Everything contradicts itself (except this title!)

For this post, I want to first persuade you (by a series of examples) that at the heart every idea or circumstance there exists a deep contradiction. Second, I will ask what we should do about the fact.

Now to explain what I mean by this is difficult – the sheer pervasiveness and scale of these contradictions kind of makes it hard to conceive of them directly. That said though, at some level anyone reading this should already know or understand what I mean. So I’m going to take a cheeky expositional shortcut and give you a list of contradictions – it isn’t exhaustive and it’s in no particular order. (Credit – many of these were scribbled down in the margin of a Harcourts brochure by my Dad during a chat we had last year.) Here they are:



changing things accepting things
expansion consolidation
details big picture
being alive being dead
suffering peace and plenty
political left political right
uniqueness equality
authority/leaders submission/subjects
free speech being respectful
law/rules freedom
justice mercy
form/essence substance/existence
female male
predestination/determinism/fate free will
action/decisiveness contemplation/being open-minded
scepticism trust
saving spending
personal fulfilment service
stubbornness compromise
conflict peace
reason intuition/faith

Let’s take a few of these examples and run with them a bit further. Say you need to make an urgent decision but you don’t yet have much information to go on. Should you act immediately on what you do know, or put off committing to a course of action while you wait for more details to come in? To make the best possible decision at the time,  you will need to pick the most appropriate of the two options – let’s say you decide to act immediately. But the next day you might need to make another decision, and decide to put things off for a bit. A joke might be funny in one context, but offensive in another. For a project to be successful the details need to be sorted, but if you can’t see the wood for the trees then the project will miss its true purpose. The underlying considerations of decision making, joke telling, and project management all lie in contradiction to each other – and we just have to somehow know how to apply each side correctly (either by experience or perception).

Something similar is true about life at the cellular level. Say a cell needs to make a protein to for its outer membrane. The right section of DNA needs to be unwound in order to be read, and the protein to be manufactured (translated). Then the protein (along with the piece of membrane it is embedded in) needs to be loaded into a vesicle (a tiny bubble-like container made of membrane) so it can be brought to the cell’s Golgi body. This is a pile of  huge flattened vesicles (all squashed against each other like a stack of pancakes) which are constantly pinching off bits of themselves into smaller vesicles (the technical term is ‘blebbing’) and passing these blebbed vesicles back and forth between each other. The protein will passed from vesicle to vesicle until it’s sorted into one bound for the cell’s outer membrane. This final vesicle merges with the outer membrane, and the protein is in position at last. This whole process takes place incredibly quickly, and all the while the cell is carrying out thousands of other processes and reactions! (see below)

metabolic pathways poster
(Some of) our cellular metabolic pathways. Your exam is next week! http://bit.ly/1RTl9UU

But how does the cell stop making this protein? It has negative feedback mechanisms that – in the presence of the protein – interfere with one or more of the above steps in its production and transport. If there is too much of the protein, this negative feedback will become more powerful and the protein’s production will be scaled back. But if the cell finds itself in a situation where it needs unusually high levels of the protein, it will have another feedback system – this one able to block the first one and allow for extra high levels of the protein. For the cell to work properly, it needs to 1) have multiple ways of doing things that contradict each other (in this case, producing protein vs not producing protein) and 2) have ways of choosing the right thing to do. Cells can make tricky decisions between vastly divergent options extremely cannily – and they manage this perfectly well without needing to think or have a brain!

Take another look at the above list of human contradictions. There’s actually a very strong analogy between the way we use these ideas or circumstances and the way a cell uses its protein machinery. Each side of the contradiction is extremely important to have – their weird differentness actually makes up a sort of bedrock of who we are as humans. Cells are complex and if you try to pare them back to make them easier to work with or understand, then they become primitive and boring and will only survive in a lab in a controlled environment. The same goes for humans – we are complex creatures that form complex societies and if you were to try and somehow iron out all our kinks and quirks we’d all diminish into something less than we are. The importance of maintaining and extending our repertoire of ideas and circumstances (contradictory though they may be) cannot be overstated.

