Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

If Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right, Why Does 2(-) = +?

Clearing up a popular confusion about negativity

Guns are so negative. So are bombs.  So is saying no, stop, halt, don’t go there, shut up, be quiet, go away. So are walls, roadblocks—constraints of any kind.

I don’t mean they’re bad or wrong necessarily. They’re negative in that they negate. They stop, end or reverse things. 

We all know that two wrongs don’t make a right. But we also know that two no’s do make a yes. Two negatives make a positive, both in language and math. What’s up with that? 

Apparently no and wrong aren’t the same, a point that has enormous implications for how we think about peace and conflict from global war to interpersonal kerfuffles.

Guns are powerful negators. They are almost exclusively destructive.  It’s hard to imagine a way guns could be used to construct something. They stop growth, and the pacifist impulse would be to eliminate them altogether.  Why have something destructive around at all?

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We need negators because two negatives make a positive. We need the ability to destroy bad things, antibodies to destroy germs, chemo to kill cancer, guns to kill killers, shut-ups to stop jerks, walls to keep out marauders, bombs to stop tyrants.

Of course if there were no guns, we wouldn’t need guns to stop bad gunslingers.  And guns are way too often used to wrong rights, not right wrongs.  Still, it’s not hard to imagine how weapons escalation could happen fully justified, or at least naturally. 

Imagine living in a tiny village back before guns, a village constantly under siege from sword wielding marauders who outnumbered you villagers ten to one.  You could try negating the marauder’s negatives with your swords but the equation isn’t in your favor. You’d welcome the negating leverage of guns to offset the population leverage of the sword-wielding marauders.

I’m not saying that weapons of mass negation are always invented by the good guys.  Far from it. Still, I would say they’re pretty much always invented by people who think or claim they’re the good guys, righting a wrong, looking for leverage by which to negate a negative that would otherwise outnumber them.

Nuclear weapons are a classic and tragic example.  The US beat Nazi Germany to them by a nose. We used them to negate the overwhelmingly destructive zeal and unity of Japan’s military.  But Germany too was after them on an all-out mission to negate negativity—the supposedly overwhelming force of Jewish Bolshevism. We keep them today for Mutual Assured Destruction, to negate the negativity of others using them. But North Korea keeps them for that reason too, to negate the negativity of enemies at the gate, marauders they claim have bigger guns and bad intentions.

In everyday interpersonal interaction we find a similar pattern.

For example, we think stress reduction as a good thing. All of us have our sore spots, and sensitivities, the topics that cause us stress. The prevailing stress-reduction technique is basically to not go there, not to get near the topics that bring us down, or wind us up.  Better to keep the stress from seeping into hearts than to let it in and then have to get rid of it.  We all have ways to negate the negative, to say “don’t go there” when thought or conversation ranges anywhere near our sore spots.

Human ingenuity is vast but nowhere more ingenious than in our many ways of saying “don’t go there” without sounding at least to ourselves as though we’re negating.  We can tell people to be quiet but rarely are we that straightforward.  We can bark “shut up” but we can also purr, whisper, brow-lift and counsel parentally that it’s unkind, immoral, indecent or churlish to get anywhere near our sensitive places. These days a very popular way to convey “don’t go there” is to say that it’s immoral or wrong to be negative. 

Apparently one of online dating’s most accurate compatibility test is whether both parties like or don’t like horror films. I think there’s poetic resonance in that.  Our compatibility is best when we have compatible “don’t go there’s,” both parties averse to the same conversations, both parties negating the same negatives and both parties enthusiastic about visiting the same places.

But there will be conflicts in which one party tries to negate conversations it considers negatively stressful and the other party considers positively stress-reducing. A conversation that you find stressful could be exactly the conversation your friend needs to have, to keep from feeling stressed. One person’s stress-reducing “don’t go there” is the next person’s stress-inducing “shut up.” How we negotiate these incompatibilities makes a big difference to our ability to keep the peace constructively.

Many people have a “don’t go there” attitude about their “don’t go there’s.”  They’re prickly about certain topics as are we all. But they’re also meta-prickly—prickly about the prickliness.  If you say “I notice that you don’t want to go there,” they won’t go there. They shut down that conversation by saying “Moi?  I’m never negative!”

I founded and ran a DC-based lobbying organization working for arms reduction. I lived for seven years in a pacifist, vegan community. I am in favor of radical increases in gun control.  I studied military strategy in college trying to figure out how to reduce violence and war.  I’m sure not saying negators are all good. But I am saying that negative does not equal wrong.  It’s more complicated than that.

We all use combinations of positivity and negativity, encouragement and discouragement, carrots and sticks in our efforts to achieve what we think is right and avoid what we think is wrong. Recognizing this, and that the correlation between negativity and wrong can’t possibly be simple and direct would be a good start toward more creative conversation and negatiation.

Great wrong is caused by people who negate the wrong things, but also by people who ignore their own negativity, pretend to be exclusively positive, encouraging, tolerant, open-minded, optimists, and shut down anyone they don’t want to listen to by calling them negative. We get that garbage as much from the Tea Party as we do from the New Age—anyone overly confident they’re crusading for what’s right, and underly curious about whether they really are.

Put your negativity on the table, where you can keep an eye on it. Pick your negations carefully so they negate true negatives. It would be a positive step for us all.

 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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