Home Opposing ideas: Can we collectively walk and chew gum at the same time?

Opposing ideas: Can we collectively walk and chew gum at the same time?

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“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald.

A few examples:

Historical: The atomic bomb brought the war with Japan to a close more quickly and the atomic bomb may have had much less effect upon Japan’s surrender than the Soviet declaration of war against Japan at about the same time (historians still have not resolved this difference of interpretation).

Psychological: Human nature is fundamentally flawed, often violent, and subject to dark unconscious impulses and Anne Frank was not wrong to believe that people are often really good at heart.

Strategic: No less an authority than George Kennan asserted that pushing NATO eastward was the greatest foreign policy mistake of our time, causing Russia to feel once again mortally threatened and Putin is a brutal dictator with delusions of imperial grandeur that have led to enormous unnecessary suffering in Ukraine.

Political: America is a bulwark for democracy and against tyranny globally and America often embroils itself in conflicts that end up creating far more chaos and death than if the US. had exercised more restraint and humility.

Economic: The free market system has lifted millions out of poverty and the same system continues to be a major factor as planetary ecosystems fray.

A variation: The capitalist system has been a major factor in the fraying of planetary ecosystems and the technologies provided by that same system (solar, wind, batteries—fusion?) will be crucial to sustaining both people and the living systems of the planet.

Strategic: Nuclear deterrence may have prevented a third world war for 75 years and the system of nuclear deterrence could dissolve at any moment by accident or miscommunication into a planetary catastrophe.

Philosophical/Strategic (a three-in-one): War is a tragic and inescapable condition that has gone one for thousands of years and we now have the knowledge of conflict resolution tools and international law to prevent war and nuclear weapons have rendered “victory” in all-out war meaningless—to survive we must wage a preventive war against war.

Cultural/Political: Osama bin Laden perpetrated one of the cruelest terrorist acts in modern history and articulated a set of demands that from his perspective as a committed Islamist were reasonable: these demands included that the U.S. should cease to support Israel against Palestine and that it withdraw its troops from Islamic territories. Did these demands justify the murder of 3000 innocent Americans? Not on your life. But surely such demands are worth examining in terms of learning about a certain Islamic mind set, if only to prevent the next 9-11.

Moral/Aesthetic: Picasso was a self-centered moral monster and his genius has made invaluable contributions to our culture. T.S. Eliot was reflexively anti-Semitic until he regretted it, but still wrote Nobel prize-winning poetry.

Political: The appeal of the 45th president is a mystery, but not to the MAGA millions who see him a charismatic leader and for millions of others he represents uncontrolled chaos and a mortal threat to our democratic system.

Political/Cultural: China has a uniquely controlling and cruel top-down system that oppresses minorities like the Uyghurs and China has done a remarkable job of pulling millions of their citizens out of poverty.

Philosophical: Each human is unique and each human is like every other human.

A living example of the ability to hold opposed ideas in mind at the same time: Neva Shalom Wahat-al-Salaam is a village in Israel where Jewish, Christian, and Muslim families have co-existed for decades, not always easily, but there is a wait list to get in. It’s a remarkable cultural environment for the children of the village, who all attend the same school and celebrate each other’s beliefs, customs, and rituals.

Too many of us are uncomfortable with ambiguity. We want things cut-and-dried: who are the good guys and who are not. We silo ourselves tribally into “us” and “them,” with “us” being always right, or justified in any questionable behavior by rationalizing our “higher” goals in the name of a personal or national self-interest all too narrowly defined—“my country right or wrong.”

To wrestle with opposing points of view helps us walk in another’s shoes, preventing the dehumanizing of folks with whom we might be in conflict. This is going to be more and more important when, say, my use of energy affects the air quality in China, and their use of energy affects my own breathing.

All such twos-in-one take place in a context that is not two—it is a one that transcends deeply entrenched habits of narrow self-interest. We live on one earth and we are one species, dependent for life upon one interconnected biosystem.

The planet is beginning to undergo a mental shift in this direction—not a deep change in “human nature,” but at least a growing awareness of our dependence upon each other and the biosystem profound enough to affect global politics, economics, religion, education, and even the thinking of armed forces everywhere. Like it or not, our nuclear and ecological reality, that we’re all in this together, has become the foundational truth of our moment.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I’ll meet you there.”  

Winslow Myers, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide” and serves on the Advisory Board of the War Prevention Initiative.



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