Black and White Thinking and Our Obsession With the Illusion of Control
I am constantly reminded of how pervasive our obsession with the illusion of control really is. I see this often with patients, but I myself am not impervious to it, no one really is. I think in many ways we are conditioned into trying to force things into a distinct and contained box, and we reject anything that doesn’t quite fit in any of the provided boxes we have. We don’t like grey. We tell ourselves we are trying to ‘make sense’ of something, but we are capable of doing so without utilizing black and white thinking, we just often choose not to. We get caught in the extreme ends of the pendulum swing and rarely appreciate the calm and security that we have when it stops moving. As a psychotherapist, I attribute much of the root of people’s anxiety to black and white thinking, with anxiety existing when we feel a sense of powerlessness. The idea that we either have control or we don’t is an illusion; control is much more complex than this, and it is exists on a spectrum, if at all.
I often think about the concept of control within the context of our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, and how we often seek control over these things, both in ourselves and in others. There’s a distinct difference between feeling empowered over one’s own choices and conceptualizations of lived experiences, and holding power over how others feel, think, and behave. I think culturally we have been given many examples of the latter in recent history, and our culture’s obsession with having control over other people seems to be intensifying. This is the basis of slavery, isn’t it? The idea that because of someone’s whiteness, maleness, and economic status, they somehow had the right to own people. That is truly an evil, dehumanizing belief to hold, and yet it was normalized because other white people liked the idea that they had some kind of proximity to the person in control, which made them closer to attaining it themselves. The mere fact that a recent sitting president (talk about a need to have control over others) can proclaim that ANTIFA is bad and is somehow infringing on our rights, is both alarming and perplexing. Being anything but anti-facist could have gotten you killed a few decades ago in this country, especially to those who love capitalism and believe in its ideology. This thinly veiled assertion of free speech is actually the manifestation of a desire for a narcissistic person to obtain as much power as possible, and people fell for it because they believe that by proximity, they have a chance at being the one who holds the power some day.
It’s the American Dream. Forget the white picket fence and the two and a half kids. The American capitalistic ideal is to have as much money and assets as possible, because money gives you power. That’s where the mobility in the power structure comes into play. The different permutations of various intersections of privileged identities tell you where you rank in the power structure, and while some may argue the order (who has more power, someone who is white and poor or someone who is a person of color and wealthy?), the general consensus is that being a middle aged to older (late 40s-mid 70s) white cishet wealthy able-bodied Christian man is the ultimate degree of power in this country. Look at elected officials, for instance. The disproportionate representation of that demographic is laughable. Who are these people who claim to represent a country that no longer looks like them? People, many of whom grew up and were educated during Jim Crow and who hold onto the beliefs of their generation, whether they announce it publicly or whisper it quietly. Modern conservative people, who feel so threatened by socialism that they’re willing to kill and die for it. The concept of providing resources for everyone poses such a threat to the power structure that they have relied on for generations, that they are willing to come up with new creative ways to argue against it. It's all a response to mediocrity and entitlement, frankly.
The ruling class doesn’t think that student loan debt should be cancelled, because it isn’t fair to people who have paid their loans. If they can’t directly benefit from a policy themselves they need to do everything they can to stifle it. Student loans, who disproportionately affect marginalized communities, with high-interest loan sharks and predatory, deliberate abuse of a group of people who had been fighting for equity already without this added layer of oppression. Why? Because when you owe someone money they hold power over you. When people of color owe white-run banks money it maintains the power structure and reduces the threat. The most frustrating thing about this is that these are literally numbers on a screen, and nothing more. I have never held the almost $300,000 in loans that it took me to receive my education in my hands. This isn’t cash or gold or anything other than numbers on a screen. Numbers that started from the college’s bursar web page and went to the lender’s web page and was never actually anything other than an arbitrary ranking of who gets to hold what power. The ‘good’ schools cost more money because only people with money should have access to another purported currency of power: education. But if poor people want to get an education they better have been really good (have a high enough credit score), and they’re going to have to really beg for it (take the risk of having your credit score reduced so you can apply for a loan) and maybe if the power-holders are feeling charitable they’ll provide a loan to help you try to get the education that we’ve all been convinced is our ticket out of this caste. But it’s all bullshit. Those loans that, if we’re lucky enough to receive, come with interest rates that can make even small and moderate loans a life-long trap. Why? Because wealthy people want to stay wealthy, and even though we were all duped into believing getting an education is our vehicle out of here, the ruling class found another way to keep us in our place. That increased income that you’ll earn due to your higher education will just go into abhorrent student loan payments for the next several decades. You won’t buy a house because you’ll have a student loan payment instead of a mortgage payment.
