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19 March 2006

Aim for horizons

"Be careful how you interpret the world: it is like that." - Erich Heller

Life has become Technicolor ever since that house landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, but even with that red-shoed inspiration, I still think we humans see most things in polarized terms. (Or perhaps that’s true of humans from the U.S. culture more than others.)

We often see things in black and white, don't we?—it’s either right or it’s wrong, yes or no, me or you, up or down, in or out, victim or perpetrator, rich or poor, pro-choice or pro-life, tastes great or less filling, whole or two percent, gay rights or religious belief, environment or big business. Win or lose.

But life isn’t that simple, is it? After all, what’s the dilemma in right versus wrong? Wouldn’t we just pick what’s right if it were that clear? Instead, it’s “right versus right” that is at the heart of our toughest choices.

As Rushworth Kidder says, “tough choices, typically, are those that pit one ‘right’ value against another.” Kidder, president of the Institute for Global Ethics, goes further. “Consider that:

•    It is right to protect the endangered spotted owl in the old-growth forests of the American Northwest--and right to provide jobs for loggers.
•    It is right to honor a woman's right to make decisions affecting her body--and right to protect the lives of the unborn.
•    It is right to provide our children with the finest public schools available--and right to prevent the constant upward ratcheting of state and local taxes.
•    It is right to extend equal social services to everyone regardless of race or ethnic origin--and right to pay special attention to those whose cultural backgrounds may have deprived them of past opportunities.
•    It is right to refrain from meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign nations--and right to help protect the undefended in regions where they are subject to slaughter.
•    It is right to resist the importation of products made in developing nations to the detriment of the environment--and right to provide jobs, even at low wages, for citizens of those nations.
•    It is right to support the principle of creative freedom for the curator of an exhibition at a local museum--and right to uphold the community's desire to avoid displaying pornographic or racially offensive works.
•    It is right to ‘throw the book’ at good employees who make dumb decisions that endanger the firm--and right to have enough compassion to mitigate the punishment and give them another chance.”

RightwrongAs Kidder’s list reminds us, it’s not the right versus wrong dilemmas that are our biggest challenges. That doesn’t mean that anything goes, he says: “That doesn’t mean there are no right-versus-wrong choices; the world is full of them—from cheating on taxes to lying under oath, from running red lights to inflating the expense account, from buying under-twelve movie tickets for your fourteen-year-old to overstating the damage done to your car for insurance purposes--the world abounds with instances that are widely understood to be wrong.”

But right-versus-wrong choices are very different from right-versus-right ones, he says. The first is a moral temptation; the latter reach inward to our most profound and central values, setting one against the other in ways that will never be resolved simply by pretending that one is "wrong.” Yet, truly, isn’t that how we approach many of these issues, by saying that They are wrong?

As Kidder reminds us, the really tough choices don't center on right versus wrong. They involve right versus right. They are genuine dilemmas precisely because each side is firmly rooted in one of our basic, core values: truth versus loyalty, individual versus community, short-term versus long-term, or justice versus mercy. When I look at polarizing issues in my community, my first challenge is to determine which of these value sets are at play. For instance, conversations about development vs the environment pit short-term thinking against long-term vision. The dialogue about affordable housing taps into the dilemma of the individual versus the community. If my friend lies about her background on a resume, I’m torn between truth and loyalty. If Emma doesn’t hand in her oral history project to Mrs. Bollinger and gets an “F” on it (hypothetical, of course), I’m torn between justice and mercy.

How does this translate into my wee life? It’s right to respect my teenager’s privacy and it’s right to do what I have to do to protect her. It’s right to hold her accountable and it’s right to acknowledge how hard it is to be a teenager. It’s right to provide for my family and it’s right to be true to my life’s work…It’s right to…and it’s right to….

As I pondered these right vs right dilemmas, James Carse’s work on finite and infinite games came floating to the surface, foundational as it is to my own work: how do I see the world and the life in it? How does knowing how we see the world influence everything else in our world--as Heller said, "Be careful how you interpret the world: it is like that."

Living life as if it were a finite game is to play within a well-defined set of rules, a game in which one side wins and one side loses: war, for example, is the ultimate finite game. As another blogger summarized after hearing Carse speak, “the boundaries are important to finite games. There has to be an ending, and there has to be an agreement on how you get there.” There is a right and a wrong, a beginning and an end, a set of rules to play within.

