April 2018

Sunday, January 23, 2011

This Nation of Bifurcation

"The radio is at the root of the evil, their rule is: No silence, ever. When anything happens, the commentator has to speak without a moment's pause for gathering wisdom. Falsehood and inanity are preferable to silence. You can's imagine the effect of this. The talkers are rising above the thinkers." Harrison William Shepherd in Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna.

"A conclusion is simply the point at which you got tired of thinking." (from Ann's colleague Glen quoting an unknown source)
I often think now about Senator Gifford, the Arizona senator who was recently shot in the head by a guy with a gun. She had a bullet through her brain, and I had a tumor, and for sure we had very different experiences. Still, every time I hear a story about her progress, I feel a knot in my stomach. With reports of her progress, I remember opening my eyes. Seeing and hearing the people who love me. Sitting up. Learning to walk. Learning to use my eyes again. Those headaches.

I wish her and all who love her well.

Perhaps as a way to de-personslize the issue somewhat, I also think about the shooting in the context of our national dialogue, or lack of it. I seem to think about this aspect of the shooting differently than others, however:

"Be sure to understand both sides of the issue."  "There are two sides to every story". These common statements drive me to distraction. There are seldom two sides to an issue or two sides to a story. There are usually at least two sides, but there are usually more and generally there is somehing unthought of in another dimension. I suspect that if we could graph reality, reality would requre multiple planes that two-dimentional graph paper does not provide.

Our language here in the United States, maybe in all English-speaking countries, simplifies issues by framing any issue around two sides: Democrats and Repuiblicans, liberals and conservatives, good and evil claim our politics and our ways of thinking. In debate, in the news media, and in schools we learn about "pros and cons."

Students, whose wisdom we often miss, may want to know, "What if I am in the middle, or even off of the imaginary line between pro and con?" Teachers often say, I have said it myself, "You must choose a side. You must find a place in line." We hear the cliche, "You are either for me or you are against me." And so we decide one or the other, for or against, true or false. Yet, really, we are often neither absolutely for or against, and many times a statement is neither completely true or entirely false.

This paradigm of slicing reality into two parts interests me because this limits our thought and our politics. It makes us think there are only two choices, only two ways of thinking or being.

As a senior in high school taking A.P. American History, I struggled, I realized later, because I was looking for the good guys and the bad guys, and these delineations were often unclear to me. I did not know how to understand the world differently than black and white, good and evil.

There are times when we must bifurcate, you might argue, and in our system this is true. Legislators must vote yea or nea on a bill, for example, though I would argue that this bifurcation may be cultural and not the only way to legislate: in Stones into Schools, Greg Mortensen describes a Pakistani jurga, similar to the South African elder meetings that Nelson Mandela describes in his autobiography. Here community leaders (all men: I"m not saying that's a good thing) come together around issues facing the community, and they come to consensus around a decision. They don't necessarily decide yes or no. They make a decision that they feel will serve their community.

You might also argue that in court a person must be found guilty or innocent. This is not true. A person is found guilty or not guilty, which could mean a lot of things, one of which is innocent and another of which is that the evidence isn't clear and convincing. It is, however, true that the person either goes to jail or does not. But then, "does not" has so many possibilities. Again, the lignusitic tendency towrds twos belies us.

What's my point? Now, a couple of weeks after those horrible Arizona shootings, there's a lot of national dialogue about civility. I think there should be dialogue about civility, but I don't really think that civility is at the heart of our national tension. I think bifurcation of thought is. I think we need to think beyond two sides of an issue, beyond gun-control or freedom, beyond good or evil, beyond us or them.

Our national imagination needs to grow. We need to find the third position, and the fourth, and so on. We need to see the greys between the black and white. Perhaps we need to borrow from the Eskimo language, which I hear has one-hundred words for snow. we need subltelties, complexity, and gradations.

I'm not sure that simply being nicer to each other, especially people we disagree with, is at the heart of our national division: our red states and blue states. I think we need to be able to hear one another, and if we define ourselves and one another along such stark lines, in such dualities, then how will our imaginations grow? How will we listen and shift if our intellect is so busy labelling?

What will this look like in my life? I"m not sure, but I think I'll start by trying to understand the news or colleagues in more than a two-pronged world. I think I"ll start with threes. You?


Keeping it in perspective, a few quotations on truth from my sister jenn's reading:

"She had a 'relationship' with the truth, she explained coolly, and like all relationships it required compromises." The Tender Bar: A Memoir, J. R. Moehringer. p. 23.

" I’ve nothing against people who love truth. Apart from the fact that they make dull companions. Just so long as they don’t start on about storytelling and honesty, the way some of them do. Naturally that annoys me. But provided they leave me alone, I won’t hurt them." The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield (large print edition), p. 12.

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