Are Things Really Black and White, or are they Grey?

At some point in our life, we have probably heard or said something like this: life (or some other matter) is not simply a case of black and white, it is grey. And for that matter, many different shades of grey!

However, there is one question that is worth asking so as to get a better understanding of the issue’s complexity.

What makes it grey?

There are many ways in which a thing can appear grey. A dim white light can look grey when compared to a brighter white light. A wall is grey in colour because grey paint was used. Grey appears in newspapers because of a mixture of black and white dots.

In like manner, it’s not sufficient to say that so-and-so is very complicated. To resolve the issue, one must know how it is that the situation becomes complex. Just as how one can derive grey in many ways, an issue can be complex because of so many factors.

But thus far, I’ve never heard anyone explain why so-and-so issue is grey/complex. Instead, what I do get is usually a look of resignation as if the issue is unresolvable.

This is perhaps the reason why everything nowadays seems grey to everyone (How boring! We need more colour!). The ancient Greeks and Chinese never had such problems. It’s not that they didn’t ask the tough questions. They did! Moreover, they made it a point to consider what made the issue complicated. That formed the first stepping stone to resolve such complexities.

Personally, I strongly believe that things are grey not because there is no black and white. Instead, things appear grey because of the mixture of black and white dots like those greyscale images on a newspaper. Some appear as darker greys because there are more black dots on white. Some appear as lighter greys due to fewer black dots on white.

The T’ai Chi Diagram. Image Source:

The ancient Chinese understood this very well. In the t’ai chi diagram (the yin and yang symbol), there is no grey. Rather, there is a black half and a white half, and in each is a seed of the opposite colour. The line which seperates the black half from the white half is curved to show its dynamism – the black can and does move into the white, and vice versa. The complexity of grey consists of a mixture of black and white in each other. To further emphasize its complexity, they went further with the diagram by showing how black can become white in certain situations and vice versa.

As humans, we have a funny habit of wanting to classify things. Things are good or bad, right or wrong, liberal or conservative, traditional or modern, etc. Whenever we come across something new, we immediately try to slot it into one of these categories. Why? Because this process of categorisation makes it easier for us to understand things – but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand things better.

When we come to that realisation that things are grey, what’s happening is that we discover that there are things that cannot be easily slotted into those categories. It’s not that the thing needs a whole new category called “grey” to be slotted into. Rather, it is the realisation that parts of the thing belong to one category, while other parts belong to another. We can’t fit it so nicely into one category. This dilemma therefore wakes us up to the discovery of the thing’s “greyness” – that its complexity is due to the mixture of two opposing categories, due to the mixture of black and white dots. Hence the surprise.

But why should we be surprised?

Life is complicated. Relationships are complicated. As members of the human species, we should know better that even our bodies are very complex. Natural cycles and systems are complex. Everything is complicated!

The reason why science doesn’t seem so complicated despite the many complexities of this world is because in science, we reduce things into simpler models so that it’s easier to understand them.

However, not everything can be properly understood when we simplify things. And the reason why we are so surprised is that in this age of technology, the scientific way of simplifying things to understand better has been so pervasive in our culture that, without realising it, we try to use that way on everything!

Some of these complex issues can only be better understood without such simplifications, but as it is and through its complex relations with other things/issues.

This is what the humanities does, and it is an art because it is a skill that must be cultivated over time. It is a skill that enables one to understand the complexities of things as they are in relation to other complex things.

But this is not to say that the sciences are useless. No! Both are just as important. There are things where we need the scientific approach of simplifying things for better understanding, and there are also things where we need the humanities approach of understanding things in its broader context and relations.

The point is that our technological culture has influenced us to such an extent that we try to simplify everything and attempt to categorise everything. And so we become very surprised (and even resigned at its complexity) when we discover things that cannot be simply fitted into one category. As I have said earlier, we categorise things for an easier understanding, but it does not necessarily lead to a better understanding. Besides, we do not need to categorise things to understand them. We can – and should – understand the thing in its entirety, in its mixture of blacks and whites, and then proceed to see it in its relation with other things.

I believe that this will give us a better way of working with the issue instead of simply shrugging our shoulders saying that things are grey, and then not doing anything about it. I will admit that the solution proposed above is not detailed. It is difficult to give details on how one could achieve this. It is, afterall, an art which requires some training in the humanities. This doesn’t mean that everybody needs to take a course in the humanities (though I think that would be ideal). The least one could (and should do) is to read widely on works in philosophy, literature, and history. Regular exposure to such works will at least make us familiar with the way these people think and it will teach us how to handle the “grey” issues.

So the next time we realise the complexity of an issue that we want to declare it a grey issue, perhaps it would be productive to consider what makes it so grey in the first place. And instead of trying to categorise it, it might be better for us to try to understand it as it is and its relationship with other things (i.e. the big picture). That should make the situation less grey, as we begin to zoom in on the blacks and whites in it.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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