We haven’t even discussed gender norms and power. I’d argue that much of what we think about gender norms, and the differentials and double standards that exist in our culture, is about sex, and most of what’s about sex is ultimately about power. The fact, for example, that a political party whose foundation was derived on insisting in small government, has fought endlessly to maintain a sense of power over the bodies of people assigned female at birth. Those old white cishet men in positions of power feel entitled to make decisions over the bodies of (poor) women, femmes, non-binary folks, and other people with vaginas, and as soon as that power was taken from them they have been on a rampage to get it back. People fighting for reproductive rights have the audacity to suggest that anyone should be making any decisions of importance other than white cishet men. Further, wealthy white women will always have access to abortions, whether they are legal or not. The push for “pro-life” politics is to keep the working class under control. Whether we are talking about abortion, what we wear walking down the street, or how we cut our hair, there are always voices arguing against a feminine-presenting person’s agency. Slut shaming when women and femmes assert sexual desires in a consensual way, suggestions that what you’re wearing might make you deserve to be sexually assaulted, these are all examples of black and white thinking and gendered violence. She is the madonna or she is a whore; she is a prude or she is a slut; she asked for it or she wouldn’t have put herself in the situation in the first place; she is pro-life or she wants to kill babies; she is a good mother and/or wife or she works too much and doesn’t spend enough time with her kids and/or husband. Archaic, absolute, and baseless claims that force organic beings and experiences into distinct boxes and give us a sense of rules so that someone can enforce them.
Homophobia, yes, but also transphobia, biphobia, an insistence on a gender binary, TERFism, these are all ways that sexuality and gender identity are entangled in this black and white web. Somewhere along the line, those holding power (governments, organized religious leaders, or other influential figures) decided that homosexuality was ‘bad’ and categorized it as such.Transphobia threatens the masculinity of insecure cisgendered men and taps into their inherent homophobia, because you guessed it, the ruling class also wants to control how you receive pleasure, who provides that pleasure, what they look like, and what they call themselves. Arguing against the legitimacy of bisexuality or being non-binary is another way to force black and white thinking onto people and to extend arbitrary rules to control others.
Any deviation from the ‘norm’ of white cishet wealthy able-bodied privilege has provided an opportunity for the ruling class to marginalize. Black and white thinking enables this status quo, because it asserts that there is a right and wrong to everything. The same people who belittle so-called identity politics are the ones who depend on different categorizations of people to maintain their sense of power. We have a problem in modern culture when it comes to avoidance. So often, people will read a headline or social media post and take it as truth and spread it like wildfire. The avoidance of looking further into what you read or hear, corroborating stories, and asking questions is leading us towards a bleak future. Retweeting is easier. Free thought is at risk because we have become such a culture dependent on teams or sides that we don’t allow for the in-between. Black and white thinking is dumbing us down. It suggests we don’t have the capacity for nuance. It doesn’t give space for learning. It’s reductive.
The good news is the revolution is happening. In 2020, we had the perfect storm (I hesitate to use this phrase, because we’re talking about people’s lives and livelihoods) of incompetent government on a local and national scale, a dire public health crisis, national attention and outrage to police brutality and injustice, and an economic crisis like nothing we’ve ever seen. The response to each of these can be criticized no matter what so-called team you’re on. What this all shed light on, however, is that the system of power that we’ve all been playing a role in is an illusion. If we can impose an eviction moratorium for months on a national scale, then we really are able to provide housing to everyone. If we can agree that stimulus checks are necessary (even if elected officials cannot seem to agree on an amount) then a universal basic income isn’t all that radical of an idea. If we can pause federal student loan payments and interest for 20+ months, then maybe those really are just numbers on a screen. If we can begin passing laws that hold police accountable, and begin defunding police and reallocating funding to social services, maybe the police don’t actually need those insanely high budgets. Working or going to school from home is actually an option for many people, and if it’s something that people prefer or benefit from maybe we should make it accessible. If health insurance companies can waive your copay for telehealth appointments for 10+ months, maybe they don’t need to be charging you unreasonable deductibles and copays after all. All this time we’ve been convinced that the status quo must continue because that’s the only way this all works. In fact, for all of this to really work, we need to push back against the status quo as hard as possible. Perhaps we don’t have to choose who gets to hold the power over everyone else. Perhaps we can have agency in our own lives and function without the illusion of control that’s been hammered into us all this time.