A Short Piece
Maintaining an Unstable Situation
We will only thrive if we genuinely try to best one another while paradoxically accepting an unsatisfactory tie
Life is about balance, right? If we change too much, we feel aimless; if we change too little, we feel stagnant. If we honor tradition too much, we fail to see opportunities for growth; if we dishonor tradition, we may alienate the people around us who can help bring about change. If we’re nice all the time, we’ll be taken advantage of; if we’re never nice, people won’t want to be around us. And so on.
Ultimately, much about life is about maintaining balances, but I want to take it a step further and say life is about maintaining instabilities. Is “balance” another word for “instability?” Perhaps, but I think the term contributes to us losing sight of the fact that the game of life isn’t stagnant: it can sound like that achieving balance means we achieve it forever. But life is always moving, and if we don’t move with it, we’ll lose balance and fall off.
America needs both Liberals and Conservatives, as it needs both “givens” and “releases” (to allude to Philip Rieff and “Belonging Again”) A society that’s too Conservative is totalitarian, but a society that’s too Liberal is anarchistic (a situation in which totalitarianism can become appealing). Free markets are good, but if they are too free and lack any legal framework, they can become exploitive; government is necessary, but a government that is too active can hurt markets and limit prosperity. And so on.
With determining the truth, the same seems to apply: often, the truth is a mixture of x and y, not just x and not just y. And yet if we believed the truth was a mixture, we would likely not ardently defend and investigate our own positions, which means we would probably not learn the truth in x: it’s as if we must genuinely believe that the truth is only x or only y in order to successfully mix x and y into the truth (most like the truth). This creates a problem.
Democracy works best when rational people who disagree talk and try to figure out the best solution, which often lies in the middle (but not necessarily). But that middle ground only tends to be realized if the two sides genuinely try to break the balance and completely win, not just win halfway. Thus, society is inherently unstable. When it stabilizes, one side has completely won over the other, as they rationally must try to do for society to flourish, and yet society suffers if anyone completely wins. Yet everyone must genuinely try to totally win for the balance to prove possible.
‘Democracy is still problematic; and losing the sense of that problem’ — Peter Lawler put it well.¹ We think today that we need balance, and knowing that, we think our problems are solved. But our biggest problems can never be solved, only managed. A key role of thinking is maintaining the unstable situations that define society, but since our brains hate instability, our brains fight the proper role of thinking. And today we increasingly have the power to give into this natural temptation.
Alluding to “(W)hole Hope” by O.G. Rose, it seems to me that today there is less “hole hope” by which we can convince ourselves that reality isn’t essentially unstable. Telecommunication and time have just made the denial too difficult. Additionally, economic and government systems are now large enough that it becomes possible for us to silence our opponents once and for all. And again, we must genuinely try to beat them if we are to successfully manage the unstable situation that is modern society, and if we increasingly have access to power with which we can beat them, why wouldn’t we use it? We must think it would be the right thing to do.
If it is legally, economically, or governmentally possible for one side who believes in x to completely silence and beat those who believe in y, then in accordance with the same genuineness that is required for society to stabilize, the side that believes in x will completely beat y, and so destabilize society. Thus, we must assure that it is not legally, economically, or governmentally possible for people or groups to be silenced and completely defeated, and yet everything within us will want to assure those possibilities exist so that we can use them for good (as we must genuinely believe we would use them).²
To best equip people to manage the unstable situation of society, we must feel like we are betraying ourselves. If it is only a matter of time before the majority of people fail to live with this feeling of self-betrayal, then all societies have expiration dates. But perhaps some expirations are longer than others.
¹Lawler, Augustine, Robert Schaefer, and David Shaefer. “American Statesmanship: Old and New.” Active Duty. Lanham, MD. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998: 13.
²This is similar to the dilemma outlined in “The Rationality of Invincibility and Self-Destruction” by O.G. Rose, where we must keep entities from “rationally” reaching a state of becoming “too big to fail,” and yet that very effort to stop market entities can be what gives them the tools to become “too big to fail.”