That said, many of our ideas and circumstances are unhealthy, or even destructive if used carelessly. If a cell produces too much of an outer membrane protein, then (depending on what the protein is) all sorts of bad things could happen to it, from popping due to osmotic pressure, to getting destroyed by the immune system, to starting to become cancerous. Disregarding the advice of a close friend, exercising your free speech disrespectfully, trying to please everyone all the time, or voting purely according to ideological reasons will mess you or your society up in no less serious a way. We are constantly challenged by the question of how to marry these contradictions (that is, how to make use of both sides while marginalising neither of them).

This challenge is a taxing and demanding one. It requires that people make decisions on which side of a contradiction to promote over the other. These decisions will often be moral ones. Unfortunately, the challenge is all too often dismissed in safe and platitudinous fashion: “seek balance,” “all things in moderation,” “live a moral life…” These pat sayings belie the true tricky seriousness of contradiction marrying.

Fiction can be pretty useful for understanding the moral gravity of contradiction marrying. Now a friend and I were discussing the Lord of the Rings not too long ago, and he told me about how he’d come up with a theory when he was younger that all decent literature and fiction is fundamentally about good and evil (and I agree). This comment reminded me of a speech I heard from a friend in English class at high school where she made the same observation (also making reference to LOTR) – but claimed that is was actually a problem because simple old good and evil don’t do justice to the complex moral ambiguity of the real world. I object to this view – it’s true that the world is morally complex (this is another way of saying that marrying contradictions is hard), but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to do better.

Take LOTR (since it’s always got such good examples!) Many of the characters spend plenty time and energy umming and ahhing over the contradictions in their lives. Gimli (a dwarf) and Legolas (an elf) need to figure out whether a traditional enmity between their people should bear on their relationship. Frodo needs to figure out whether he should kill treacherous Gollum, or if pity should prevent him from doing so. These are not simple decisions to make – Gimli and Legolas have been brought up a certain way and shouldn’t be too quick to disregard what they’ve been taught. A living Gollum could ruin Frodo’s all-important mission. But these characters 1) believe in good and evil, and 2) dare to chase after the ‘better way of doing things’, even if it means trouble for them. ‘Aspiring to do better’ opens them up to more options, more complexity, and more ways of marrying contradictions together.

Conversely, some characters implicitly acknowledge the existence of good and evil, but for whatever reason do not aspire to do better. Take Saruman, a wise and powerful wizard who perceives the horrendous power of the dark lord Sauron and becomes fearful. He opts for self preservation and advancement, a simple and easy course of action that prevents him from being able to think and act freely and reduces him to a lesser being – who ultimately loses his power and authority to Gandalf before meeting a sticky end. In abandoning any hope of defeating Sauron, Saruman reacts to fear instead of aspiring to do better. Fear prevents us from confidently and boldly marrying our contradictions in an effort to make full use of everything we have. We to need to acknowledge the fact that we have our cake, and then we need to plough on ahead and aspire eat to it as well!

“A wizard should know better!” http://bit.ly/1S5ufy3

To finish, I will note three things. First, the importance of contradiction is actually a fairly common philosophical observation – for example see Heraclitus and Kierkegaard. The business of bringing contradictory things together is dialectic. I haven’t been especially rigorous from a philosophical point of view for this post, but I’m confident that my argument could be further refined if need be.

Second, well-married contradictions are an excellent analogy for good relationships. Any two people will be vastly different, but often highly complementary in certain ways. In any relationship (friends, family, partners) careful work is needed to make the most of what each person brings to the table.

Third, it is worth thinking about the role of institutions in mediating the marriage of contradictions. My #1 institution is the church – so here is a quote from G.K. Chesterton on its exuberant struggle to marry as many contradictions together as possible (in truth, it provided the inspiration for much of this blog post). I use the metaphor of “marrying your contradictions”, but his one is a bit more dramatic:

“The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom–that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”

[From Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton – rest of the book available here]


One thought on “Everything contradicts itself (except this title!)

  1. Jenny McDowall says:

    Good consideration of why ‘compromise’ and ‘choosing the middle road’ isn’t necessarily the best way of doing things.


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