The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.




| 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.

Tags: , , ,

About Cole Feldman

Contact Cole