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Opinion: Why We Need to Embrace Paradoxes

Two groups of people, one red and one blue, pointing at each other with stylised thought bubbles above their heads
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The more that the world seems to be divided into extremes, the more I am drawn to the middle. Not mediocrity, fence-sitting, or refusing to have an opinion, but embracing the paradox, the place of tension (and therefore energy) that sits between the two polarities.

Choosing between the extremes

In business, we are so often told that we have to choose between profits, people, or the environment. The dominant belief seems to be that you can only have one of these, maybe two, but definitely not all three.

But is this an unchanging law of the universe, or merely a convenient story someone made up so they wouldn’t have to deal with the discomfort of dealing with competing interests?

In discussions about crime reduction, you hear arguments cast as either “soft on crime” (prisoner rehabilitation and non-prison interventions at earlier and lower stages of offending), or “tough on crime” (people locked up for longer without any “luxuries” or entitlements).

Paradoxes and false choices

We are pushed towards the idea that we have to choose between the two extremes of the positions on the issue. But that’s a false choice – we have many more than two options for responding to any issue.

In the business example, you can create organisations that keep people safe physically and psychologically, reduce the impact of the business operations on the environment, and continue to make profits. Maybe they won’t be as extreme in the short-term as they could be if you dropped some of the investment in physical, psychological and environmental safeguards. But the cost-cutting approach risks everything in the long run, as many organisations discovered when they are responsible for events causing a loss of life and/or environmental destruction.

And in the crime example, you can create a society that intervenes early, before someone gets too far down the track of criminalisation, and establish a judicial system focused on restorative practices to address the needs of those affected by crimes, alongside full rehabilitation and reintegration into society of those who committed the crimes. This approach is linked to significantly lower rates of reoffending, saving not only money but, more importantly, needless suffering on the part of both the potential victims of future crimes and the person who would otherwise have committed them.

We can embrace paradoxes

We do not have to choose between two extreme options. 

We can hold the tension between the polarities and use that tension to drive a different approach. 

We can embrace the paradoxes we encounter.

But beware: paradoxes make everyone uncomfortable

But choosing to embrace paradoxes is uncomfortable for us and others. 

Our position doesn’t fit nicely into a sound-bite. It doesn’t “tick the box” of being easy to explain (and defend) our position. 

We get criticised for not “picking a side” – the ancient human desire to identify us as friend or foe gets thwarted, and that will make some people really, really angry!

Thinking outside the box

Taking this approach requires us to think outside the boundaries of our own desires, needs, and beliefs, and open our eyes to what others desire, need and believe, even if they won’t do the same for us

This is not about waiting for others to come and play the same game we are – instead, we choose to play the game according to the new rules, and trust that the people who are our tribe will see, notice, and come play the game too.


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