The Pendulum of Discourse

pendulum_viaSylvarI find boundaries deeply entrancing. The twilight steps between darkness and light, the long ridges between peak and swale, the blurry lines between solid ideas: no matter the subject, I am drawn to the edges. The gradients from one thing to the next often tell me more than the things themselves.

I regularly indulge my affinity for boundaries through exploring caves or hiking mountains, but I am equally interested in exploring the boundaries of knowledge. We spend so much of our discourse on a pendulum between certainties, swinging on a distant focal point in search of equilibrium. The central node of an idea holds some sway, but for me, it is only an anchor. It is a beacon for measurement, a view from which to survey the world, but not a place to stay. The interesting things happen farther out, in the wilderness between here and there.

Some seem to think the purpose of discourse is to draw our collective knowledge into orbit around a core, ideally rejecting alternatives as small-minded, irrelevant, or wrong. I think we ignore the oscillation when we need it most, arguing for the extremes when we really need equilibrium. By arguing for the extremes and ignoring the long fuzzy boundary between, each position starts to define the middle as part of some other extreme. We become hyper-focused on the longest amplitude of the pendulum’s every swing, but in so doing we lose awareness of the swing itself.

I think instead the purpose of discourse is to explore how ideas relate to one another, to ask hard questions, and to find deeper and more nuanced understanding. The edges we imagine between, when examined, turn out to be vast and complicated gulfs.

Does gun control prevent mass-shootings? What about trained, well-armed, law-abiding citizens? You can find examples of both. And examples of the failure of both. And yet one extreme views the very idea of limits as treason, and the other views the idea of an armed citizenry as lunatic anarchy. And yes, you can find some example to argue either point, and yes, you could reasonably argue that the loudest voices on one side are quite a bit farther out than the loudest voices on the other. But while we fortify our ideological positions on the high ground, real people are dying in the no-man’s-land between.

I’m not saying the dead center between two armed camps is the right place, either. Building a new fortified position just to balance two extremes doesn’t lead us any closer to truth, it just creates more boundaries. The point is to explore everything between, and around, and beyond.

For example, I don’t think there’s anything wrong, necessarily, with having an extreme position on something. The evidence doesn’t care about middle ground, and when we can find well-founded probabilities, we should follow them. Climate change is real, and we are doing it, and we ought to stop. But the evidence proves the first two, and it is my ideology that makes me believe the third, and I know that. I believe we should stop because I care about the natural world, and I do not want to damage it in radical, uncontrolled ways. There are people who do not agree about that intrinsic value, who consider the natural world subordinate to human whims, and who would argue that climate change doesn’t matter so much. I don’t agree, but that is a discourse worth having, because somewhere in the middle we can act.

At least I like to think so. Or I like to hope so. But we need more people to explore the boundaries instead of joining the camps. We need to be looking for the solutions instead of defending our positions. We need to notice when the pendulum is swinging, and let it, and appreciate it—rather than trying to anchor it obliquely to one side.


Image Credit: Sylvar


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