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| Monday, February 6, 2017

I want to talk about Trump and IS, but first I want to talk about nicer things like playground toys and pie.

Imagine a single seesaw: a narrow beam resting on a pivot at its midpoint; as one end goes up, the other goes down.

Now add another seesaw perpendicular to the first. And keep adding saws the same way you would halve slices of pie, cutting in straight diametric lines from crust to crust.

It should now look as if you drew several dozen straight lines through the center of a circle connecting opposite sides and then erased the outer circle.

Now you have the static image; let’s make it dynamic and set the seesaws in motion. Every saw can rotate 90 degrees on its pivot in one plane to one side or the other. If all the seesaws teeter really fast in both directions you can see a blurred sphere.

Instead of children-sized seats at either end of each beam, imagine opposing ideas: religion and atheism, government and anarchy, wealthy and poor, solitude and community, home and travel, pride and humility, specialization and diversification, order and chaos.

Everyone has their own web of seesaws. Each saw indicates where they stand on an issue, tilted to one side or the other: as one end goes up, the other goes down. No saw is zero-sum; the tilt is continuous.

A person’s web is a snapshot of their beliefs at the time. Some have seesaw webs like flat snowflakes (balance). And others have a bundle of sticks pointing in all directions (imbalance). And still others have snowflakes with just a few tilted sticks.

But our webs are not static. In flux, each saw tips as we learn about the issue. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

But most people can’t function this way. My friend Dan says, “Humans are binary thinkers.” We naturally drift to the extremes — it’s easier to identify this way. But harder to relate to others, so we herd with those who have seesaw webs like our own.

I read two headlines in the news. One says: Trump to focus counter-extremism program solely on Islam. The other says: Right-wing extremists are a bigger threat to America than IS.

I wonder how skilled is Trump at holding two opposed ideas in his mind at the same time. And I wonder the same thing about members of IS. It would seem they, like all extremists, lack the sort of “first-rate intelligence” that Fitzgerald describes.

Then again, extremism makes sense at least. Religion, for example, if true, is not something we can be balanced about. The bible says don’t be lukewarm. If Jesus was God, then we should be extreme Christians. Or, extreme Muslims, if Muhammad was right.

Personally, I’m not sure, so I err balanced between pious and humanist (read: agnostic). But members of IS seem pretty sure, in which case it’s not difficult to understand their extremism.

The key to solving Trump and IS, I argue, is balance. A very particular kind of balance.

There are two types with flat snowflakes: one who has never left the balanced center, and the other who has left the center many times and since returned to balance. The first is weak, non-committal and passive. The second is Fitzgerald’s “first-rate intelligence.”

The second allows for an overlap in understanding with extremists that opens up conversation. The second has a seesaw web with the potential of a sphere, knowledgeable and able to relate along the range and to the extremes of any issue, but also at any moment perfectly balanced as a flat snowflake.

Be a flat snowflake, but first be a bundle of sticks.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Punta Venyage

    Where is the optimal point for balance? Is it directly on the middle of two opposing views? Is it near one of the ends?

    The seasaw analogy is fun, but it seems to be no more useful than when one says, “The truth is somewhere in the middle.”

    If you take a closed set of numbers 1-100, with 1 representing anextreme and 100 representing the other extreme, technically speaking all numbers 2-99 are “somewhere in the middle”.

    The truth could very well be at 5 or 95. You even point this out in the case of religion, though you say that you are personally agnostic (I would say, on a side note, that while it’s possible to be consciously agnostic, in terms of your thoughts and maintaining an explicit belief of agnosticism, no one is truly agnostic on a subconscious level. Every time you take action, you are implicitly acting on fundamental beliefs about reality that you hold).

    I think what you’re really getting at is that it’s important to always consider the opposing view, to be able to intellectually jump from your own worldview to a completely different view and critically analyze it on its own merits, and not from the reference point of your preexisting beliefs — this is a very difficult thing to do for most; too much cognitive effort and risk of dissonance. However, once you have done proper analysis of the viewpoints, it is perfectly logical to make a decision on which belief you find to be superior (in fact this is what we all do, and it is impossible to do otherwise) and “camp” there, until provided with sufficient counterarguments or evidence to the contrary.

    ISIS or radical Islam in general, leads to a very distinct type of worldview. And quite frankly, if you accept some of the axioms and presuppositions involved, you could even argue that their vision for the world is greater than that of the one proposed by modern Western civilization. I personally disagree wholeheartedly, and assert that Western culture is far superior and leads to higher levels of wellbeing and freedoms, but again, there are so many other variables and pieces of the puzzle which constitute a worldview, and certain mindsets don’t place such a high priority on individual freedom or standards of living.

    The problem is, people seem to be losing the ability to evaluate opposing perspectives in their strong form (I don’t even think they are even exposing themselves to the strong form, let alone ‘evaluating’, but instead are listening to someone on their “side” summarize the opposing viewpoint for them, which is presented in the weak form 99% of the time), and this tendency is prevalent particularly in secularists. Secularists are failing miserably at understanding movements like radical Islam because on a personal level they don’t consciously view the world through the lens of religion. In other words, they don’t understand what it is like to make an individual decision motivated purely on religious conviction, and they attempt to find other external factors to explain the behavior (”oh, it must just be poor living conditions, a bad government, etc.”), rather than seeing it for what it is.

    The “somewhere in the middle” analogies explicitly claim a degree of agnosticism, but implicitly they are really suggesting (without proof) that the truth is not on an “extreme” (which, in of itself is a deceptive label with negative connotations as almost anything can be framed as an “extreme” depending on what you are comparing it to).

    The other contradiction in such thinking is that the analogy in of itself assumes that it is the “balanced” and accurate way of understanding reality, and not one of the “seesaws.” 😉