In Favor of Outrageous Thinking
The goal of all our arguments is not to join a black-or-white debate, but to create a color, or a set of fancy footwear, not the comfortable shoes that “go with everything,” but a pair of high-heeled neon ankle-killing athletic shoes everyone laughs at until the day she buys a pair. If you start with black, and I start with white, we tend to think we should meet somewhere in the middle, and the middle too often looks gray.
Gray satisfies no one. It can’t be what we wanted. Ending up with compromises no more compelling than our starting premises wastes our readers’ time (if we still have readers at the end). Instead we need to realize we’ve misinterpreted our starting points. We haven’t started with opposites. For one thing, we’re both talking about sneakers.
Yesterday I asked a student whether Colin Kaepernick’s taking-a-knee protest had accomplished its goal, and he replied, “for some people it has, and for some people it hasn’t.” Horrible answer. Inexcusable answer. Never answer a question that way and expect your paper to have an impact.
The correct answer is, “Colin Kaepernicks refuses to specify what his goal was, so we can’t possibly answer that question. His gesture has certainly had consequences, but we don’t know whether they fulfill his goal.” The correct APPROACH to that question would be a Definition/Categorical essay that explores the hypothesis that CK’s protest failed to achieve its goal since nobody can confidently explain what he hoped to accomplish.
The opposite of a black sneaker
The opposite of a black sneaker isn’t a white sneaker; it’s broccoli, or impressionist art, or the atomic weight of laughter. We’re not obligated to compromise our positions to find something that contains components of both. We should instead be hoping that the tension between the two ends of the spectrum reveals something more interesting than either of the “sides.” First it reveals that we haven’t started on the two extremes. Then we discover there’s something beyond both our positions.
The opposite of “Kaepernick’s gesture accomplished its goal” is not “Kaepernick’s gesture DID’NT accomplish its goal”; it’s “Kaepernick’s goal is unclear, so we can’t answer that question.”
The worst mistake we can make—even worse than settling for gray—is to start with gray, which can only result in more gray.
Gray on Gray, A Model:
The most common misconception with someone who is happy is we think that person has meaning in his life. A person who is happier may even have less meaning in her life than her less-happy counterparts. Happiness doesn’t define meaning; rather, it defines contentment. Having meaning in one’s life runs deeper than the mere sensation that happiness brings. Meaning is about contributing to the world, to something greater than oneself. Happiness is just satisfaction with one’s current standpoint on life, and one’s environment. The world defines happiness as something much greater than it actually is. Happiness is nothing more than the satisfaction of one’s current standpoint.
Color on Color.
Our goal is the colorful conclusion, achieved by beginning with bold and colorful premises, somewhere along a line of reasoning the ends of which are not in sight when we begin.
Color on Color: A Model
Our neighbor Frank seems happy, and would probably define himself as happy, but he’s not. He takes pride in his fine house, where he lives with his presentable family, and he has job security. Let’s call him content. Our neighbor Ernest rents a cramped apartment, lives alone, and scrapes by freelancing. Let’s call him happy. Ernest is tortured by an abiding outrage against injustice. He champions every cause that comes his way if it will better the world or ease the suffering of others. Often hungry himself, he will share his lunch with anyone. We might prefer to be Frank, but Ernest is more likely to be happy.
If you can prove that, I’ll eat my shoe.
The result of our premises will not be as certain as when we try to start with supposed “opposite sides” of a known argument, but the pursuit of an outcome will be more entertaining, vivid, colorful, and compelling. Maybe even nutritious.
One Side Inevitably Loses any
EXAMPLE. Today we begin a debate on arming teachers in schools. If anti-gun advocates allow the argument to be phrased as black-and-white options, they inevitably lose. Most likely neither side will get exactly what it wants, but the pro-gun side will win. Why?
|PRO GUN LOBBY||COMPROMISE||ANTI-GUN LOBBY|
|All teachers should be armed and armed guards should be positioned throughout the school.||Some teachers should be armed and there should be armed guards at the entrance.||NO GUNS SHOULD BE PERMITTED ON SCHOOL GROUNDS. PERIOD.|
The “compromise” solution that will surely be the outcome—the grey in the middle between All Teachers Should Be Armed and No Teachers Should Be Armed—will be to arm “Some Teachers.” Clear victory for the pro-gun side. Utter failure for the anti-gun side. The outcome lies in the how the question is phrased.
WED MAR 11, 2020
Was that helpful? Reply with your new insight on how to think about any debate.
- Why is it wrong to divide opinion into One Side vs The Other Side?
- What’s a better way to think about the range of opinions on any topic?