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Polar Opposites?

“Giving” and “taking”… these are words with interesting layers of meaning. They are somehow like “good” and “evil”: words charged with meanings beyond their lexical definitions, except insofar as they are thankfully uncharged by the undertones of religion, which makes clear discussion of the latter pair nearly impossible. One must wonder, though, if they are so charged by nature of nurture of those qualities. After all, while words may be naively postulated to be the formalized description of facts, their meaning (and by transfer, they themselves) are also the children of the society which engendered them, and thus carry the undeniable stamp of their parentage. Actually, these words are good levers to pry open a different issue: the polarity of words itself (the reason for which I will leave till the end). For while the polarity of words is common knowledge, the significance of this polarity is only vaguely acknowledged by the collective psyche.

As usual, the first and foremost question is the “why.” Why are we inclined to ascribe polarities? We could go into all sorts of social theory here, but for me the observational Occam’s Razor will do: the simplest answer may be that the human mind must first circumscribe an idea in order to reason with it. We have ideas about tall and short, bright and dark, and so on, and thus we have ideas about scale. Compared to the average sunny day, we may describe the Gobi sun and extremely bright, and compared to a city road, we may describe the distant countryside on a moonless night as unnaturally dark. But these descriptions underline the relativity of the scales on which we rely. To one who lives in the distant countryside, it is the city road that is unnaturally bright. We set about circumscribing a radius, pretend to perceive the center of it, and describe this center as “natural” or “normal,” forgetting that not only is the space described by each person different, but that we may very well be incapable of seeing the balance point of the space we have ourselves defined.

With this in mind, let us get back to giving and taking. To give much, certainly, is highly regarded. But this begs the question: why is everyone not endlessly enthusiastic about giving? Why is it that something that is admirable is not something that we, at a deep level, do not wish to aspire to? Taking also has this duality, though it is perhaps harder to see. Taking too much, or perhaps more appropriately, “more than one’s share,” is of course frowned upon. But taking too little is just as bad. Take for example a person who chooses to accept no kindness or social token. This person would be perceived as distant, or worse, arrogant and standoffish. This may be interpreted as simply the counter-instantiation of a social norm, but it can also be seen as a negation of the efforts of one who is perceived as good (the impeccable giver), which of course, in the world of polar formulations, relegates to the non-taker the role of “villain.”

Also interesting is the idea of “one’s share,” which ties directly into the concept of normalcy or centrality, and thus requires polarity (negative polarity, one may suppose, except for in the mind of the extreme capitalist). To add further twists, we must of course have exceptions to the so-called rules. In the case of dire need, to take excessively is not as bad. We never call a person being rescuee of a dangerous fire a villain for taking selfishly of the fireman’s self-sacrifice. In fact, we have invented a word for the authorized over-taker: the victim. At the same time, it is not as unacceptable to give little as it should be, because presumably effort went into the excesses being enjoyed. We variously label this capitalism, free market economy, or enlightened self-interest. Toss it all together, shake well, and it’s pretty much literally all good!

So now that we have danced around a bit, we can discard the prybar of giving and taking and cut to the meat. The difficulties with the pseudo-morality of giving and taking show us two things: a) the difference between ideals, moral/social evaluations, and practice and b) the difference between correctness and goodness. The definitional polarity of the terms are residues of social ideals. They are meant neither to be evaluated realistically nor to be practiced. In reality, the design of society does not allow for anyone to be that giving without going penniless and having to take (and thus reduce goodness), and the counterbalance prevents anyone from taking from everyone limitlessly. I do expect some resistance to the latter idea, but in the end, even the most heinous of takers must give something to survive, or be hunted down. Since the polarity of the words do not help us in any practical situation, we must thus have a separate metric for evaluation. This metric can be described loosely as deviation from the virtual centroid of the give/take space relative to the person or to society in general. The metric is made uneven because we have found ways to cheat with the metric in order to not feel too negatively. However, they are a metric nonetheless.

If the metric is the distance, then the practice is effectively centralism, or attempted congruence with the accepted centroid of the space. The upshot is that the “ok” state is in fact not the “good” state, but the “not too good and not too bad state,” which allows us to keep the relativistic model in play. It’s a longish discussion as to fully explore why we cannot accept outliers into the set while using a relative moral model, but to sum, sufficient numbers of outliers would either constantly redefine the centroid (making it definitionally unusable) or causes fracture of the common definition of the center. This provides segue into point (b), as well as the crux of this exercise. I will take as given that the give/take (or any other) terminological polarization is a social phenomenon. I will presume as safe the assumption that “society” is some set of individuals who subscribe to the same set of terminologies and definitions (ie, they can communication and make sense to each other). If the polarization is a social phenomenon (ie, everyone agreed on it, however tacitly), then we cannot have any extreme outliers in the set given the way things stand. In short, we can have neither heroes nor villains among the “us.”

That said, the idea of heroes and villains, their roles, and their otherness is fascinating as a tool for social inspection. Perhaps the change in the aspect of the hero, and some thoughts on what this means to the “us,” would make a good topic for a part II to this posting.