Shades of grey

Note: This article was originally published on July 15, 2011

One of the preoccupations and obsessions of civil society and human race is with classifying things, people and events into bad or good; black or white. This classification or stereotyping ranks high up in the umpteen cognitive biases of the human mind.

This particular characteristic of ours used to be (and to a certain extent still is) really helpful considering its significance in the biological evolution of our species. Our brain has only so much resources and it has to employ every bit of it optimally to ensure our survival and well being. When we come across new information, our brain immediately has to decide whether its good or bad for us and accordingly prepare our entire system for fight or flight responses. And it has to do it in the fastest time possible and with the limited information available. This the brain achieves through heuristics based on associations. The crucial role of this behaviour cannot be overestimated in our quest for survival.

Modern civilised society has moved well beyond its survival threats that used to haunt our primitive civilizations. We still function with heuristics. Our brain is programmed to overemphasise associations. This per se is good, provided we make a constant effort to update and rethink our deeply held assumptions and prejudices. For these form the basis of our categorisation of what is good or bad for us. For civilised society today is essentially a fleeting amalgamation of hues of grey.

The challenge of modern society in this regard, is to tune our instincts, update it from its pre programmed biological survival mode, to be in sync with our times; the knowledge age. Classification or conviction about people and things and events is not more capable enough to provide us with a roadmap to navigate the complex turf of modern human social life, for it has moved beyond the plain black and white canvass it used to be, to the myriads of shades of grey that it can afford to be today. What it calls now is for understanding and acceptance as the essential dashboard to this gift of ours. This fundamentally needs to be part of our social fabric to be well integrated and unleash the broad spectrum of possibilities that modern civilized society holds potential for. There in lies the pathway to substantially improve upon the collective social wisdom accumulated over the years and collective social capital and scale human civilization to greater heights. It’s also time to conjure up a paradigm shift in defining what we term our right to live.

To recall the statement I read somewhere that puts these thoughts into context, “Conviction, it turns out, is a luxury of those on the sidelines”