Manichean comes from Manichaeism, a third-century Persian religion incorporating Christian, Zoroastrian, Pagan and Gnostic elements, but ultimately espousing an extreme worldview involving an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil. In modern terms, Manichean refers to a dualistic philosophy incorporating black and white thinking, or simply a viewpoint which excludes, or even dismisses, the idea of any moral grey area.
Some years ago, I was having a tense conversation with a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, whose lawyer was fighting off the collections department of a large corporation. The lawyer, who was working for free, had advised him to lie for a better chance of settlement (doubtless the lawyer used plausibly deniable language, as lawyers always counsel their clients to tell the truth). For me, it helped to shift this man’s role in my life from current to ex; it was the wrong moral choice to commit perjury, even when it was a “victimless” crime, and I told him, using far more direct language than his lawyer had.
“So, you just think we should all just roll over and let the corporations run roughshod over us?” he snapped.
Any student of debate will recognize this as a “straw man” argument, where an absurd over-exaggeration of the opponent’s viewpoint is used to denigrate their whole line of argument. Like the “slippery slope” fallacy, this form of false logic relies on the idea of black-and-white thinking, where something can be one or the other, but never both, and one is either willing to commit a felony for the “right” cause, or one is shaking hands with the enemy – there is literally no middle ground.
High-control groups and even abusive individuals often use Manichean thinking to create double binds with which to ensnare their victims: You’re either with us or against us; Either you toe the line and ignore your disbelieving family member, or Jehovah will be angry with you; Either you spend time only with me, or you’re an out of control slut; Either you think our leader is wonderful, or you hate our group and everything it stands for (and should be harassed as an enemy of all that is good and right).
Now, I could also be tasked with holding a “black-or-white” viewpoint in stating flatly that perjury is wrong, but although I cannot conceive of such a situation, I am willing to concede that it might – just might – be the acceptable moral choice, but it would have to be a very serious matter: such as if perjuring oneself was going to prevent, say, a genocidal massacre, or some sort of global disaster, or at the very least, keep them from making another “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel. Simply put, I am open for debate, even in hypotheticals.
A Manichean system, however, is never open for debate. Or, rather, believers will “debate” you happily, but there is no recognition of your views or your evidence. This is negative fervor, that zealous state where belief is all-encompassing and everything centers upon that belief. There is no room for other opinions or possibilities; speaking out against the abuses of a group is tantamount to a slap in the face to every member, having compassion for an enemy’s child is to let evil into the ranks, not shouting yourself hoarse at the rally means you don’t really believe in the Cause. It’s all or nothing, and you MUST commit completely; to do anything else is akin to treachery. As Yuval Laor says, the group or relationship is viewed like a child; it is a very bad idea to suggest that there is anything imperfect about a child to the child’s parent.
Once the world is so vastly simplified, any action, no matter how horrible out of context, becomes acceptable, even laudable, when committed for the perceived good of the group. Civil rights are suppressed, and whole populations are relegated to sub-humanity. Extremist, Manichean thinking is a foundation of undue influence.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about Manichean thinking that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!