Infinite games are ones that mess with the rules, changing them if need be; they are games whose point is to continue playing, not win. In a speech, Carse compared “the difference between finite and infinite games as the difference between a boundary and a horizon. You can approach a boundary, and cross over it, and then you’re on the other side. However, as you move towards the horizon, the horizon keeps on moving away from you, and you have changed your perspective.”

“He also pointed out that finite games require ‘veiling,’ where we consciously restrict ourselves to play the game, take it seriously, and ignore any other considerations"—we talk ourselves into believing that it’s the only game in town, so to speak, that it matters, that it is right and just and true (and that the opposition isn’t) and that we must win.  But as Carse writes, “The rules of an infinite game have a different status than those of a finite game. They are like the grammar of a living language, whereas those of a finite game are like the rules of a debate.”

Speak that living language instead, moving into a world of both/and, not either/or.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Red_shoesPlay life like it is an infinite, not a finite game. Play to learn, not to win. Play to keep the game going, not end it. Aim for Technicolor, not black and white.

Learn to talk across difference, to make differences discussable in order to make them usable and learn-from-able--it's tough to do that from a polarized position.

Resist the temptation of simply pretending that the other is wrong.

Aim for horizons,
not boundaries.


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You might be right.

Thinking of the loop sign I often think of the debate between people regarding which way the toilet paper roll should go: under the bottom or over the top?

You know you are right over the top if you feel you need to change the way it goes while taking a moment to ponder life in your friends bathroom.

David - your opening line really made me laugh, on many levels. And the toilet paper example is actually an example of a right vs wrong dilemma: over the top is right and anything else is just horribly wrong. Smile.

Right! Right?

This is a very interesting essay. I think that the right/right and right/wrong debate is a universal one. All cultures incorporate a basic sense of right and wrong but the extend in which it is utilised for political agendas and day-to-day existence varies significantly.

My impression of the US is that it does indeed rely heavily on things being either right or wrong. Politics aside, I have to admit that I am utterly taken aback by the culture of law suits that seems to rule this country - almost any minor or major dispute goes to court where it is decided who is right or wrong. No inbetween. No room for real communication and compromise. People don't even bother to attempt a mutually satisfying outcome WITHOUT the courts. "Hey, I am right and you are wrong, and I will sue you to prove that I am right and you are wrong. Why? Because I can." Frankly, I am horrified by a system that allows for this kind of behaviour that leaves little incentive to even try and settle things in a more amicable and mutually respectful way. A system like this does indeed encourage black & white thinking, with the result that people will use the courts to paint what's black white and what's white black. Am I making sense?

This post is a brilliantly presented case for living a more technicolored life, thank you!

I have played the finite game plenty of times so this posting generates a fair amount of humility for me. Or at least it should.

One day I remember being drawn into one of life's many right/wrong games at work and said (without thinking), "we need more poetry". Well, that ended the argument. And left me to wonder what I meant.

I think poets understand infinite games and right-right dilemmas. And we have such little time for poets or poetry. Maybe we should make more time?

In church in S.F. yesterday morning, the woman doing the announcements prefaced them by reminding us about WE label them as being either good or bad (i.e., right or wrong) there are always blessings to be had in even the worst circumstances. Your posts here always make me think and I'm grateful for that. I'm going to focus this week on painting the differences that catch my eye with transform them into something learn-from-able.

Kerstin - your comments about the ways in which we look to the law to solve disputes or mediate dialogue are so well taken. somehow, it seems we have given up the opportunity to engage with the Other--we have abdicated that responsibility to others--to the detriment of our national psyche, it seems. Thanks for sharing those thoughts...

Mike - everything I write about is, really, something I'm trying to learn, so I'm sharing in that Humongous Humility Pie with you. I think we need to make more time for poets and poetry, yes--let's. If poetry is a signal to some greater, richer, broader, more meaningful meaning, then yes--let's not only make more time for it, but let's each write more of it, too.

Marilyn - my 2-year-old teaches me everyday about exactly what your Announcement Woman is saying: that dead bird on my front walk isn't bad except as I make it so, the skin color of people around me holds no meaning for her except by her seeing tone--we create acts of meaning every moment. Thanks, as always, for continuing my thinking process...

it seems to be (for me, at least) a precarious balancing act between the right/wrong, black/white thinking mode and ..... the dreaded "moral relativity". the kind of moral relativity that can really breed inaction, stagnation and rationalization for some really horrendous ideas and behavior. um ... make sense? i like the illustration. i have that particular sheet music (black & white)too. i have a lot of ragtime sheet music that my dad collected. the (pardon me) "coon" song music is truly incredible - dad gave most of it to howard university. minstrel stuff. and the "chinky" songs are pretty wild too. haven't shown them to my daughters yet (they're both chinese).


