Which is healthier:
To be receptive or assertive?
To be flexible or firm?
To be unsure or sure?
Not obvious? We have other words for these traits so let’s try a few more.
Which is healthier:
To be easy-going or pushy?
To be accommodating or pigheaded?
To be generous or stubborn?
Now it’s clear isn’t it? It’s better to be the former than the latter.
Just to be sure, try these too. Which is healthier:
To be wishy-washy or confident?
To cave in or stand your ground?
To falter or have faith?
OK, not so clear after all, because now the latter look better than the former.
These pairings all represent aspects of a key dimension in our lives. Think of this dimension as a slider control between yin and yang. Yin is receptivity, openness, flexibility. Yang is decisiveness, assertiveness, firmness. Deciding when to be yin and when to be yang is a consuming human question. Our slider positions determine the battles we pick in the give and take of life.
We have our hands on that slider control pretty much all of the time. Mostly we managed it pretty efficiently and successfully. But sometimes, when the choice of whether to fight or surrender becomes difficult, our knuckles go white from our tight anxious grip.
This slider is the main control, our equivalent of a joystick in the game of life. But the game of life isn’t like other games. The choices we make in life can have enormous and permanent consequences. Finding the slider’s best position for each circumstance is sometimes brain-wrackingly difficult. Should you let him get away with it? Should you hold out for more when you could lose it all? Is standing your ground really worth it? Are you letting them walk all over you? You’ve got to know when to hold and when to fold. But you never really know for sure. You can only guess and guessing wrong can be terribly costly.
When the choices get tough, we often wonder if there’s a position we could put the slider in and just leave it. It’s hard to find the precise sweet spot in the middle of a slider control so our anxiety compels us toward one pole or another. If we can identify either end as all good or all bad we can relax all the way into it. Always be flexible; never give up-both of these absolute and opposite moral standards get a lot of cultural airplay.
It’s as though morality sends out teams gremlins to force the slider control to one side or the other. Loaded terms like cave-in, stand your ground, don’t let them get away with it, settle the score shout “never surrender” and push the slide control all the way toward the yang side. Loaded terms like pushy, pigheaded, aggressive, flexibly, easy-going, open-minded shout “never insist” and push the slide control all the way toward the yin side.
Last week, I argued that we have entered a period when moral systems are in flux. Old moral systems don’t have the hold on us that they once had. I argued that rather than making us immoral, this relaxing of old standards has freed us to use morality much more loosely, tailored to serve our individual purposes. We’ve become selectively omni-moral. I promised to lay out some ideas for a good moral standard for these modern, looser times when moral arguments are very much at play but being used self-servingly.
A few weeks earlier, I distinguished not just the two poles of yin and yang but a third quality that warrants examination in the search for modern morality. That quality is intransigence, an absolute and complete unwillingness to consider evidence that would weaken your position.
The first standard I’d like to propose for these morally looser times is this.
Intransigence should be regarded as a highly costly luxury item. Absolute faith does much more harm than good. Absolute faith-100% certainty–has always been a potentially dangerous, but it’s especially dangerous in the hands of people set loose to tailor their morals to endorse whatever they want.
It’s also especially dangerous now that our technology affords us massive leverage for destruction. If you were an insurance actuarial calculating the likelihood of global disasters, very high up on your list of costly and probably disasters in the next decade would be the prospect that some intransigent leader armed with WMDs will decide to use them. If we can’t get a handle on intransigence we’re in deep trouble.
Intransigence sounds like stubbornness, which, based on my discussion of yin and yang above would just seem to be extreme or ultimate yang. If this were true, then the way to practice my newly proposed moral standard would be to err on the side of yin, receptivity, and flexibility. Be generous and easy going and accommodating. After all, none of us can tell for sure how stubborn we’re being. For all we know our yang-ness is over the top. So we should all just back it down a little. Especially when anybody reminds us of just how dangerous excessive yang is.
But notice that if excessive yang is the problem, then anyone who can claim the high moral ground of yin-ness, paradoxically has permission to become extremely yang. Consider how the moral value of yin-ness plays out in our culture of selective omni-moralism. I can claim to be a champion of morality and a devoted practitioner of receptivity, flexibility and accommodation. If you ever give me a hard time about anything I can remind you of the virtues of yin-ness. I can scold you for crossing the line into excess yang-ness. I can warn you that you are running dangerously close to absolutism and that you better back down.
I don’t have to notice how removing your counter-pressure by moral censure permits me to get what I want. Based exclusively on my preaching to you about the moral importance of subduing your ungentle soul, I can claim to have the gentler soul. Elsewhere I’ve called this strategy yintimidation. And it is alive and well. You’ve no doubt encountered it from anyone who casts a disapproving moral eye on your assertiveness.
Making a moral virtue out of yang is no more dangerous than making a moral virtue out of yin, but it’s also no safer. It’s a little simpler though. If I want to dominate you in any debate of my choosing, I can claim that it’s my moral duty to stand up for myself, to hold to my convictions, to not cave in. As a selective omni-moralist, I can concentrate on the value of me sticking to my guns while ignoring that that’s also the reason why it’s perfectly within your moral rights–nay your moral duties–to stick to your guns. Mostly we bring up moral rights when defending ours, not when doing so means we’ll have to make concessions.
To bring this full circle and to a close, I’ve argued here against absolute intransigence. But rather than that being an argument for the moral virtue of yin or yang, it’s an argument against treating either yin and yang as morally superior. As I demonstrated with those opening questions, though there’s much moral debate about which is better, that debate is not resolvable to a simple moral principle. Sorry, you’ll have to keep your sometimes white-knuckled hand on the slider control because, life-long, you’re going to have to make lots of adjustments based on the particulars of circumstances. Neither yin nor yang is morally superior. They each have their place. You’ll have to pick your battles and sub-battles one by one.
Which leaves to me the burden of spelling out the nature of intransigence. If it’s not just being yang in the extreme just what is it? That’s for another article.