(Essay) Spectrum Thinking
Bernard Hankins is a gifted speaker and teacher, and his TEDTalk “Integrating People of Color” announces a vital link between the loss of creativity and the loss of diversity. He argues that the loss of ‘spectrum thinking’ (ST) leads to an increase in ‘binary thinking’ (BT), which contributes to segregation in concordance not only with how people have been taught to think but also with what they have been taught to believe is right. Consequently, education that stresses diversity but doesn’t incubate creativity is like stressing flight without providing wings: it fates students and society for failure and frustration. And when that failure occurs, lacking spectrum thinking, we may very well lack the capacity to recognize what caused the failure — in fact, we may think the problem is that we don’t have enough (binary) education — and so the Greek tragedy will go on, ever-worsening.
Bernard Hankins argues that a nation without imag-i-nation will never cease to be a nation of dis-crim-i-nation: each self or ‘I’ in the nation will continue to dis-tance him or herself from different kinds of people rather than imag-i-ne an alternative. To imagine is for an ‘I’ to see a different image than the image of ‘what is’, but when education fails to incubate imagination, students lack this capacity. Worse yet, when schools incubate ‘binary thinking’, not only are students unable to imagine alternatives, they are taught to break down what they experience into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘true’ and ‘false’, ‘best’ and ‘good’, ‘week’ and ‘weekend’, and so on. Rather than synthesize, combine, and think holistically, students are taught to discriminate: to ‘draw a distinction’ between the right answer and the wrong answer, what the teacher is looking for and what you think is right, and so on. Students are taught to ‘break up’, ‘to draw lines between’, ‘to divide’, and yet we are shocked when we find our nation full of discrimination.
Ending discrimination isn’t simply a matter of finding all the racists and forcing them to repent; rather, it is a matter of changing how people think. Today, the trouble isn’t so much the KKK, but the ways people put one another in boxes, stereotype, make assumptions, and so on. As written about in “Discussing Race” by O.G. Rose, often, when people discuss ‘racism’, they mean something more Foucauldian — about how ‘the default way of thinking’, without any coordination or intent, naturally favors the majority and ‘unintentionally’ oppresses minorities — the oppression is ‘emergent’ and a matter of ‘high order complexity’ (to use language from “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose). When it comes to stopping this emergent oppression, the only hope is to change how people think, and yet that often seems to be exactly what school is in the business of not doing.
Hankins convincingly, brilliantly, and eloquently diagnoses the problem facing modern society. Since we aren’t creative, we discriminate, because how we think discriminates between right and wrong, just as school has taught us. Creative thinking (or spectrum thinking, ST) combines, synthesizes, and unites, making diversity and difference exciting and inspiring. On the other hand, binary thinking (BT) makes difference — and anything else which makes determining ‘the answer’ difficult — a threat. In ST, there is no answer; there is creation, the realization of potential. In BT, all that matters is the answer, and when there is no answer, the question or situation is wrong — tell the teacher to fix the test. But in life, there is no teacher to run to, and when we encounter a situation we don’t understand, we are left to our own devices. And if the only device we have is BT, there will be nothing we can do other than handle the situation poorly. And so discrimination will spread.
Discrimination starts with thinking, and if you’re living in a dis-crim-i-nation, it’s because of how the nation thinks. In drawing a connection between the absence of creativity and the presence of racism, discrimination, sexism, Islamophobia, and worse, Bernard Hankins has shown us the way to help heal America of some of its deepest and most persistent wounds.
How often have you met a racist artist? A discriminatory painter? A sexist sculptor? Sure, creative individuals can fall into stereotypes and irrational fears that lead to misjudgments, but how many artists intentionally perpetuate irrational hate or self-segregate? Personally, I know of no artists who do such things, and I know a lot of artists. Artists are hungry for inspiration, novelty, and new ideas, and if they reject diversity outright, they are virtually doomed from the start. Usually, true artists are willing to look anywhere and try anything, for the nature of their calling forces them to be ‘open to’ the world and all its colors, oddities, and mysteries. Difference is seen as an opportunity, and against the norm, it is uniformity that is the threat.
