I’ve reached that stage in life that many younger people associate with the color gray. Think graybeard. Pale stale male. The graying of America. Gray Panthers. [Only if you’re a graybeard yourself will you remember that last one. The rest of you can look it up.]
Every gray hair on my head is a victory. It’s one that chose to stick around rather than leave the building.
And back when I had a full head of dark hair…and there was such a time, rumors notwithstanding…the Civil Rights movement led to the development of a slogan: Black Is Beautiful. You saw it a lot. Wherever it appeared, it celebrated one of the great causes and significant times in our history.
Speaking of history, I’ve worked for years with a guy who complains almost on a daily basis that the sorriest day in the history of humankind was the invention of the coin. [Are you a graybeard yourself? Then I probably haven’t protected my colleague’s anonymity. That statement alone is enough to identify him for those of a certain age.] He says it led all of us to think, and say, ad nauseam, that there are (only) two sides to every question. He said that coinage ought to be shaped like dice. We’d then think that every issue had six sides. He argued that number was magical. Two was way too few. Any more than six and the complexity would overwhelm our decision making process. In saying this, my colleague was always careful to cite the source of this wisdom, a man from a generation earlier by the name of Harlan Cleveland. Cleveland was a diplomat and an educator who served as a leader in government for a number of years. He was influential in the early history of NOAA.
In the year 2012 it’s tempting to see things in terms of black and white. Want to write a newspaper column that everyone reads? Write a best-selling book? Run a successful blog? Give it an edge. Take a stand. Get on and stay on one side or another of whatever topic you cover.
Want to be successful in politics? The same rule applies. Pick a side. Take a stand. See the world in stark contrasts of black and white. Propound the distinctions.
Black and white are in fact fundamental to our digital age. All things digital are based on ones and zeroes. Every byte of data. Every pixel in an image. Every letter on the screen. Every calculation.
Black and white works.
Except when it doesn’t.
We’ve seen such a breakdown the last few days in our national political process. One of the Presidential candidates was video-recorded making a statement in front of a small group of donors that had the effect of dividing America in two. Some might argue, and in fact this candidate has, that his major mistake wasn’t dividing America in two, but rather doing it in a way that was “inelegant.” Un-artful.
Hmm. This candidate’s remarks (which apparently date back a few months; they’ve only just now drawn attention) have triggered a firestorm of media coverage and debate.
Most of which itself has been black or white. If you’ve channel-surfed a little bit from Fox News to MSNBC you know what I mean. Oh, you prefer the “balanced” coverage of CNN? Most of that discussion has been a juxtaposition of black and white, only on a finer granularity.
Gray is beautiful? Refusal to take shortcuts is looking pretty smart as well.
Of course our candidate, and every candidate, and every reporter and blogger, and every one of us (black-and-white statement here) gets into this pickle in part because the alternatives to such black-and-white statements are complicated, nuanced, extended remarks and text. They take longer to develop, and require more effort to comprehend. We’re told that in today’s hurry-up world people don’t take the trouble to sort out such details.
Earth scientists are invited down this path. Don’t give precipitation probabilities, we’re sometimes told. People don’t want to know that. They just want to know whether or not it’s going to rain today.
Is climate change real? Or not? Is it caused by human beings, or not? Does it pose risks? Or not? Just tell us, so that we can move on.
Daunting to give the fuller story. Takes time. People may walk away before we’re done. Still might be the thing to do. Particularly when the choice is not really between opposites, when such a choice is false. Politics and religion often tend to portray ideas and entities as opposites when they’re not really in apposition. [Want an example? God and evolution.]
In daily life, are you and I finding we can’t decide which course to take?
Let’s not flip a coin. Let’s roll the dice.