a place marker for your brain: “I’ll assume cereal for breakfast until I have more data.”
Your brain does this with opposites as well. If you see a very heavy man walking down the street with a very skinny woman, you’re likely to think “opposites attract” when, in fact, this may not be a correct assumption of their relationship. Or it might. And we’re pretty good at guessing the right answer. The trouble comes in when we guess the wrong answer. That couple could be brother and sister, and he has a health condition that’s caused him to gain weight; he used to be a track star. The important take away is that you can’t be sure your brain is guessing the correct thing whenever its “auto-complete” feature is operating.
Corporations and political organizations know this. Religious organizations know this. Hollywood knows this. They know it better than you do, and they aren’t afraid to use it. The result of this knowledge – and the use/abuse of it – is the increasingly more polarized world we live in.
In politics, both major parties try to paint the other as the opposite of what they stand for. The opposite of Democrat is Republican. The opposite of political right is political left. Social organizations seek to do this as well. Radical Islam seems to say the opposite of of strict Islamic law is not having strict Islamic law. Pro- and anti-abortion groups do this; the opposite of making abortion illegal is allowing any abortions. And in business, the opposite of PC is Mac and the opposite of Abercrombie and Fitch clothing is any clothing that isn’t A & F.
I hope you see how dangerous this is.
An opposite is something that cannot exist in the same place or situation is something else. Night is opposite of day because night literally cannot exist when it’s day. They are antithetical. Wet is the opposite of dry because you cannot be wet and dry at the same time. But by having people play upon our concept of opposite, they are inducing us to make false assumptions. And when we make false assumptions, we make faulty decisions.
A democrat is NOT the opposite of a republican. I’m sorry, but they aren’t. This is clear to many people, and yet many of those same people still hold this view deep within their hearts. But most people who identify as democrat or republican – or tea party – don’t share every single view of that party’s platform. Being a democrat doesn’t automatically mean you want free abortions for every woman, and being a republican doesn’t mean you think firearms should be handed out in grade school. But let’s take a step away from politics and look at one of my biggest pet peeves.
Science is the opposite of faith. In other words, if you believe in God, you can’t believe in science, and vice versa.
So where did this come from and why, as a writer, do I care about it?
I do count myself among the faithful. Yes, I believe in a god. The God of Abraham and Moses and Jesus. I have also read and studied much science, and I accept that as the truth of reality. Where the two come into conflict – and I believe where the whole issue started – is when science seems to contradict or go against something written in the Bible.
As science began to mount in the 1800’s that life and the universe was much older than the Bible seemed to say, a fracture occurred. This fracture became a crack and – by the middle of the century – became a fissure so wide that people began to have trouble crossing back and forth. Camps began to form, shouting insults and math equations at each other. By the time of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, the fissure became a canyon so wide that the two groups began to develop independently of each other. This has only become more pronounced through the present day, and it has now become part of common culture. This is an opposite fallacy.
And this applies to writing, I feel, very much. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s the villains in stories were easy to tell apart from the heroes. The villains wore black while the heroes wore white. The villains were ugly, and the heroes were handsome. The villains were craven and the heroes noble and good.
We have – for the most part – shed those melodramatic trappings, but not the fallacy. We as storytellers have become much better at hiding it, and I understand it may never fully go away. But many people can read a story or watch a movie and be fairly sure who the villains are before the end, even if that wasn’t the writers intention. It’s almost required, because the audience needs something to hang the dastardly deeds upon, and if the character meant to be a villain wears all white, then the revelation that they are the bad guy (or gal) doesn’t make sense, and our minds reject it.
I’m currently working on a novel where apparently “savage” people meet much more technologically advanced people. The opposite of “savage” is “civilized”, right? Wrong, of course.
So this fallacy exists in our lives pretty much everywhere. The term ‘opposite fallacy’ is made up by me (I think), but it’s really just a simple term for the False Dilemma Fallacy. This is dangerous because it can sneak up on you so you’re not aware of it, or it can be used by others to basically control your thinking. The phrase “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” is a perfect example of the danger, and I urge you to look for this in your daily lives. Don’t let it control your writing and your personal actions, and don’t let others use this against you.
Please join me in saying “Bye!” to polar thinking, and let’s get back to enjoying and enriching the world. Because if you don’t join me in this, then you’re against me. Right?