To those who only know BT though, difference is only an opportunity insomuch as the individual can find the right answer and hence feel good about being right, as teachers have taught students (like mice trained in an experiment). But difference is also necessarily a threat, a threat of getting the answer wrong, of not getting the right answer. For the BT, difference causes anxiety, anxiety about saying the right things and not messing up (consider how nervously whites can act around blacks). Additionally, the BT can ‘mess-up’, while there really aren’t any ‘mess-ups’ for the ST until the artist lacks the creativity to transform the mistake into something beautiful, true, and/or good. And if there really is a mistake for the artist, it is no problem: beauty requires mess.
The world is a collection of things that are not the same. To live in the world, we must learn to live with things that do not share our image. We must be diverse, yet we are taught by a school system that praises diversity while teaching us to think in binary terms. It would be comical if it weren’t so dire.
Before moving on, do note that I don’t mean to imply that no artist has been infected by BT thinking. Thanks to school, everyone has been: it’s just that artists have at least some ST to balance and fight against BT. Nor is it the case that everyone who isn’t an artist has no ST. One person could use 40% BT and 60% ST; another, 83% BT and 17% ST. Clearly I speak in generalities, but generalities that I believe are helpful.
Finally, for a strong diagnosis on the problems with modern education, consider the canon of Neil Postman on education.
Discrimination often occurs out of fear. ST trains people to be brave: to take on the unexpected, to experiment, to challenge the status quo, to fight for something, and so on. BT trains people to be afraid: to stay in the box that guarantees an A, to say what the teacher wants to hear so you aren’t made to feel like an idiot in front of your peers, to avoid the unknown because that is what can lower your GPA, and so on. ST teaches bravery; BT, trepidation.
BT trains people to avoid risks, while ST trains people to take risks wisely. Risk-aversion spreads discrimination, for BT people avoid what they don’t understand: they don’t risk encountering the unknown or the unpredictable. When a BT director is deciding what movie to put out this year, he or she will probably put out something that made money last year. Innovation risks profits and jobs. What made money is probably what the majority liked, and hence ‘the majority’ is always featured and catered to while ‘the minority’ is neglected. Hence, the BT director, in being risk-averse and lacking imagination, even though engaged in the arts, perpetuates majority privilege.
What society provides tends to be what most people want. Hence, a lack of imagination and ST leads to the majority just ‘being the majority’, not intentionally anti-diverse, but ‘anti-diversity’ is the inevitable outcome of the way of thinking which has been incubated in ‘most people’ by school. It already seems the case that the majority struggles to engage in ST naturally, let alone when school fails to teach it. Without ST, studios, businesses, and the like have to follow their empirical data on what works and what doesn’t, and that naturally reflects the wants and consumption habits of the majority. It then becomes rational for ‘the same old’ to be produced time and time again: the numbers confirm it.
Empiricism can favor the majority, contributing to Foucauldian oppression against minorities, which ST (not taught) can stand against. There are always financial reasons backed by data to perpetuate the way things have always been, and because the majority is the largest demographic and marketers rationally target the largest customer base, the minority continues to be left out. To appeal to the minority is to make less money, which can cause a studio, business, and the like to shut down. Without ST, academy or critical acclaim can only do so much to generate interest in a non-majority-catering film. ST is needed to ‘flip’ what constitutes the rational.
Additionally, when minority roles are made in movies, they tend to be in line with the roles that the majority understands the minority to fill, which tends to be stereotypical and in line with the ideas the majority projects onto the minority. Otherwise, the movie will force audiences to see minority individuals in roles that the majority doesn’t readily understand, and this can hurt sales and the future of the studio. Hence, a casting call goes out for a thug or gang member, and the black male who turns down the role misses an opportunity to advance his career and to put food on the table; however, if he fills the role, he will contribute to the perpetuation of what minorities don’t like to see in movies: ‘the same old’. And if he doesn’t take it, someone else likely will: once a movie creates the roll, the character will be seen on screen. Almost violating free will, the studio, in order to generate a profit, forces the minority to suffer another movie with stereotypical roles for minorities, produced by a studio that very well may think of itself as diverse. When a nation lacks ST, there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to fix entrenched culture.
