In praise of grey

Read this as a political post-presidential election message if you wish–the tale is more complicated.

And that is the point.

In the midst of all the fear, bitterness, anger, resignation and angst (if you were on the side that lost the election) and all the optimism, enthusiasm, joy, celebration, and contentment (if you were on the side the won the election), we have a long-standing and lingering problem: We haven’t yet seemed able to deal with most anything except to place it in binary opposition.

  • If you’re not with me, you’re against me
  • My way or the highway
  • Love it or leave it
  • All or nothing
  • Point-counterpoint
  • Pro-Con
  • Affirmative-Negative
  • Black or white

We have, as a society in the United States, baked this into how we operate as a culture–at least when it comes to presenting information, opinion and arguments. For years (1949-1987, specifically), The Federal Communications Commission required all broadcast media to present, on matters of public importance, both sides of a position (and yes, I am guilty of simplifying here as well). The still dominant model of preparing people for the profession of journalism (though many may argue that it is practiced less and less) is to teach journalists to be objective and one of the simplest approaches to gain a level of objectivity is to always present two sides to every story.

My academic background is rhetoric and argumentation. My work as an academic and scholar lives in the grey–the in-between area between opposites. When I engage in scholarly writing, I have been trained (and conditioned) to write in argument–that facts and data alone are never sufficient to make a case–it is the responsibility of the writer/arguer to put it all together, and that “the better argument” is the goal, so that these arguments can help us get a more reasoned solution and a more reasonable world. Though there are many other theories of rhetoric and argumentation.

The idea of binary opposition is actually, in my field, considered a fallacy in argument–but again, that is a more complicated matter.

I’ll summarize the explanation from T. Edward Damer, in Attacking Faulty Reasoning. The fallacy is often called “False Alternatives,” and it basically means an argument where the possible solutions are reduced, often to just two opposite positions, so that the only possible solution is to pick one of the opposites. Damer notes this as a fallacy because it conflates two different concepts: Contradictories and Contraries. A contradictory allows for no middle ground–it really is one or the other. Damer uses hot and not hot as examples–you can have either one, but there is nothing in between. Contraries set up a condition that allows for a middle ground–hot and cold, for example. There is a lot of grey in-between hot and cold.

The fallacy arises when we think in contradictories rather than contraries–when we only have two possibilities with nothing in-between.

Why do we do this? Well, as noted above, it is part of how we have been trained to behave and how our information is often presented to us. Probably more importantly, though, we engage in this sort of thinking because it is easier. Complex thinking is hard work. Multiple perspectives are far more difficult to manage than binary perspectives. Emotionally, “either-or” is a lot more satisfying than “it’s complex.” In a 90 second or 60 second news story, complexity is left in the editorial room–no time or space for it. In social media, extremes catch our attention. Here’s a challenge–find a good internet meme that captures and champions multiple perspectives.

And in the end, just what does this have to do with William Paterson? Well–we’re a university. We say we teach critical thinking–complex thought, in other words. When faced with a world that keeps trying to boil it all down to contradictories, we need to remember and teach how to work in contraries, and how to make the arguments that lead to reasoned solutions and a reasonable world.

This is an approach that may seem anathema to many, because it not only allows for but may require that positions and perspectives that may seem abhorrent still have to be dealt with through argument. It may appear that this approach and thinking doesn’t allow for big T Truth (absolute and unassailable), and that such a position, in today’s terms, “normalizes” what should not be considered normal–and there may be a point here. Plato, though truly no real fan of rhetoric, lays out the basic complaint–that rhetoric “makes the worse appear the better cause” (The Apology).

Possibly.

But I like the grey. By training and temperament (and there’s a real chicken and the egg question), I find my place in between extremes, so I offer a final claim: Being able to operate in-between may not be as emotionally satisfying as operating always and only based on big T Truth, but it seems in the end to do a better job of getting more of us to a good and reasonable place–which is not a bad goal for a place of higher education.

 

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