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by William H. Benson

October 20, 2016

     Human beings see opposites. They divide the world, its citizens, and its ideas into just two camps. Instead of pointing to a series of gradations between two extremes, they tend to see only the extremes.

     They see good and evil, positive and negative, the truth and the lie, love and hate, men and women, heaven and hell, capitalism and communism, democracy and tyranny, war and peace, conservative and liberal, tragedy and comedy, disasters and blessings, innocent and guilty, Democrat and Republican, right and wrong, zeros and ones, black and white, Trump and Clinton.

     Philosophers call this division between two opposites “dualism.” According to the dictionary, dualism is the state of two parts, co-eternal binary opposites, two diverse ways of thinking, one set against the other.

     For example, Descartes struggled with the philosophical problem between mind and body. The mind, he argued, is distinguished from the body. Each is composed of different substances and display different attributes. The body is a physical presence, but without feelings or thoughts. The mind has no physical substance, but it is within the mind where ideas originate and feelings are felt. 

     Novelists use dualism to build their stories. First, they construct a protagonist, who represents the good, and then an antagonist, who represents the evil. As the antagonist moves behind the scenes, he beats up the protagonist. Then, in the novel’s final pages, the protagonist rises to the occasion, and subdues the antagonist. For a classic example, consider how Ian Fleming pitted James Bond against a most despicable series of enemies, including Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

     In a James Bond story the protagonist wins, but in history, the tyrant or the bully often wins.

     In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, he sees only two options after he learns that his uncle has murdered his father and then married his mother. He asks, “To be or not to be. That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them: to die, to sleep no more.”

     Throughout the play he hesitates, unsure of which to choose, but then he decides “to take arms against a sea of troubles,” and rights them, but then he dies, as he had predicted.

     George Bernard Shaw took a swipe at teachers in his play Man and Superman, when one of his characters says, “He who can does; he who cannot teaches.” That is most ungenerous. Teachers work hard, and not everyone has the talent or patience to teach others a portion of all that he or she knows. Those who lack the talent or the patience find other things to do, rather than teach.

     This highlights dualism’s problem. It divides people into just two camps. Shaw split people between those who can demonstrate employable skills and those who cannot. I say that the work force needs all kinds, both skilled and unskilled.

     Woody Allen said, “Life is divided into the horrible and the miserable.” He also said, in his 1979 address to the graduates, “More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

     Taoism, China’s ancient philosophy, thought a little deeper about dualism. They constructed the yin and the yang, a circle that contains equal amounts of black and white, as a way to demonstrate the interrelatedness of all things. The yang represents the sun, masculine, positive, light, warm, dry, and forceful; but the yin represents shade, feminine, moon, negative, dark, cold, and passive.

     The yin and yang are contrary to each other, but they also complement each other, are interconnected, and interdependent in a natural world. The shadow cannot exist without the sunlight. We could not see the moon if the sun failed to shine upon its surface. On occasion, tragedy turns into comedy, and disasters can become our biggest blessings.

     It came as a surprise earlier this month when the Nobel committee awarded its prize for literature to Bob Dylan for the lyrics he wrote to accompany his music. For example, he wrote and sang, “Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call. Don’t stand in the door way, don’t block up the hall, for he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled. There’s the battle outside raging. It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls. For the times they are a-changing.”

     The election is just days away. The campaign, unlike any other in modern history and disgraced by a raw and brutal dualism, will come to an end. This laborious process has now presented us a flawed choice between, what some might say, is “the horrible and the miserable.” Like Hamlet, we too have wondered aloud, “To be or not to be. That is the question.” And like Bob Dylan, we have concluded that “the times they are a-changing,” especially after we heard Donald Trump insult and threaten to lock up his political rival. I trust the American public has “the wisdom to choose correctly.”