The Opposite of a Black Sneaker

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
Black-and-White Argument

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?

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.

Armed Teachers

In-Class Exercise
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?

16 Responses to The Opposite of a Black Sneaker

  1. runnerd4 says:

    It is wrong to divide opinion into one side vs the other because both sides will not end up being happy in the end. A better way to think about the range of opinions is with good ideas on each side unless one side was completely misinformed.


  2. cfriery says:

    It’s not always a black-and-white argument. Not all opinions are polar, and we have to find colorful answers. One Side vs The Other Side is wrong because when you divide it in such a way you’re making people choose between a yes or a no. A better way of thinking about the range of opinions is to absorb all of those opinions as one.


  3. cardinal7218 says:

    I’ve never thought about debates like that before, but it makes sense. Black and white thinking often DOES lead to a compromise or a gray area. Then you don’t win the argument. Instead of taking the obvious One Side or The Other Side, form a unique opinion on the subject that you can research and prove. If you’re arguing against a black sneaker, don’t argue with a white sneaker- argue with a flip flop.


  4. oaktree1234 says:

    I found this lecture very helpful. It makes sense that debates shouldn’t be divided into two sides when there’s many more possibilities. Also, not everything has a clear opposite. Instead, you should draw clear distinctions with examples.


  5. thecommoncase says:

    It’s wrong to think that things are opposites as each other because nothing is really a true opposite of another, especially if you’re arguing about the same thing from different points. Two people who disagree on a topic are not opposites because they both care about the topic. This insight will be helpful when writing my counterargument.


  6. profs22 says:

    It is wrong to divide opinion into one side vs the other because there is not just one line connecting two things on either end of the spectrum, so either side would have to choose between a simple yes or no with only gray in between. Instead we need to think of all of the opinions within either side to make the essay colorful.


  7. clementine102 says:

    This was helpful because I thought a definition/categorial essay was suppose to be straight black and white. It is wrong to divide opinion into one side vs the other side because the pursuit of one outcome will leave the reader more convinced. A better way of thinking about the range of opinions on any topic is to bring all of the opinions into one.


  8. rowanstudent24 says:

    It is wrong to decide between one side or another because you are forcing everyone to choose between yes or no and some people could be unhappy in the end. Instead, you should take in all the opinions and decide your own opinion from that.


  9. shadowswife says:

    It’s wrong to divide opinions to be one side versus the other because it makes people feel obligated to pick a side, thus one side would have to win. However, it isn’t guaranteed that the winning side would be happy anyway. Either sides’ ideas are usually rejected when they lose to the winning side so it’s best to view this wide range of opinions as a list of ideas that can be combined into in. It might help find a compromise with both sides.


  10. l8tersk8ter says:

    I think this is a good discussion because it can help prevent us getting stuck in a hole when writing. We could be trying to argue in a black and white way which ends up limiting us or excluding other sides that could be important to address.


  11. mhmokaysure says:

    This exercise was helpful as it made it clear that no argument is black and white, and we shouldn’t be forcing readers to pick one specific side. By forcing them to pick one option, it defeats the purpose of the definitive essay, polarizing readers and strengthening either of the points.


  12. pardonmyfrench13 says:

    Before today I never thought about opposites. Deciding between one thing or the other isn’t always the answer. We need to put together a bunch of different ideas in order to bring the topic together and create a stronger cause.


  13. corinnebuck1219 says:

    Not everything is cut black or white, that being said while writing an essay, its never good to be gray, or 50/50. Instead, find multiple answers (various colors) to then merge into one solid idea.


  14. wafflesrgud22 says:

    If you choose the white or black argument then the reader feels inclined to pick a side instead of the “compromise” or the “grey” area. Either way, someone will be upset with the outcome and not content (gun example is a good way that explained this). Do not be wishy washy with you stance aka grey because then your stance won’t be clear throughout your piece and never start with grey for your piece because it will only get “greyer”.


  15. BabyGoat says:

    This was useful. The reason it hard to have a viewpoints with very far opposites is because one side will always be unhappy, and the compromise is never what both side want. The best way of thinking is to bring all of the arguments and sides into one. And bring out more than just the two sides.


  16. gabythefujoshi18 says:

    What I liked about this lecture is that it taught me to think more outside the box, creatively, and outrageously. You will never win the hearts of to completely extremes but you can take the best of those two arguments and make your own that complies elements of both


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