Fifty Shades of Gray

Black and white are overblown, the answer my friends is in the color gray. The right path, the right solution lies not in the simplicity of the extremes but in the complexity of the middle. The only hitch is that we dislike complexity and always opt for the dumbed down false purity of the poles. And that’s the underlying problem of pretty much every problem we have today.

Polarization, the pushing apart of the task or topic to two extremes is a classic human tendency. We hate shades of gray. In all the messiness and discomfort of what is we find safety in the world of black or white. That’s why we make everything into a two-horse race. Rich versus poor, Republican versus Democrat, Isolationist versus Globalist, right versus wrong, red versus blue, Christian versus Muslim, liberal media versus conservative media, East versus West, Millenials versus the rest of us, the list of two choice categories goes on and on. It’s even happening on the general knowledge front with people only following the storylines they agree with, their pole, versus the storylines of the other pole.

Pole thinking is inherently flawed because nothing at a societal level is that simple. As one example, the truth about our health care problem is that both poles are wrong. Apparently, some number of Republicans (but not all) want to take coverage away from 23 million Americans.  That’s wrong. And apparently, some number of Democrats (but not all) want to keep the Affordable Care Act as is, even as most of the major insurers are walking away.  That’s wrong too. So what’s right? What’s right is finding the middle, the complex and nuanced just right shade of gray that reflects essential compromise and a deep understanding by all the policy creating participants of how the current system works, what the tradeoffs must be, what the likely unintended consequences will be, and how we might evolve it to ensure that our health care delivery improves across every facet of performance while not bankrupting the Fed. The problem with that approach, of course, is in part that our leaders don’t seem to have the intellectual stamina or responsibility to do the work to get to that point of policy development proficiency. They jump to overly simplistic conclusions that reflect their overly simplistic pole positions. 

So the question becomes how can we bridge the poles and get more of us willing to do the hard work and more comfortable with shades of gray and the solutions they contain? How can we break the paralyzing hold of partisanship, the limitations of dualistic and overly simplistic thinking, and the fundamental inability to forge policies and paths that actually make sense for the most people? I say most because every solution to every complex problem pretty much always screws someone. All benefiting equally, with no one paying more, rarely works unless we follow the socialist path of our Nordic friends.

While I am no economist I am an armchair historian of sorts and I often find the answer to the future somewhere in the past. Mankind does repeat itself. And the past reveals quite clearly that the success of virtually every new or reforming enterprise lies in the ability of its leadership and citizenry to do two things:  take risks and make sacrifices. Risk and sacrifice were the hallmark behaviors of America’s founding fathers and the put upon colonialists. Risk and sacrifice are at the core of every entrepreneurial enterprise. And risk and sacrifice are the headlines that sit on top of every corporate turnaround story since the beginning of time. 

Achieving shades of gray solutions to our most endemic problems require that we all be willing to take risks and make sacrifices for the good of the whole. Our leaders have to embrace the risk of compromise and the potential that their constituents back home or PAC funders in the lobbying office next door might pull back their support. It requires that they and we as citizens be willing to sacrifice our time and dedicate our attention to really understanding every aspect of the systems we are attempting to improve, including how other countries have succeeded or failed at solving the same problem. Take a moment here to ponder how many of us really understand the core issues associated with the Affordable Care Act? How many of your friends could explain how Russia might have intervened in the presidential election?  Or the major impediments to improving our primary and secondary education system?  Do we really know what we need to know to legitimately participate in the forging of or simply supporting of the complex shades of gray solutions required? I think the answer is no.

Fundamentally we all need to risk and make sacrifices by being willing to work harder, read more, think more, debate more and be more open to change than we have every been before. We have to embrace the likelihood that the answer is neither black nor white, but some complex and nuanced shade of gray.

The problem with all that, with risk and sacrifice, is that it demands, well, risk and sacrifice. And most of us, starting with our leaders, don’t really want to take the risk or make sacrifices. We prefer to seduce ourselves into believing that holding on to what is, maintaining the status quo, waiting it out, and not giving up much of anything, will somehow magically turn into a turnaround. It’s a mainstream societal and corporate approach that perfectly captures that classic definition of insanity:  doing the exact same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

The sad truth is that risk and sacrifice and the ability to collectively find the best solutions amidst the many shades of gray will most likely occur only when it has to. When the state of the nation is so dire, so desperate that people come together to work together, to share together, and to give up together. It happened in 1776. It happened again in 1941. It happened for three weeks in 2001. It only happens when a common enemy emerges, threatening not the lives of our poles but the lives and livelihoods of all Americans.

The good news is that we have found a common enemy. The bad news is that it looks a lot like us.