Flatland, The Black and White World

by: hawkgrrrl

June 11, 2013

You’re for us or you’re against us.  People are good or evil.  We serve God or Satan.  Many people prefer the simplicity of true/false and either/or choices to the subtlety of an essay question or even the slightly elevated risk of a multiple choice quiz.  It’s easier to follow a checklist (which is essentially a list of pass/fail requirements that you either did or didn’t do) than it is to ponder and seek understanding of situations and doctrines, arriving at a more individual and nuanced approach.  Particularly for people who find comfort in the debunked notion that “when the brethren speak, the thinking is done,” the cognitive trap of polemic thinking is appealing.  Mormons are certainly not  immune to black and white thinking.

Mormon Polemics

In his October 2011 General Conference address, E. Callister stated:

“The genius of the Book of Mormon is there is no middle ground.  It is either the word of God as professed, or it is a total fraud.”

Elder Callister seems to be channeling Orson Pratt:

“This book must be either true or false. If true, it is one of the most important messages ever sent from God to man, affecting both the temporal and eternal interests of every people . . . If false, it is one of the most cunning, wicked, bold, deep-laid impositions ever palmed upon the world, calculated to deceive and ruin millions . . . if true, no one can possibly be saved and reject it; if false, no one can possibly be saved and receive it.” (Orson Pratt, Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, 1:1, October 15, 1850)

Is this mere hyperbolic rhetoric or is a flatview legitimate when it comes to matters of faith?


Edwin Abbott’s 1884 satiric novel Flatland shares the story of a two-dimensional being (living in Flatland) who dreams about a visit to a one-dimensional realm (Lineland), then a three-dimensional realm (Spaceland).  For a variety of reasons, he is unable to convince others of the existence of Spaceland.  Some simply can’t fathom a three-dimensional world; others (corrupt leaders) are involved in a conspiracy to keep Spaceland a secret.

A flatview is any rigid perspective that constricts our imagination to just one dimension.  It’s thinking in a binary mode.  We see people as either good or evil.  We understand events as either positive or negative.  We categorize others as either with us or against us.  Since most complex problems typically contain shades of gray, the flatview trap limits our understanding of what we see, and therefore leads us to simplistic solutions.

This black and white viewpoint stems from reductionist thinking, a lack of empathy and a lack of imagination.

Imagination permits us to perceive the world in multiple dimensions.  It lets us speculate how life could be different for ourselves and for others.  It enables us to consider values and behaviors at variance with our own without rejecting them out of hand.  If imagination resides in the mind, empathy is imagination of the heart.  Empathy lets us feel what others might be feeling.  It empowers us to step inside another person’s emotional body and experience his gut reactions.

For a political example, Mossadegh in Iran was interpreted as tilting toward communism, not expressing national aspirations for Iran.

Because the flatview trap constricts our imagination and curtails our empathy, it often leads us to approach problems in a narrow, either/or mind-set.  We simplify the world into those who are with us and those who are against us.  And when we confront individuals who exhibit contradictory behaviors, actions that do not conform to our flatview, we don’t know in which category to place them.  Because flatviews do not allow for contradictions, complexity, or nuance, we interpret ostensibly inconsistent behavior as intentionally duplicitous, designed to trick us.

In his memoirs, McNamara admitted that he and other key decision makers at the time misread the Vietnamese struggle.  McNamara explained, “We also totally underestimated the nationalist aspect of Ho Chi Minh’s movement.  We saw him first as a Communist, and only second as a Vietnamese nationalist.”

To disregard the complex situation Vietnam was in was a grave tactical error indeed that cost many lives where diplomacy and a softer touch may have had better results.  But a flatview is embraced out of fear as well and a need to control situations too complex to understand.

Motives and Causes

It’s human nature to think in black & white terms.  It’s always easier than listening to viewpoints that are unfamiliar or strange when taken out of context; and when taken out of context and put in our own context, things will often appear to be “wrong.”

