Sunday, August 22, 2010

Choosing Sides

In sales, they call it the presumptive close, "So Mr. Courts, would you like the blue Ferrari or the red one?" In math, philosophy and logic, it's called a dichotomy, taking something and splitting it in half so that there are no overlapping parts, a part is either here, or it is there. In literature, it's often referred to as dilemma, a difficult and trying choice between two unattractive alternatives: "Miss Noordermeer you have only two options, either marry the rich and smelly banker or forfeit the family tulip farm!"

In any case, research studies at the Teflon Institute of Anecdotal Data sugests that:
the number one cause of bad decisions is being faced with two alternatives that are both wrong, (or in many cases, not even wrong.)
Most of us feel compelled to categorize. We categorize people. We categorize activities. We categorize objects. We categorize situations. Further, we tend to limit the number of actively managed categories to two: yes/no, good/bad, expensive/affordable, can/can't, would/wouldn't, like/dislike, love/hate, yin/yang, id/ego. We tend toward dualism. We do this because it's easier, more efficient.

To do this, we drop nuance and detail intentionally blurring the edges and distinctions as we merge things together. We start with Dim-Sum, distinct delicacies with easily perceptible nuances, we toss them into a pot that more closely resembles Bouillabaisse, and then we turn on the blender and get a smoothie. Katsu and sushi end up Japanese smoothie. Tacos and chicken with mole sauce end up Mexican smoothie. We create a world with rounded edges and low contrast.

The problem is that we become patsies, easy marks for purveyors of limited options. We see the choices before us and something inside nags at us, something that we can't put our fingers on, something saying, "Is this all there is?"

And we ignore it. When faced with a dilemma, we don't say, "Hey wait, you're trying to get me to decide between two terrible alternatives as though they were my only options!" Instead, we agonize over the choice.

Think about all the unnecessary dichotomies you've accepted throughout life. Most of us talk with our children about where to go to college, never considering the question of whether or not to go to college. Most of us struggle with off-the-rack career options, never considering a custom tailored one. Rather than listening to our bodies and eating what makes sense, most of us select from a set of pre-fab diets. To buy or rent. To work or to stay in school. To play music or to make money. To marry and settle down or to stay single and on the move. All are common decisions, all are unnecessary dichotomy.

To Build a Mosque
Consider the debate raging over the erection of a mosque near the former site of the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan. There are two dominant arguments, both of which are completely erroneous and ultimately destructive. One view suggests that, because the terrorists who brought down the towers were Islamic extremists, building a mosque would be an affront to the surviving family members of those killed in the attack. The second view suggests that even though the attackers were Islamic extremists, the US constitution protects the rights of religious organizations to worship where they will and besides, they're not building right on ground zero.

Both views are simply wrong. The very nature of either implicitly acknowledges some connection between the terrorists and other practitioners of Islam. One uses it as justification, one tries to work around it, but neither says, "What's one thing got to do with the other?"

I've had a couple of discussions with reasonably intelligent people who have said, "Well, as long as they don't build it right on ground zero."

Left-brained logic seemed to have failed them as they'd gone into simple right-brained associative mode. So, I would explain using analogy (seems to work better with people in right-brain mode), "Imagine if a group of atheists got together in Oklahoma City to protest the erection of a church near the bombed federal building because the bomber had been a Christian extremist. Would you support them?"

In some cases imagery succeeded where logic had failed and the response is, "No, of course not... Ooooh... now I get your point." In others, sigh...

Pluralism and Other Half-Assed Measures
Pluralism recognizes the existence of multiple groups, views and/or systems that are each legitimate and valid, and yet, may be in conflict with one another. Pluralism is being recognized in many disciplines from philosophy and religion to politics and science. Practically speaking, pluralism is significantly more functional than monism and dualism. It allows for diversity of thought and opinion and mitigates against the incessant desire to make one good and another bad.

However, in many ways adopting pluralism is surrender to categorization. It says, "OK, look, we're never going to get people to abandon their positions and embrace ideas and concepts without bias and predetermined conclusions. So, instead, let's simply get them to agree that there can be multiple, conflicting views each of which is nonetheless valid."

Indeed better, but still not getting to the core.

Whose Side You On?
One of the more pervasive and insidious manifestations of unnecessary dichotomy is the ever available: who's side are you on anyway? For some reason, when conflicts arise, we feel compelled to cast one side as good and the other as bad. People involved in the conflict often want others to declare their alignment. Blur, blur, blur...

I just finished reading the book, Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett who is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. If you haven't read him, I highly recommend the book Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, written by him and Neil Gaiman. I would describe it as a humorous take on the Apocalypse.

In Guards! Guards!, following a series of harrowing events, guard captain, Sam Vimes, encounters the city's patrician, Lord Vetinar who advises him:

I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are the good people and the bad people. You're wrong, of course. There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.

Lord Vetinari
Patrician of Ankh-Morpork

I think this is an amazing tidbit, immensely clever and worthy of reading the entire book. So often, when we try to help people avoid succumbing to the penchant to take sides, we try to couch it in terms of everyone being good, saying things like, "Look, there are no bad people, just people who disagree."

This inevitably invites debate: "But there are some people who are really, truly bad! I mean, you've got your Hitlers, you've got your Stalins... you've got your music critics."

Pratchett sidesteps this handily: There are, always and only, the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.. Knowing one's own nature, it's much easier to argue that there are indeed truly bad people than it is to argue that there are indeed truly good, one's without guile or fault. This allows us to focus on the real nature of the problem, not good versus bad, but instead, what exactly is at issue. What are the parties trying to achieve, individually and collectively? What are their core motivations? What are the alternatives that might satisfy everyone? And so on...

Not sure where this is all going as I just kind of woke up this morning and started typing. However, I think what I'm leading to is the creation of a movement beyond pluralism, one in which participants actively resist the urge to categorize, mix, blur and blend. It might require a twelve step program of sorts. For example, one step might involve a review of all the people in your life whom you've placed into a bucket of bad or foe, reconsidering your decision, and then calling them up to apologize. You might get together with others and share all the decisions you've made in your life due to the acceptance of an unnecessary dichotomy. We could have a website and t-shirts and theme songs and...

Anyway, that's what was on my mind this morning.

Happy Sunday,

1 comment:

  1. thank you teff-y....huge smiles I'm giving myself being stirred by your tidbits here. Isn't it part of this seemingly 'need to know,' to make sense, and to do this we 'judge.' and thusly have our chosen emotional reaction flavor?


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