The third state
An old popular TV show offers an alternative to binary thinking
Once upon a time, there used to be a BBC TV show called Juke Box* Jury (there was a similar programme on American TV, and quite likely other countries will have had their own version too). Every week saw the release of new songs, often by new artists, all vying for the top spot in the charts. Speculation was rife, and this show literally posed the question “Hit or Miss?” to a panel of celebrity guests, who had to pass their judgement after hearing each one of a handful of songs every week.
It seemed straightforward. Just like a coin that is flipped could end up showing heads or tails, a recording could end up being a hit, or a miss. Just two possibilities, and the guests could try and show off their expertise and insight when offering their considered opinion.
What they did was illustrative of much of our thinking in general. Claims are either true or false, people are either with us or against us, policies are either good or bad. We are faced with numerous yes-or-no decisions, from the trivial (“Fancy an early lunch?”) to the momentous (“Will you marry me?”).
The original Juke Box Jury disappeared in 1967, but it was revived a few times, and the format was also picked up for a slot in a children’s show thirty years later. This incarnation, intriguingly, introduced a third option for the jurors: they had a prop consisting of a big plastic hand on a stick, which they could hold such that the thumb pointed upwards (for a Hit), downwards (for a Miss), or simply wiggle it horizontally to express a ‘Maybe’. A song does indeed sometimes have a catchy riff in the intro, but the chorus is less inspired, or perhaps the singer has a superb voice, but the lyrics are a bit naff. That might make it harder to predict whether it will be a success or a flop, and the guests could thus express this uncertainty.
In the real world, however, another twenty years on, our public discourse seems to have remained stuck with a tendency for binary thought, with little room for nuance. We…