The other day, I heard a renowned expert state that the difference between a dilemma, a polarity and a paradox is essentially a matter of semantics. I was not particularly surprised because I have often come across people using these terms almost as synonyms. While there may be some similarities between the three, the differences are extremely significant. In this piece, I have tried to articulate my understanding of the three and also why it is important not to confuse them with each other.
Dilemma : Dilemma is a difficult choice between two equally strong alternatives. The two alternatives may not have any inherent contrary tension, but in some situations it may not be possible to pursue them simultaneously. Thus a judge may have to choose between “upholding the law” and “being compassionate”. This does not mean that there is an inherent contrary pull between “adherence to law” and “compassion”. It is just that in some situations, one may have to choose one over the other.
Since all needs and values may sometimes conflict with each other, a dilemma can arise between any two of them. Sometimes a dilemma can arise between elements which are normally highly convergent e.g. between liking and loving. Most times they go hand in hand, but we may at times have to deal with the dilemmas arising out of situations when we may like somebody but may not love the person or be unable to stop loving someone who we do not like.
Engagement with dilemmas requires exercise of ingenuity to find a third alternative which can take care of the requirements of both sides. Thus, in the example of the judge given above, the task would be to find a compassionate way of adhering to the law. In situations, when a third alternative does not emerge, the individual will have to make a choice and live with its consequences.
Polarity: In case of a polarity the two sides have a high degree of contrary tension making them polar opposites. In extreme cases, they may become mutually exclusive (e.g. day and night, life and death) In other cases, the contrary tension may be strong enough to make us believe that there simultaneous existence is impossible (e.g. introversion- extroversion, masculine-feminine etc.)
This also means that in a polarity, the two sides are intertwined and interdependent. They are like two sides of a coin which cannot exist without each other. The relationship here is not of “either-or” variety but of “foreground- background ” variety. While one side becomes prominent, the other does not disappear, it only gets relegated to the background. Thus the feminine side of a visibly masculine person, does not vanish, it merely remains in the background, exercises its influence in an indirect and invisible manner and occasionally shows itself. Just as during day time, the night does not cease to exist, but only remains in the background.
A polarity does not necessarily create a dilemma. The person who has a strong leaning towards either of the two poles, sidesteps the engagement with the dilemma through suppressing/repressing either of the two poles. The dilemma is only experienced by the individual who does not polarize (i.e. have a marked preference for either of the two sides) . For example, the person who embraces both the masculine and feminine side, will face many more dilemmas than a person who embraces only one of the two.
In other words, non-engagement with a polarity becomes a way of avoiding the dilemma. Engagement with a polarity entails understanding the interdependence of the two sides, acknowledging the significance of each side and working towards a more supportive relationship between them. Consequently, engagement with a polarity means readiness to face more dilemmas than side stepping them.
Paradox: The situation in case of a paradox is all together different. In both dilemma and polarity, there are two sides. In the case of a dilemma the two sides are tied in an “either-or” relationship; and, in case of a polarity, in a “foreground-background” relationship. In paradox, there are no two sides. There is only one side, which is inherently untenable.
In formal logic, a paradox is defined as “a proposition whose logical conclusion, negates the premise itself”. A typical example of a paradox is a statement like ” I always lie”. If this statement is true and then by its very stipulation it must be a lie. Hence the statement is inherently untenable.
A paradox does not create dilemmas, it creates double-binds i.e. situations which lead to the same conclusion no matter what alternative is chosen. For example, when someone is asked “Have you stopped beating your wife?”, both answers (yes or no) are an admission of guilt. Similarly a paradoxical injunction can neither be obeyed nor disobeyed. If a parent tells a child ” Don’t listen to me”, the child can neither obey this command nor disobey it.
Paradoxes arise through “self-reference” i.e. the statement being applied to itself. In the famous Russel’s paradox (a set of sets which are not members of themselves), the paradox arises when you ask the question whether this set belongs to itself or not. If it belongs to itself, then by its own stipulation it can not: and if it does not, then it must belong to itself. This led Russel to postulate the theory of logical categories and to show how mixing up the different levels of logical categories can create this confusion. A set of sets is a meta-set and can not be treated in the same class as a set of objects.
Thus, when a paradox is engaged with at the level at which it arises, one keeps going round and round in circles. Engagement with paradoxes necessarily entail transcendence in level of thinking or consciousness. A paradox which is frequently encountered by most of us is that “the more we cling to a person/object, the more it slips out of our grasp”. Unless we shift the terms of reference and focus on our “compulsion to cling”, we can never release ourselves from the paradox.
Why these differences are important?
The differences between dilemmas, polarities and paradoxes are not merely of semantics or academic interest. They make a very real difference to how we engage with them. When a dilemma is treated like a polarity, we exaggerate the contrariness between the two sides. Imagine a judge who treats compassion and adherence to law as a polarity rather than a dilemma. Such a judge will treat them as mutually exclusive and is likely to become as dispassionate as possible, lest her/his compassion comes in the way of upholding the law. There will be no attempt to explore the possibility of co-holding the two.
Similarly, when a polarity is treated as a dilemma, the inherent contrary tension (as also the interdependence) between the two sides is either wished away or posited in either-or terms. This is most evident in the popular approach to engagement with the gender polarity. The differences between the two genders are either exaggerated ( Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus) or ignored ( we are all the same and gender is of no consequence). Thus, not surprisingly, most organizations in their attempt to promote diversity either enhance masculinity among women or are left with a sense of compromise at having to take care of their feminine attributes and needs. In either case, the potential of the interdependence between masculine and feminine remains unfulfilled.
When Paradoxes are treated as dilemmas or polarities, the inherent contradiction is not experienced and hence one can not see that one is an untenable situation. A choice is presumed where none exists – a person clinging on to straws can neither let go nor continue in the same situation. The only way forward can emerge through exploring the fears and anxieties which the individual is trying to escape. A typical example of this process is hypochondria. The more a hypochondriac is confronted, the more he/she will insist that his/her illness is real and not imaginary. The only way forward is through addressing what lies beneath the hypochondria (in most cases need for attention)
Similarly, when all contrary phenomenon are treated as paradoxes, an inevitability is presumed where it does not exist. For example, simultaneous increase in wealth and poverty in a society is contradictory but not paradoxical. Treating it as a paradox, will prevent us from addressing the underlying issues such as skewed distribution, inappropriate technology etc. Thus, treating anything and everything as a paradox becomes a convenient way of escaping the responsibility to deal with the problem.
To sum up, dilemmas, polarities and paradoxes are quite different from each other and require different ways of engagement. Dilemmas can be addressed through ingenuity of finding a third alternative, which can accommodate (to the extent possible) both sides. Polarities require acknowledgment of the interdependence and consequent gracing of both sides. Paradoxes are essentially triggers for exploration to enliven deeper levels of consciousness. Further, these differences are neither a matter of semantics nor of mere academic interest. They have very profound implications for our day to day living process.
I look forward to your thoughts as also how you experience the difference between the three.