In Fowler’s Stages of Faith  model, those in Stage 3 (the most common stage) are very prone to black & white thinking.  Most people go through their whole lives not questioning assumptions and not really listening to viewpoints that are inconsistent with their own.  Even when someone progresses from a Stage 3 viewpoint to a Stage 4, they may simply reject their former views and find it more comfortable to slink back to Stage 3 in an equally black & white manner.

  • Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to religious authority and the development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.
  • Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one’s belief.
  • Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent “truth” that cannot be explained by any particular statement.

When we visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam, it was fascinating that the anti-war statements of conflicted American soldiers were so easily adopted into Stage 3 Vietcong propaganda.  One man’s Stage 4 easily fit another man’s Stage 3.

While the Faith Stages are couched in terms of religious belief, they easily apply to cultural beliefs.  When we moved to Asia, we learned from experience that most of our cultural beliefs are things we are unaware about.  When we saw people with different cultural assumptions it became easier to see what our own were and to then decide which American values we believed and which we did not.  Without that international exposure, I would have had difficulty identifying exactly which values were not universal – at least in some cases.

What do you think?

  • Are there situations that are truly black & white?  Or is everything somewhere in between?
  • Is seeing things in black & white evidence of a lack of empathy & imagination or is there another reason?
  • Are you prone to black & white thinking?


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18 Responses to Flatland, The Black and White World

  1. BrotherQ on June 11, 2013 at 7:21 AM

    I think there are very few situations that are black and white. We lack so much information about what other people are thinking, how their brains work, why they do what they do (sometimes I think we don’t even understand why we ourselves do what we do!). Our memories are fallible and unreliable. Most situations are FAR more complicated than we realize. We spend far too much time trying to label things rather than just accepting them, pondering them, and then moving on trying to live better lives and avoid doing things that make us unhappy. Even definitions are problematic (what do we really mean when we say “The Church is true?”). Life is not only not black and white, it is a rainbow of colors, which is why it is both wonderful and challenging.

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  2. Howard on June 11, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    Great subject!

    Black and white thinking is a very useful time saver but it is early primitive child-like thinking. The reason it saves us time is the mortal world is made up of a lot of simple action vs. inaction choices. I will have another sip of water or I will not have another sip of water. This does not seem like a very nuanced question yet at a barely conscious level we actually debate seemingly simple questions like this before deciding to act or not. Our bodies are mostly water and depend on an adequate amounts to stay healthy and operate well so this question could become a very complex if we were to get highly nuanced down to the cellular level and the question could take a very long time to answer. Inability to decide or delays in regarding action vs. inaction choices often results in ambivalence, agitation and/or anxiety, so often any quick decision is much better than no decision at all!

    The church makes use of this primitive all-or-nothing thinking to draw you in as an investigator and retain you as a member – one vague spiritual conformation serves as blanket “proof” that everything from Joseph Smith through City Creek is “true” (what ever that means) and exactly the way God wants it! It also makes use of this simple thinking to predetermine your future modesty, WoW and LoC choices. Unfortunately some members never seem to grow beyond this childish thinking level. This dynamic is often at the bottom of bloggernacle debates where it’s the so called “faithful” black and white thinkers vs implied not so faithful nuanced thinkers! The so called “faithful” define nuanced members as “not them” and therefore not faithful members when in truth these simple black and white thinkers are simply the vocal pharisee followers of today and makeup only a tiny portion of the total faithful membership of the church! We might think of them as pharisaical activists or agitators!

    Polarized arguments divide people into “us” vs “them” groups. Black and white thinking is tribal thinking and it is the basis of all prejudice. It works to bind the like minded, the joiners and the wannabes together and set them apart from others. This probably sounds great to “in the world, not of the world” TBMs but let’s look a little deeper. Black and white thinking truncates! It forces all analog gray values into just two choices; black or white even when there may have been little difference between the two values prior to their truncation!!!