caroline - thanks for your note and hi! i appreciate your comment about moral relativism - i wonder if yet another polarization is moral relativism vs absolutism, both right.

i'm curious about your use of derogatory terms to describe the music you're discussing. i know those terms are a shorthand to describe the kind of music you mean, but is it possible that using the terms themselves as descriptors in a modern context perpetuates the racism that created the term in the first place? The "coon caricature" you mention is one of the most dehumanizing stereotypes of African Americans, for example (see

Stereotypes themselves were created to make life more efficient and quicker--in 1789, two Frenchmen determined that the process of letterpress printing was too time-consuming, so they devised a way to set a page of type, place a sheet of metal over the page and create an impression of the surface of the page of type, an impression from which they could print repeatedly and quickly. The name of that invention? The stereotype.

This is a question I grapple with that ranges far beyond your comment, so I hope you'll take it in that vein: how can we acknowledge and own the past yet move beyond it and not perpetuate it? Does language matter? I think it does. That's not to say we should be politically correct, either. So do we name the awful unnameable?

And knowing you, I know you know all this - so it is a general question sparked by your comments - thanks for writing...

hmmm .... the use of the derogatory terms. that's another biggie. that's fine that you raised the issue - the questions themselves are substantive food for thought. there's also the issue of "appropriation" of words vs. "misappropriation" of words. women who want to proudly claim back the word "bitch", and use the term as a positive one, as having favorable "empowering" connotations. then there's "nigger". african-americans who choose to reclaim that term and use it to (one hopes) mean something positive. and then there are the A.A.'s who find the term "nigger" repugnant in *any and all* circumstances. would it make a difference, my using the term "coon" if i told you i am a quadroon? or is "quadroon" a no-no now, too? i don't know. i honestly don't. the librarian at howard university, the one who catalogued the music we donated to the university - she called them "coon songs" herself. good questions, P.


caroline - i appreciate your questions - I think the question of misappropriation is a big one. And in my experience, the quandries we have about language often keep us from engaging with people who are different from us. Rather than offend, we don't engage at all. Rather than ask, we assume. Rather than learn from differences, we try to minimize them. I wonder what keeps us from just walking into difference--we notice difference, yet try not to. We have questions about what to call someone--who would be the best authority on that, if not the person him/herself? Thanks for the food for thought...

more good questions! here are a couple of stories for you. first story: my many friends in China take no offense at being referred to as "slanty-eyed". they simply view the term as being descriptive of their physique & facial features - not pejorative in any way. in fact, in China, a ccmmonly-used term for westerners is "da bizi" (pronounced "dah bee-tzuh"). it literally means "big nose". yeah, well, we westerners DO tend to have more pronounced noses than Asians. that term, also, is not used pejoratively - it is thought to be merely descriptive, and even "affectionate" in nature.

what is also interesting is that many Asian women have begun having cosmetic surgery to alter the "bi-canthal" fold (double-eyelid) common in Asian eyes. they want to look more "western". check out "Audrey" magazine (for Asian-American women) from the last year - they devoted two issues to this controversial topic.

second story. my friend of 20+ years, Isaac, is Jewish. he and our mutual friend, Doug (African-American), have "nicknames" for each other. Doug calls Isaac "Jewboy" and Isaac calls Doug "Nigger". okay, well, that's between them. the problem occurred when Isaac sent us an invitation to a theatrical production he was involved in. in his handwriting, on the invitation, he wrote: "p.s. - Chinks allowed". he was trying to let us know that our children would be welcome at the event. and, i guess, in his own wacky way, thought he was being funny. it wasn't funny to me.

i got really steamed that Isaac did that. i had to make it clear to him that he CANNOT do that with our kids. they are KIDS! now, if they want to call Isaac "Uncle Jew-man" when they're 18, that's between them and Isaac. and, if they don't mind Isaac making "Chink" jokes when they're adults, that's also their choice. for now, though, it is my duty to protect them from *any* kind of appropriation/misappropriation/reappropriation/whatever of those terms until they are old enough to decide for themselves. sarcasm and irony are beyond their developmental level at this point.

fortunately, Isaac got the point and he has reigned himself in. now he just calls our kids by their given names. "knucklehead" and "goofball" are acceptable at this point, as well, and are well-tolerated. ;-D


You might enjoy checking out the delicious tag usthem which has a lot of related material!

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