Stop thinking of everything in binary terms

Associated Press
41 Comments

A lot of the replies in response to the Ichiro-Pete Rose thing from this morning are saying things like this, taken from a comment to that post:

“why in the hell should anyone — let alone Rose — pretend that Ichiro is breaking Rose’s record?”

Which would be a decent comment if anyone at all was pretending that Ichiro was actually breaking Pete Rose’s record. No one that I’ve seen is honestly suggesting that he is. He’s matching the same number of hits but no one is forgetting to note that over 1,200 of them came in Japan, no one says the Japan hits count toward an actual MLB record and no one is claiming that the level of play in Japan was or is as high as it is in the United States. People are merely saying “hey, that’s great” or “wow, that’s a lot of hits” and “boy, that is quite an accomplishment.” Which it is, regardless of whether or not it goes in the record book.

This sort of sentiment is just the latest example of hyper-binary thinking that has crept into the discourse in recent years. Sports discourse and general discourse. There are either winners or losers. Right or wrong. Hall of Famers or nobodies. Good people and bad people. Record holders and those who fall short. It’s a nice handy way to say something pithy and to start arguments that lead to more engagement, pageviews and followers, but it’s a pretty crappy way to describe the world and its inhabitants, in sports or in life.

In baseball I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past and, on occasion, still traffic in it. I’m really trying to cut it out, but it’s not easy. What’s the first question we ask when a player retires? It’s “is he a Hall of Famer?” Which is a question a lot of people want answered so we ask it and try to answer it, but we’ve come to do it so much that we all but ignore the good parts of careers that are not quite to Hall of Fame level. We’re asking a binary “yes/no” question and relegating all the “nos” to a big pile of negative. Or else we create a secondary binary about who is the worst Hall of Fame “snub.” We rarely talk about guys who had nice careers, could’ve made the Hall of Fame but, hey, we can see why they didn’t and that’s all OK.

The same goes when questions of character or behavior come up. Someone is good or someone is bad. A hero or a villain. Think of Barry Bonds or A-Rod in baseball. To some they’re nothing but evil because of some of their missteps and flaws. To others — and again, I and some of my friends have been guilty of this — their flaws are overlooked because we like their game and because we really like to go off on people who attack them. I still lean the way I do because I feel like it’s better to err on the side of NOT judging someone’s character if we do not know them personally than going in and judging. But maybe it’s possible to say that (a) a given player’s game was fantastic; (b) they should not be attacked as evil but; (c) um, yeah, they were not necessarily great people in certain respects and sometimes were downright bad. Good people do bad things sometimes. Bad people do good things sometimes, right? It’s not all black and white.

The Ichiro stuff is obviously way less heavy than that, but our impulse to go binary with it is part of the same pattern. Pete Rose will still have the MLB hit record even if we note that what Ichiro did was amazing. Even if we go so far as to count all of Ichiro’s hits up and put them in a big pile, informally speaking. To praise one is not to detract from the other. At least as far as baseball accomplishments are concerned.

It probably doesn’t make for good arguing on the internet to say that most things aren’t binary propositions. Indeed, if sports networks took that idea to heart 75% of their non-game programming would be cancelled immediately. But it does have the benefit of actually reflecting the real world, and that’s probably something people in the media business should at least consider doing once in a while.