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Black and white


Are you a vegetarian, vegan or a non-vegetarian?
Are you a teetotaler or do you consume alcohol?
Are you gay, straight or bisexual?
Do you like Trump or hate him?
Do you support Universal Basic Income or you don't?
Do you agree with the firecracker ban or do you not?

We like things to be black and white. We like labels. It makes it easy for us to comprehend and slot people into compartments. It is hard for us to comprehend someone that is primarily vegetarian but occasionally eats meat, or someone that is a teetotaler but occasionally has a beer, or someone that likes a thing or two about Donald Trump and his policies.

This is especially visible in media and social commentary. If a politician or a public figure takes a stand on something, then the media will find one little thing in their ancient past (or sometimes the present) that goes against the stand they have taken and point them out as lacking in credibility.

We see this in The Dark Knight as well, where all the good work Harvey Dent has done stands to be undone by a single violent act of revenge.

Looking at things as black and white is helpful. Assigning labels to what we see is helpful. It is essential in learning quickly and to form quick opinions through association on things we don't have the time to evaluate deeply.

But we ought to be aware that it is only a proxy. Scientific rules and theorems are all full of exceptions. Nature is full of exceptions. Math is full of exceptions. Algorithms are full of exceptions.

We recognise a bat and a blue whale as mammals, we recognise that Newton's laws don't hold up in the cosmic scale, we recognise that there is uncertainty in determining the position and velocity of electrons accurately. Yet, we accept all these where they work well, and understand where the exceptions arise from.

Labels help us understand things quickly, and that's their only utility. When somebody deviates from the label we have assigned them, it isn't always true that that label no longer holds for them. It just means that there is something else at play that we ought to understand.

Black and white are merely the extremes. There are several shades of grey in between.

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