If I show you this symbol…
…the chances are your thoughts will take on a familiar tint. After all, that symbol is globally known as the idea of yinyang. The idea that forces like dark and light, good and evil, suffering and joy are complementary and interconnected, instead of contrary and incompatible with one another. X and Y, not X or Y. It’s a symbol that, by itself, makes a strong argument for the absence of universal dichotomies.
If I show you this symbol, however…
I suspect your mind will flick to a question: What that?
Answer: it’s what I prefer in place of the yinyang symbol. Forgive my presumption, but I think the yingyang symbol—the symbol that has persisted for thousands of years—is lacking something very important. A bit of grey. In The Value of Grey Thinking, Shane Parrish says:
“It’s only once you can begin divorcing yourself from good-and-bad, black-and-white, category X&Y type thinking that your understanding of reality starts to fit together properly. Putting things on a continuum, assessing the scale of their importance and quantifying their effects, understanding both the good and the bad, is the way to do it. Understanding the other side of the argument better than your own, a theme we hammer on ad nauseum, is the way to do it. Because truth always lies somewhere in between, and the discomfort of being uncertain is preferable to the certainty of being wrong.”
In itself, this is a basic idea: think in spectra, not dichotomies. In fact, this is basically what the yinyang symbol asserts. However, my triangle—which I have modestly dubbed “The Triangle of Life”—makes this a concrete, instead of an abstract, suggestion. It says that there is a third option. Not just thesis and antithesis, but synthesis. Some more examples, presented in black; white; grey format:
Action; reflection; life.
Heuristics; questions; philosophy.
Body; mind; breath.
Physical courage; intellectual courage; moral courage.
Descriptive; normative; prescriptive.
It is the latter trio which I really want to talk about.
PROBLEMS OF MODERNITY
The previously mentioned triangle can be refactored into the most fundamental of goal setting systems.
1) Define your A—where you are.
2) Define your B—where you want to go.
3) Create the bridge.
In this sense, A is analogous to a descriptive model, B is analogous to a normative model, and the bridge is analogous to a prescriptive model. Thus:
Now, allow me to pose a question with the descriptive-normative-prescriptive trio in mind: What is one of the core problems of modernity?
The emphasis on the normative.
Think of Instagram and other social media. It’s commonly observed that they compel us to present the highlight reel of our lives. This is a problem because, due to the nature of the human mind, we tend to fill in the gaps between posts by imagining more of the same. The perception we have of other’s lives is what we see on Insta. The perception of our own life is what we live through—which is usually far less exhilarating that what comes up in our feed. We see other’s lives through the lens of the normative and our own through a descriptive lens, and all the time we are bombarded by individuals and organisations telling us how to bridge the vast and terrifying chasm between the two.
There have been some responses to this. For example, some people try to be more “authentic”. They try to be more self-deprecating with their posts or highlight the mundaneness of their life. It’s done with good intentions, but it’s still harmful in it’s own way. Think of artistic “vulnerability”, the way an artist uses their own flaws in their work. Are they being “real”? No way. Those flaws, those vulnerabilities, those banalities are still presented in an alluring manner.
A less recent response to the emphasis on the normative is the annales school of history, which prioritises focus on day-to-day life at the local level instead of narrating grand geopolitical narratives and telling stories of the great men and women who occupy the lead roles in such dramas.
Those are just two examples, but we can go further back in time to see how different modernity truly is.
PERFECTION AND PECULIARITIES
Before modernity, we knew only local maxima. Possibilities were bound by geography. The biggest bully in town was synonymous with the biggest bully in our reality. The smartest person in the village was the smartest person we knew, full stop. Now, we have access to global maxima. We can learn about the biggest bullies and the smartest people, and when we learn of them we also learn of the great distinction between them and us. Body image is typical of this. We’re surrounded by images of the most beautiful people in the world and it makes us painfully aware of our own physical peculiarities.
We’re bombarded with normative models, overwhelmed with prescriptive suggestions, and forced to endure the full experience of our decidedly non-normative lives.
NO MORE NORMATIVE
I’m mentioning this because as soon as I realised that one of modernity’s problems is an emphasis on the normative, I had a question. What happens to the human condition in the absence of normative models?
The obvious objection is that the human condition is bound by its features to create one. Consider the religions of antiquity and the people that followed them. They lived amongst local maxima, but still had deities to measure themselves against. True, but these deities were cosmic in nature, not of this world. A cosmic deity doesn’t provoke the same discord in the human spirit as a real world, human icon. Back to the question.
There are, essentially, three possibilities: the human condition will improve, degrade, or remain the same. That is what’s possible, but what is probable? Improvement, I think. In the absence of a normative model I believe that humanity would engage in philosophical bricolage. We would experiment, keeping that which results in better and discarding that which results in worse. I don’t know why I think this. Perhaps it’s an innate faith in the relentlessness of man? Or more likely, it’s a belief that, regardless of his condition, man interprets life as a series of questions to which he is compelled to find an answer.
Of course, this question is too abstract to have much bearing on how we actually live. So, I’ll switch it up. If I am partially correct and modernity emphasises the normative more than is healthy, what can you or I do? Nothing—if our aim is to change that on the societal level. But we can correct for that emphasis in our own life by gutting our environment of normative models. If you must stay on social media, try to ensure the accounts you follow are descriptive, instead of normative (or prescriptive). If you must consume other media, make a point of reminding yourself that art is the distillation of life, not its replica. And if you must worship someone or aspire to something, make it cosmic. The mundane cannot hope to successfully mimic that which is not of this world, so it is a less anxiety-generating pursuit. You’ll find more peace—and probably more prosperity—in the worship of Jesus than in the slavish admiration of a Kim or Kanye.