Dilemmas, Polarities and Paradoxes

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Paradox of Frameworks

I have a very ambivalent relationship with frameworks- I love them because they help me to think cogently but simultaneously, I hate them because they restrict the free-flow of my thoughts and feelings.Feeling/ Thinking is a fluid process on which structure can be imposed only “post-facto” Undoubtedly, there is some connection between the “chain of thoughts” but the possibilities are so many that no one can predict as to the direction in which this river of thoughts and feelings will flow. The experience of a “falling apple”, made Newton ask a certain question which led him to the path of discovering the principle of gravity. There is no particular reason for him to have traversed that path, instead he could well have speculated about the taste of the apple or its nutritional value or the different colours,shapes and sizes in which they come or even what would have happened if the apple had fallen on his head and injured him etc. etc. The possibilities are endless and the connections between any two thoughts can only be in hindsight.

It is here that frameworks play an important role. They channelise the thought process, put them into a pre-fixed structure and enable us to make some sense out of them. However, this structuring extracts a heavy price. It requires us to ignore (or at least put aside) all such feelings and thoughts which do not fit into the pre-fixed structure. For example, if one is thinking about the issue of “gender relations” using the binary framework of Men and Women, then it becomes necessary to exclude all thoughts about people who do not fit into this binary.This is most evident when people use simplistic frames like good-bad, beautiful-ugly, success-failure, right-left, liberal-conservative, selfish-altruistic, introverted-extroverted etc. The more rigidly a person holds the framework, the more he/she is forced to “exclude”. For example  a person who has very rigid ideas about “good” and “bad” will end up excluding everything which is “grey” as compared to the person whose framework is more nuanced.

However, no matter how complex and nuanced a framework may be, it will necessary exclude something and whenever we engage with the excluded phenomenon ,we will be confronted with a paradox. To understand this, we need to understand the nature of paradox.

Paradox is one of the most misunderstood and misused  terms in general discourse. Often we mistake it as any contrary/contradictory pull. For example if I say that I want to be at home and at work at the same time, then this phenomenon is NOT a paradox, it is merely a presence of two conflicting desires. Paradox arises when a logically drawn conclusion from a premise, contradicts the premise itself. A simple example of a paradox is the assertion “I always tell lies”. The difficulty with this assertion is that if it is true, then the person is telling a lie and hence it is necessarily untrue. In other words, a paradoxical assertion has to be “false” in order to be “true” and vice versa.Similarly, a paradoxical injunction can only be followed by disregarding it. When a parent tells a child “don’t listen to me”, then a parent is giving a paradoxical injunction to the child. The child is being asked to “listen” to the parent in order to “not listen”.

Normally, such paradoxes do not create much difficulty for us because we take it for granted that the assertion or injunction is not to be applied to itself. In the examples given above the statement “I always tell lies”  – if not applied to itself ,becomes a simple confession of a compulsive lier. Similarly the parental injunction for “not listening” is simply asking the child to develop his/her own thinking. The difficulty  arises when the  assertion/injunction is applied to itself.  In paradox theory, this  is called  “self-referrence” i.e. when an assertion or injunction is applied to itself. For those who are interested in this subject may like to see my paper   “Beyond The Law Of Contradictions” available here. For the limited purpose of this piece, it is enough to note that the paradox arises  from this phenomenon of “self-referrence”

The paradox becomes apparent whenever a framework (i.e. structure of ideas) is applied to itself. Can an insane person see his own insanity?  In order to do this, the person will necessary have to step out of his/her insanity. The same is applicable in virtually all spheres. An introverted person must be able to step out of his/her introversion in order to recognise it and similarly an extroverted person can see his/her extraversion only by turning the gaze inwards. Take the example of Defence Mechanisms- a very powerful and useful framework for understanding human behaviour. So long as the person is caught in a defence mechanism, it can not become visible to the individual. The moment a memory or an impulse is repressed, it becomes inaccessible to the individual and hence an assertion like “I have repressed something” is self-contradictory or paradoxical.

Thus, the meaningfulness of any framework rests on our ability to stand apart from it. However, the framework by its very nature prevents us from this side-stepping. The framework becomes a sentry of sorts which screens our thoughts and feelings and views their admissibility from its own unique lens. Thus, if an individual is using a framework which looks at organisations as purposive instruments then he/she can only engage with thoughts which pertain to efficiency, productivity, output, skills, competencies etc. All feelings and thoughts about human sensitivity,ambience,  ecology, etc. must be blocked as potential distractions and irrelevant to the matter at hand. The only way in which these thoughts and feelings can find an entry is through questioning the assumption on which the framework is built, which in the case cited above would be – Is organisation only a purposive instrument of performance? If this question is not asked then all endeavours  of humanising the organisation will paradoxically become instruments of further dehumanising as can be seen in expressions like human resources, human inventory, human assets etc. whereby the human being is reduced to being a “commodity”.

Similarly if one tries to fit the phenomenon of “intimacy” in a framework of introversion-extraversion, one will  constantly be running in circles. In intimacy there is a deep connect both with the Self and the Other- it can neither be regarded as introverted nor extraverted. Even if one regards introversion and extraversion as two poles of a continuum, with a large middle ground, it still can not explain intimacy. Intimacy does not happen in any middle ground- it is a state wherein both introversion and extraversion are intense and mutually dependent upon each other. In a sense one is deeply connecting with oneself through connecting with the other and vice versa. Hence in order to engage with intimacy, one has to go to a higher/deeper level wherein introversion and extraversion can be held in simultaneity rather than as two poles of a continuum. This is not to suggest that the framework of introversion and extraversion is of any less value, but only that like all frameworks it stands on some basic foundations (in this case, a clear separation between “inside” and “outside”) and any attempt to engage with phenomenon which go beyond the limits set by its foundations will necessarily create a paradox.

This is in line with the theory of paradox which stipulates that no paradox can be resolved/dissolved at the level in which it arises. In order to address a paradox meaningfully, one needs to move to a higher/deeper level of enquiry. In case of Frameworks, this deeper level refers to the philosophical underpinnings of the framework.

Interestingly, we are living in times when our reliance on frameworks in virtually all spheres of life is increasing exponentially. Be it our personal lives or professional, we are inundated by frameworks like diet charts, exercise regimes, child-rearing practices, competency mapping, bench marking, balanced score cards etc. etc. Simultaneously  our patience and  willingness to understand  the underlying assumptions of these frameworks is coming down. Consequently the only criteria by which we can assess any framework is its relative popularity and acceptance in the market place and the only understanding that we have of any framework is what can be quickly gathered through Google and Wikipedia. The motto of our life seems to be “Why waste time in thinking? Just Google it and act”It is therefore not surprising that today in the name of frameworks what we have are mere fads- which come and possess us for a little while and are then replaced by another set of fads. This is an inevitable consequence of the all too prevalent aversion towards philosophy in our times. Nearly a century ago, Aldous Huxley had painted the picture of a “Brave New World” which will only be driven by technology and in which Philosophy will have no place. It seems we are proving him right.

Frameworks are extremely useful provided they are used for stimulating our thinking and organising our thought process. Paradoxically, if we become their captives they can also become the biggest stumbling block to our thinking and hence defeat their own purpose. Perhaps instead of looking at frameworks as “providers of answers”,  if we engage with them as  stimuli for questioning and deeper understanding, we can forge a more meaningful relationship with them.