Black and White

Gray isn't better than black and white.

It IS true that the Church told some men to fight and others not to fight; and it IS true that those who fought were like thunderbolts and those who did not fight were like statues. All this simply means that the Church preferred to use its Supermen and to use its Tolstoyans. There must be SOME good in the life of battle, for so many good men have enjoyed being soldiers. There must be SOME good in the idea of non-resistance, for so many good men seem to enjoy being Quakers. All that the Church did (so far as that goes) was to prevent either of these good things from ousting the other. They existed side by side.

It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasised celibacy and emphasised the family; has at once (if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colours, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty gray.

All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure.

Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton

This has nothing to do with Christianity or any religion, but something else.

The idea that opposite and contradictory qualities can both be impressive.

And the attempt to cherry-pick the best of everything is likely to end up worse than anything.

That middle-grounds, in an effort to capture the best of both sides, only end up losing what makes each side valuable.

The cold, hard rationality of the calculating businessman building an empire, or the warm, impulsive irrationality of the passionate activist sacrificing for the sake of others.

Abstract, beautifully worked out high level chains of thought- or small, plodding, methodical concrete physical work in an office, school, farm.

Someone like Witold Pilecki voluntarily risking his life for his country when he needn’t, and someone like Muhammad Ali refusing to, despite the consequences.

Each of these is, in its own way, impressive – perhaps because each reflects the same underlying qualities.

To compare one to another is to compare two vectors.

You can compare magnitude to see which is bigger, but it’s not easy to compare direction to say which is better.


Black is often impressive, and white is often impressive – because they make no bones about who they are, and don’t pretend to be what they’re not.

And because it takes something to be black (or white) – for one, it means accepting that the other side, white (or black) won’t like you.

And to be black, or to be white, requires something, whether it be determination or integrity or intelligence.

It means accepting who you are, without trying to be who you’re not just to win points with others.

A mixture – whether dirty gray or dull pink, on the other hand, is tiresomely unimpressive.

It tries to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, to be friends with the captain and friends with the crew.

In other words, it tries to take both sides at the same time, to be everything to everyone, and usually ends up as nothing to no one, losing its own identity in the process.

The easiest (and the safest) thing in the world is to paint everything gray or pink.

A mixture of black and white or red and white.

Pink or gray is “the feeble expedient of the philosophers” – convenient when you write or talk, without having to do, because you can hedge every bet, put a caveat on every claim, and conclude with the usual ‘balanced conclusion’ – something that sounds good on paper.

What passes for ‘balance’ and ‘moderation’ is typically a combination of limited intelligence and unlimited cowardice.

Limited intelligence, because it’s incapable of adding anything new to what’s already out there, and cowardice because it aims at placating the greatest number of people, not solving the problem.

If everything was really so simple that you could cherry-pick the best of both sides, pick what you like about red and white and merge them into pink – why would red and white even exist?

In an efficient world everyone would jump to pink if it was ‘better’; only idiots would be red or white.

To believe that you can cherry-pick the best of everything into pink is to believe that others are stupid to pick red or white.


There are two paths to ‘balance’ or moderation – with variance, and without it.

Take for example, 100 observations, each between 0 and 1.

Assume that X1, X2,… X100 are balanced if together they average out to 0.5.

One way is the zero variance route.

That X1 =X2… = X100 = 0.5

In that case, the standard deviation and the variance are zero, because every observation is the same as the mean, 0.5.

Or simply, every observation is the same, so you don’t record any variation from one observation to the next.

And the other route is when X1, X2… X100 aren’t all equal to 0.5, but together sum up to 50, and thus average out to 0.5.

In that case, the standard deviation isn’t zero, even though the mean is the same as before.

It may well be that 50 observations come out to 0, and 50 come out to 1, and thus the mean is 0.5.


What does this have to do with anything?

It’s the difference between mixing red and white to get pink or keeping red and white separate.

Zero variance is when you mix red and white – every Xi is the same pink.

Zero variance is when you take moderation to an extreme – and aim for moderation, not as a whole, but in each and every single thing you do.

You end up with nothing in the effort to be everything – you’re neither here, nor there, not red nor white.

It’s hard to see how you can ever achieve balance or moderation in every individual action.

Even moderation perhaps ought to be in moderation.

Black and White

With variance though, you don’t have to worry about always being pink.

You can be red today, white tomorrow; red here, white there – and as long as you’re not making the mistake of either always trying to get to pink, or becoming attached to either red or white, you can trust you’ll get somewhere near pink.

This presumes, of course, that you’re not excessively attached to any color – not just pink, but also red and white.

Obsession with pink is the path to dull mediocrity and clinging to balance, but obsession with red or white is a way to radicalism.

That means not ‘black or white’ – as in, not choosing ‘I will be on the side of black henceforth’, but black and white – black today, white tomorrow, black here, white there.

Black or white is about extremism because it means ‘picking a side’ – thinking you have taken a position and now have an obligation to stay there, right or wrong.

Black and white, on the other hand, is a counter to extremism – because you’re not just black, but also white. You can see and appreciate not just one side, but it’s opposite too.

And because you’re not tied to any position, you can pick freely, choosing what’s best.

There’s good in black, just as there is in white, and there must be some black, in order for there to be some white, just as there must be some white, for there to be some black.

But you only see their value when they exist together, without ousting the other – exist not as a mixture that dilutes each, but side by side, each retaining its purity.


Interestingly enough, if you keep black and white alive together, you get shit on from all sides.

To those on the side of black you will always be too white, never black enough, and to those on the side of white, you will remain too black and not sufficiently white – in no man’s land.

Be that as it may, I can’t deny though, that I’m biased against pink.

I’ve heard often enough – and probably not wrongly – that I’m too rational. As well as not rational enough.

Too hard-hearted, and too soft-hearted.

Too arrogant, and too humble.

Too soft-spoken, and too outspoken.

Too talkative and too silent.

And so on and so forth – either too much of one thing, or too much of the opposite, but never just right.

In some ways it’s taking the ideas of choice and value to their logical conclusion.

If something has no value, then why even make a minimal effort?

Why bother with 50%, or ‘pink’?

Simply cut it out – zero, or white.

And if something has value, then why would you settle for only 50%? All the more so when you see how few are the things that truly have value.

In that case, why not give it everything? 100%, or red.

For that reason, I’ve always preferred long term, stable pleasures over one time extreme thrills.

And deep, abiding commitments or none at all.

Something you can do nearly everyday – a hobby, skill or interest – over something you do once in a blue moon or on rare occasions.

Because if there was value in it, why would I want to wait and pursue it only after long intervals?

And if there wasn’t any value, then why bother doing it at all?

Which makes for few, but deep attachments – and for most things, a complete lack of attachment.

Similarly, I don’t burst crackers or celebrate occasions – if I liked it, I’d have done it everyday, and since I don’t, I don’t see any reason to do it just because the day happens to be a specific date.

In some ways, this is the idea of binaries – 0 or 1 and nothing in between – a switch with only two states – ON or OFF, or in this case, red and white, but not pink.

Which is, I think, the way I’d like it to be, near either end of the curve, for better or worse, rather than always at the centre of it. Red or white rather than always a boring pink.