How to Tell If You're Living in a Binary Crisis
I try to draw wisdom from Tracy Chapman, Roman chariot races, politics, René Girard, Marie Antoinette, and the Texas A&M Aggies
I want to start with a story about Texas. It’s also a good description of what I call a binary conflict.
I recently wrote a letter of recommendation for an engineering student at Texas A&M. He’s an impressive, hardworking young man—with solid character and very trustworthy.
To help cover college costs, he does part time work helping people move.
It’s grueling physical labor. But he never complains. Someday soon he may be an engineer. But when he does a moving job, he has no attitude—and he puts 100% effort into the physical labor.
This young man recently showed up at a Texas house, where he was scheduled to help a family move But as soon as they opened the door, he could see they were shocked, even horrified, by his presence on their doorstep.
“I’m here to help with the move,” he explained.
“No you aren’t,” the woman at the door said, ready to slam it in his face.
“You don’t understand,” he replied. “I’m helping with your move today.”
“No, you are NOT,” she repeated, and pointed at his shirt.
His shirt had just one thing written on it: Texas A&M.
She scowled—and after a moment, explained: “This has always been a Longhorn house. We never let Aggies in here.”
And so he didn’t have a job that day.
That’s how they roll in the Lone Star State.
And if, by some terrible destiny, a Texas A&M supporter marries a University of Texas fan, they put this “House Divided” banner outside their home.
That’s how a binary conflict works in society. Life may be complex—but it gets simpler if you can reduce things to two opposing forces.
But sometimes the binary conflict escalates into a binary crisis. When that happens, events spiral out of control.
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Did you ever wonder why the biggest sports battles always involve two teams?
You could easily design a basketball court with three hoops—and play the game with three teams. Or four or five or any number you want.
But that never happens.
Despite all the talk of threesomes, you’re not gonna find one on ESPN. Well, not on screen—who knows what those athletes (or sportscasters) do after the game?
But every team competition I’ve seen in my entire life has featured a binary opposition—whether we’re talking football, baseball, hockey, volleyball, or even quidditch in a Harry Potter film.
It’s always two opposed forces.
“Some of this stuff is so toxic nobody wants to talk about it. But I’ve actually seen management teams bond together more effectively because they all hate the CEO.”
That was even true when I competed in an academic contest during my student days—the national quiz bowl competition known as College Bowl. My team had to defeat dozens of other schools to win the national title—but every competition was a head-to-head matchup. We beat Yale in the televised finals, and the binary opposition was what drew the ratings.
The producers even told us so. “We like this Stanford versus Yale matchup—the ratings will be good.”
Only a few individual sports allow for multiple participants competing all at once. Can you spell B-O-R-I-N-G?
That’s why track events and swim meets don’t get much TV coverage—audiences demand the binary opposition.
In my youth, I was a fan of TV wrestling, and I recall with fondness the famous Battle Royale, which took place once each year at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown LA. But these free-for-alls never lived up to expectations—because so many competitors made it hard to identify the enemy.
And it wasn’t just the audience that got confused Even the participants and referees looked lost up in that ring. Without the binary opposition, the sport felt meaningless.
Just look at a video and see for yourself. A bunch of dudes in a brawl should be a lot more exciting than this.
There’s a rule here, but an ugly rule. The key to effective teamwork is having a single enemy.
Now here’s something even uglier. The same team-building hostility is heating up over in the enemy’s camp. That evil team is getting bigger and stronger because it hates you—and precisely because you’re bonding with your own team.
Some of this stuff is so toxic nobody wants to talk about it. But I’ve actually seen management teams bond together more effectively because they all hate the CEO. That’s what finally brings them together, and gets them to cooperate.
But don’t expect to hear human resources explain this at your next office seminar on teamwork. The reality is that, at some companies today, workers bond together to battle HR.
Somebody should write a global history of binary conflicts—because no force has exerted more influence over human affairs.
Rome collapsed while its citizens fought over the colors blue and green. That sounds crazy, but it’s absolutely true.
I believe this is the single most significant fact about Roman history.
The conflict between Blues and Greens lasted for a thousand years.
During that period, each color enjoyed periods of dominance, and could have used its power to make tangible improvements and fix a broken system.
But they rarely did this—because were obsessed with punishing the other color team.
They won’t teach that in history class. But they should. It ought to be the first lesson.
It’s hard to explain this Roman mania, but here’s what I’ve written elsewhere:
The conflict may have started as a sporting rivalry, but in time the battling colors impacted every aspect of society. Your chosen color could influence your political loyalties, your pastimes, your religious views, and almost every other affiliation in day-to-day life….
The more you study the phenomenon, the clearer it becomes that the main motivating force of each group was hatred of the other group. Making the opponent suffer was far more satisfying than any mere policy outcome.
As a result, the most trifling incident at the chariot races or theaters could set off the factions, and as Rome declined the violence got worse. By the time we get into the fifth century AD, the conflicts sometimes took the form of pitched battles in the streets.
Sometimes a binary conflict turns into a full-blown binary crisis.
It happened in Rome. It happened during the medieval witch hunts. It happened during the French Revolution. It may be happening in some parts of the world today.
How can you tell when you’re living in a binary collapse?
Here are seven warning signs: