For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple & wrong

Polarities – Black white. Male female. Young old. Rich poor.

’ (H. L. Mencken)


Black white. Male female. Young old. Rich poor.

Everywhere we look in the news at the moment, we see people, communities, and whole societies divided neatly into binary categories.

It’s one way of simplifying a far more complex and, at times, perplexing reality.

Psychologically and emotionally-speaking, it’s understandable too.

After all, the true level of dynamic complexity in the world, in our neighborhoods and even in our own lives can feel confusing, anxiety-provoking and overwhelming.

Simplifying things in this way can make life and world feel more manageable – at least for a time.

It makes everything appear easier to understand.

It helps avoid the headache of mental paralysis and provides a clear basis for action.

Splitting people and relationships in this way can also create a sense of belonging.

I can identify with those who are like me (‘us’) and disidentify with those who are not (‘them’). That’s the essence of what makes a peer group.

It means I can relax, function and breathe.

The problem is, it’s really a convenient delusion.

It may have some great practical benefits, not least to help us sleep better at night. Yet the either-or categories we use are inescapably simplistic and reductionist.

Here’s a contemporary example: ‘All migrants are angels escaping terrible conditions for a better life’, or:

‘All migrants are demons invading the West for selfish gain.’

Which is true? Neither. Beware polarising words: all; every; always. We discover great riches in the shades of grey.


‘If you are not with me (with ‘us’), then you are against me (with ‘them’)’.

It’s a simple battle cry – choose which side you are on – that provides a psychological and relational means to avoid the difficulties of handling the complexities of a situation.

By adopting this type of tapered mindset, narrowing realities into simple binary categories, it’s easier to find the space where you or I belong.

After all, finding a place, a relationship, a group where we feel we belong is an important part of life.

Once we find that peace of belonging, we experience a sense of completion, a feeling of having arrived.

Without that, we may hunt to find that place within others if we haven’t managed to find it within our own skin.

It can feel that, as a part of a group, there are greater liberties and fewer risks. 

It can promote a sense of shared purpose and, as a part of the in-crowd, we may experience less negative judgements.

At the same time, we lose some autonomy when a group moves as one.

Maya Angelou said, ‘You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high.

The reward is great.

These words forced me to consider my own freedom at a time when I didn’t know where I belonged. I didn’t know where I fitted in.

The discovery, for me, was an ability to be unrestrained by the boundaries of any group.

This philosophy enabled me to find solidarity in the human spirit. We don’t belong to one, we belong within all.

Nick Wright

is a psychological coach, trainer and organisation development (OD) consultant, based in the UK (

Tara Parker

is a change agent, organization development (OD) consultant and soft skills coach, based in the USA (

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