    A true black and white picture is a pen and ink drawing. This is a very simple picture that conveys very little information and subtlety compared to a grainy looking newspaper halftone photo which itself is a very simple image compared to a true gray scale photograph (imagine Ansel Adams). If you were to scan these three types of images of the same scene the black & white pen and ink drawing would be a very, very tiny digital file compared to the Ansel Adams photograph and the newspaper photo would fall somewhere in between. Black and white thinking lacks information, nuanced thinking provides information.

    By truncating so called “faithful” black and white thinkers create far more distance between themselves and the “non-faithful” nuanced thinkers than actually exists!!! And they like it this way because nuanced thinking threatens them greatly! They create this distance because they seek safety of though fearing that nuance will create chaos of their simple belief system and as a result send them to the hell of a lower kingdom in the afterlife for having flown too close to the sun. They mentally bought into a package deal that they haven’t yet examined in the light of day or in much detail. They haven’t parsed it and owned it menu item by menu item and they don’t really want to because they know it won’t look as good in sunlight as it does in the unexamined shadows of their early belief!

    There is a way to grow through this and actually find the kingdom of God but it is found in the antithesis of church activity, obedience to letter of the law and binomial checklists. The kingdom of God is within, be still and know that I am God. Is the mortal church wrong? No it’s just elementary school. Religion is the moralization of spirituality. Spirituality is the path to God.

    If the the “faithful” were to allow nuance into the discussion they would still find some disagreement but that disagreement would be over much narrower shades of gray than the extreme polar opposites of black and white that they force the discussion into! And should they allow light and reason in they might actually find themselves agreeing with their not so “faithful” enemy who were probably once where they reside now. We have met the enemy and he is us!

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  3. Howard on June 11, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    I see flat world as a more generalize perceptual problem. Black and white thinking is more specific and can be a subset of flat world mentality which is a perceptual blind spot. I was talking with a global expert on high frequency gravitational waves who marveled aloud at Einstein’s ability to think outside the box! That is; see through the common blind spot most of humankind shared. This is the problem of the optical illusion of the old woman vs the young woman. Can you easily see both? If you typically only see one you tend to lock on to an idea and lock out any information to the contrary. If you easily see both you tend to be open to any idea and it may be difficult for you to stick with a single plan or course of action. We need a blend of both. Einstein simply dared to consider time as a variable rather than a constant and this open mindedness changed the world and it’s paradigm!

    If we fail to see the growth in humankind between Adam and Moses’ time and between Moses’ and Joseph’s time we will tend to label the laws we are given *eternal* without realizing that we are given a new law a little above were we are currently and expected to grow into it while leaving the obsolete behind.

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  4. Howard on June 11, 2013 at 2:00 PM

    We mistake authority for power, physical ordinances for what they spiritually represent, a building called the Temple for what a Temple spiritually represents. We substitute administrators for Prophets, inspiration for revelation, correlated whitewashed lessons for gospel, rote rules for gospel principles and church discipline for Jesus’ saying “go and sin no more”. We are clearly still idol worshipers, though a step removed from Aaron’s golden calf!

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  5. Stan on June 11, 2013 at 2:51 PM

    Howard, aren’t your comments reflective of a black-and-white mentality? Pitting so-called black-and-white members who cling unthinkingly to rigid rules against those enlightened faithful who’ve escaped from the Church’s limited worldview?

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  6. Justin on June 11, 2013 at 3:01 PM

    There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who do not.

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  7. Howard on June 11, 2013 at 3:20 PM

    No. My comments are descriptive of typical bloggernacle interactions and I am contrasting and comparing binomial with nuanced thinking. How else would you accomplish that Stan?

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  8. Hawkgrrrl on June 11, 2013 at 4:49 PM

    Stan, I think you do a disservice to members, most of whom in my experience do not cling to rigid black and white views. There are folks that do both inside and outside of Mormonism. I don’t see it often enough to consider it a stereotype. Then again, I don’t live in Utah, and maybe the black and white tendency holds truer where isolated attitudes prevail.

