The Power of Both/And

yin_yang

The conjoining of both/and is a powerful linguistic device well matched to the complexity and richness of the world. It is the antithesis of absolute statements about what is right and wrong. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we are torn between two possibilities and realize that both contain truth. We may still have to choose between the two, but act with a sense of the legitimacy of the other.

Both/and or yin/yang recognize that two things or statements that appear to be contradictory may both be true. In any positivist or dogmatic system of truths, this cannot be. The law of contradiction, one of the three basic laws of Aristotelian classic logic, states that A cannot be A and not-A at the same time. A rock cannot not be a rock. This works very well for objects present to our senses, but gets us into trouble for concepts about these objects and about transcendental beings. Many Christian doctrines argue that God is both transcendent (beyond) and immanent (within), and that Jesus is both the son of Mary and the son of God. This apparent contradiction shows up in very old eastern wordings.” Chuang Shu wrote, “Everything can be a ‘that’; everything can be a ‘this’.”

The acceptance of the pragmatic possibility of more than one truth gains its power by permitting people with opposing views to live side by side peacefully. Pragmatism allows for inquiry that leads to some truth that work for the inquiring subject. It allows for different truths to emerge for subjects with different ends in mind. Pragmatism reminds us that the end that sets the context for the inquiry guides the subject to the truth; different ends create different truths. If those arguing fail to uncover the differing ends, they will most likely to get to the point where they argue, incorrectly, that my truth means your cannot be true. Only one of us rules. I always quote or paraphrase Maturana in this situation. He says in any absolutist way of viewing the world, “a claim of knowledge [truth] is a demand for obedience.”

The yin/yang duality is a metaphor of the connectedness of things for, if two objects have a bit of each other in themselves, this means that they are connected. The yin/yang concatenation accepts, for example that there is some woman in every man and vice versa. Light can be both a particle and a wave. A person can be both good and bad at the same time. No child could grow up successfully if his or her parents didn’t allow for this to happen. Children always will do “bad’ things” in spite of the parent’s stance about child upbringing. They are expected to behave this way; that’s an important thing that makes them different from adults.

I was triggered to think of this by a couple of articles I read this weekend. The first was a review of Gail Collins recent book about Texas politics and the second sprang from a couple of short pieces. The review (subscription required) of Collins’ As Texas Goes…How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda. Thomas Powers, writing in the July 12, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books commented on the “underground rivers of anger boiling beneath the American political landscape in this presidential year.” He asks, “What lies at the core of the divisions of the American people?” and answers with a list of nine items taken from the work of many scholars (my wording).

  • Poor vs. Rich
  • Rural vs. Urban
  • Nativists vs. Late arrivals
  • Whites vs. People of color
  • Tightwads vs Charitable spenders
  • Biblical absolutists vs. Secular practitioners
  • Sexual prudes vs. Everything is up for discussion
  • Rod wielders vs Rod sparers
  • Women as destined for certain duties vs. Women Empowerers

All of these, as Powers notes, are about control. His name is quite ironic given the sense of the article. The two categories in some of these are distinct; one is either white of not-white; one either comes from the city or the countries. These are exclusive categories, but they do not confer any truths inherent to either side. Some are clearly distinct sets of beliefs with no ultimate grounding.Others like white and non-white are prejudices that ground beliefs that cannot be grounded otherwise. What happened to the inalienability of rights Paul Ryan invokes below?

The next blog post reprinted parts of the Texas Republican Party platform, passed at their just concluded Convention. The second source, the extract about the Texas Republican Platform, seemed to me to reflect this deep divide.

The Republican Party of Texas’ recently adopted 2012 platform contains a plank that opposes the teaching of “critical thinking skills” in schools. The party says it was a mistake, but is now stuck with the plank until the next state convention in 2014.

The plank in question, on “Knowledge-Based Education,” reads as follows:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Elsewhere in the document, the platform stipulates that “[e]very Republican is responsible for implementing this platform.”

I suspect that this was less a mistake than a Freudian slip. It is closer to the truth of what is on the mind of Texas Republicans, but a statement that even they know is politically incorrect. I see at least 3 of the dichotomies in the list reflected. Why can’t children’s minds be both broadened and parental authority maintained. Most people in the world, I imagine, understand that this is exactly the way that children become responsible adults. Responsibility means having a mind of one’s own and a capability to choose wisely wherever and how they end up living. The world they inhabit as adults is inevitably going to be different from that of their childhood. How are these children going to become free as adults with this kind of upbringing.

The irony here is deep and saddening. The very fundamental capability for libertarians is to choose freely what they want for themselves. Unless that means that there is possibility in these choices, freedom is completely illusory. My goal of flourishing, as embodying true freedom, depends on acting authentically, not coming from some inner voice compelling the right or wrong action to take. There is nothing fundamentally wrong in acting on the basis of what one has embodied via experience and education, but when this is the only basis for living, life cannot but be inauthentic. There is no possibility here. That’s the source of my sadness.

Here are a couple more from the same article.

On Homosexuality: We affirm that the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society and contributes to the breakdown of the family unit. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God, recognized by our country’s founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable “alternative” lifestyle, in public policy, nor should “family” be redefined to include homosexual “couples.” We believe there should be no granting of special legal entitlements or creation of special status for homosexual behavior, regardless of state of origin. Additionally, we oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction or belief in traditional values.

On the “Voter Rights Act” [sic]: We urge that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 codified and updated in 1973 be repealed and not reauthorized.

On the issue of rights, how about this one from another blog.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) said Sunday that ‘Obamacare’ should be repealed because the rights of individuals come from God.

“I think this at the end of the day is a big philosophy difference,” Ryan told ABC’s “This Week.” “We disagree with the notion that our rights come from government, that the government can now grant us and define our rights. Those are ours, they come from nature and God, according to the Declaration of Independence - a huge difference in philosophy.”

Philosophy is a way of thinking about the world. His statement is not about philosophy; it is a statement about beliefs, a certain kind of beliefs. One can and should certainly disagree with others with different world views, but with a kind of disagreement that allows for both to coexist. Paul Ryan is a Catholic and should appreciate the notion of love so central to his religion. Jesus preached a Gospel of love, which at its core is the (unconditional) acceptance of everyone.

The Founding Fathers may have believed that our rights are inalienable, but they also believed that acts of government were essential to protect them. The Framers were strongly influenced by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Ryan and others with such absolutist views of government would do well to re-read those from whose views the Declaration of Independence, alluded to in his remarks, especially Hobbes and his need for government to rescue mankind from a “state of nature,” where life is famously, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Wikipedia has a terse discussion of this:

Within the state of nature there is no injustice, since there is no law, excepting certain natural precepts, the first of which is “that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it” (Leviathan, ch. XIV); and the second is “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself” (loc. cit.). From this, Hobbes develops the way out of the state of nature into civil government by mutual contracts.

Ryan might say he is abiding by the both/and principle: “What I say is right and what you believe is wrong, I hold both of these to be true. Not quite yin and yang or both/and as a way of living together in love.

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