Empiricism favors the majority as does fear, for to not do what the majority favors is to take a risk, which is frightening, especially when there are jobs, funds, and livelihoods on the line. Achieving diversity requires risk, but we are trained by school not to take risks all while we are taught that ‘diversity matters’ — an empty yet true phrase. Risk-averse, BT, and empirical, the majority lives its life perhaps committed to ending oppression, and yet lacking the ST necessary for doing so. And because they are the majority, they are never forced to think what it is like to be someone else: the society reinforces their own experience (the directors make movies the majority likes, political agendas are set by the majority, etc.). In line with the African phenomenology of Frantz Fanon and ‘double consciousness’ of W.E.B Du Bois, the minority is forced to live like they are the majority and to see themselves through the lens of the majority, but the majority is never forced to live like the minority or to see themselves through the eyes of the minority. Empathy doesn’t develop, and incubating BT, school doesn’t help.
The thinking of the majority is a nation’s subconscious: it is the canvas upon which all pictures are painted, setting the parameters, the size, the width, and more. Yes, the painter is free to paint what the painter wants, but from the start, countless options have been taken off the table. The painter must work with what the painter is given or not work at all. And until a nation embraces ST, this will not change: there will be no alternative way of thinking, only hunger for something more — uncreated.
In his talk, Bernard Hankins praises actors, and discusses their mastery of empathy and ST. As actors master, overcoming discrimination requires being able think about life through the eyes of another person. This is exactly what a good actor does, so much so that the self of the actor virtually disappears. In fact, the less present the self of the actor, the more the actor becomes the character. In a movie or play, when the audience sees actors playing characters instead of characters being themselves, the work has failed.
To teach acting would be to teach children how to encounter life through the framework and worldview of someone different than themselves. The more radically the character is different from the actor playing that character, the more impressive the actor who manages to nail the role. Crossing that divide is a noble challenge for the actor, rather than a frightening abyss down which the self can be lost. Empathy and ST change the divide into an opportunity versus a terror for the actor, but in having removed acting from much of education, we have created a body of students who can only tremble before the space between them and those they are not like. Diversity is now an existential threat, not an existential thrill.
The actor sees roles as opportunity for self-expansion, which is necessary for the discovery of one’s true self. Indeed, actors can struggle with identity, but so can the white male working in a factory. Those who expand their self to the point of dilution will struggle with identity as will the person who doesn’t expand their self at all. Where ST isn’t taught, there is much less chance the right balance will be struck; in fact, within those who only have BT, the right balance is impossible.
In a Pluralistic world, we all need to take up acting to train ourselves to think like someone we are not. Understanding how another person lives and thinks can arguably be as complex and difficult as astrophysics, but lacking empathy and ST, we are unable to realize that this claim isn’t absurd and must necessarily think astrophysics problems are harder. Both require genius, but schools only impart upon students the genius of the rocket scientist (if that); the genius of understanding others isn’t needed to ace standardized tests.
However, though actors in their nature fight against BT, when the majority is BT, studios and producers will put out movies that favor the majority. A nation needs not just actors, but an ‘actor culture’, per se: a ST and empathetic culture which is ‘artistically literate’, to use Hankins’ phrase, for otherwise the Foucauldian oppression will continue. Currently, we live in a consumer culture rather than a creative culture, and by definition, a consumer culture will cater to the majority to maximize profits. Where creativity is lacking, consumption is high, but the quality of what is consumed is low if not poisonous. Until what people want changes, which requires people to think differently, the same old will be the future.
What exists in the world that was created is that which has been impacted by the mind, and if the mind is BT, the created world will be BT; if ST, the world will be ST. A BT world is necessarily one of discrimination; a ST world, necessarily one of unification and spectrum colors. Schools that incubate BT thinking are schools that perpetuate ‘the same old’ way of doing things, and that tends to be what caters to the majority. Hence, discrimination is continued, not intentionally, but because in the society lacking ST, it is stuck doing what it has always done, and so in a Foucauldian way — indirectly, without coordination, unintentionally — discrimination continues if not grows.
This paper has added nothing to Bernard Hankins’ talk that he has not already added himself: this paper is more of a lauding than an expositive expansion. Many are gifted at speaking but not teaching, some are gifted at teaching but not speaking, yet Bernard Hankins is gifted at both. His TEDTalk is a gift to us all, possible because of the hard work he has put into crafting his art, his voice, and his mind. It articulates the importance of incubating creativity in the effort to end not only discrimination, but the blandness and uncertainty that increasingly define our age. His talk is a song about a world for which we all long, and since we have perhaps buried that desire under layers of hopeless cynicism, his talk is also a shovel, inviting us to dig.