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  9. h_nu on June 11, 2013 at 5:52 PM

    Just a simple reminder that gray is not a color.
    Gray doesn’t even exist, gray is the collection of black and white elements.
    Claiming that something is gray is just something that myopic, uneducated folks do.
    In the end, it’s all black and white.

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  10. Howard on June 11, 2013 at 6:28 PM

    Thanks for the nuance h_nu!

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  11. Hedgehog on June 12, 2013 at 1:49 AM

    Reminds me that before the last general election the labour party were conducting a survey to find out public views on the labour government. Did we think they’d done a good job basically. It was conducted by phone, and I think must have been a frustrating conversation for the guy conducting the survey, and was for me too. For instance, I had no objection with a particular policy, I could see there had been good outcomes, but I didn’t like the way they gone about doing things, and for me the method was as important as the result.
    I do tend to be something of a headache for anyone conducting a survey.

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  12. Hedgehog on June 12, 2013 at 1:52 AM

    Howard: “Our bodies are mostly water and depend on an adequate amounts to stay healthy and operate well so this question could become a very complex if we were to get highly nuanced down to the cellular level and the question could take a very long time to answer. Inability to decide or delays in regarding action vs. inaction choices often results in ambivalence, agitation and/or anxiety, so often any quick decision is much better than no decision at all!”
    This made me smile somewhat. My autism spectrum teenager has difficulty with some sensory processing and only the other day asked suddenly ‘How’s my hydration?’ ‘Well, are you thirsty?’ ‘I don’t know!’ ‘Well you don’t have an inbuilt meter we can check. You are free to have a drink whenever you wish.’ My teenager was muttering about about the complexities of hydration, and possible effects at the cellular level, and finally opted for a drink of water. I’ve definitely observed the paralysing anxiety, agitation and fear of taking the wrong action in things we most of us do automatically. But still, you’d have to be trying to drink too much water.

    Stan, I’m with hawkgrrrl on this one. And I think, if we’re honest most of us tend to be more black and white about some things and more nuanced about others. To some extent it probably depends on what interests us, where we have time to think and ponder versus the extent to which we need to make quick decisions to be able to function efficiently in our lives (as Howard explained in his first comment).

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  13. Howard on June 12, 2013 at 8:04 AM

    I think it’s interesting ponder the black and whiteness of the ten commandments that draw bright behavior lines vs the nuance of the beatitudes aimed at well…a loving attitude. Given their relative timing it suggests to me that humankind was expected to mature beyond b&w thinking and I wounder why the church is still back there enforcing the 10Cs given the Christian beatitudes are now some 2,000 years old! Some will blame the lowest common denominator of the members but if the brethren abdicate leading them above it how long will it take for the bottom to move beyond this primitive thinking on their own? Perhaps when the Packers are gone we’ll see a change.

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  14. NorCalDad on June 14, 2013 at 12:02 PM

    This is such as great discussion and one that I confront daily. Rarely are there black and white situations (do I rob this person at gunpoint?) and instead we (or I at least) operate in a world with many shades of off-white and light grey.

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  15. Hawkgrrrl on June 14, 2013 at 8:47 PM

    Howard, don’t count your Packers before they’re, er, hatched. Bednar stands at the ready in his slightly too tight uncomfortable shoes.

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  16. Howard on June 15, 2013 at 10:36 AM

    Good point Hawkgrrrl,
    I forgot about Pickleman’s complete abstanance precedes spirit travel through authorized channels! It does remind me of Packer’s little factory!

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  17. hawkgrrrl on June 15, 2013 at 8:43 PM

    Isn’t thinking about Packer’s “little factory” grounds for a court of love?

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  18. Howard on June 16, 2013 at 9:51 AM

    Lol! Yes, repression was generally preferred over expression! It’s pretty hard on one’s prostate though.

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