The blues in black and white

Now I think I get it.

Some people see things as black and white. Other people see most of life as shades of gray.
For now, I won't characterize either in terms of politics, religion, or whatever--partly because it isn't that pat.

Those mindsets are so fundamentally different that they're pretty much irreconcilable--and it becomes exceedingly difficult for a "shades of gray" person to converse with or sometimes make sense of a "black and white" person.

Mostly it isn't worth the trouble. I really should learn that lesson once, instead of having to relearn it two or three times a year.

Before anyone at LISNews gets all upset: The lesson doesn't have anything to do with interactions at this site. Yet.

And credit goes to Randy Travis, or the songwriters for that particular song, to be sure.


If you're seeing the doctor, and he's "gray" about your tests, you may wish for black or white.

If you're talking to a contractor about adding a room to the house, and he is "gray" about the price of lumber and concrete, you may wish for black or white.

If you are up for a promotion and raise, and the committee seems "gray," you'll for sure be asking for black or white.

If you're using your new Maytags, and everything comes out gray, you'll learn to sort by black and white.

If you buy a gray colt that's supposed to turn white in adulthood, you'll ask for your money back.

No fashion maven ever kept "a little gray dress" in the closet.

Gray is not the color of compromise, of diversity, of integrity or character or even nuance. It is the color of lacking, or melding every other color together, it is the color of complements mixed together so both loose their beauty (orange/blue) and become neutral. Gray is useful for and looks good in shadows.

John Kerry is gray.

If a doctor interprets all your test questions as pure black-and-white, you need another doctor. (As any man with a mildly elevated PSA level knows!)

If a contractor gives you fixed prices for materials for a job to be done more than a week or two later, you need another contractor: That one's likely to go bankrupt before your job's done.

No fashion maven always dresses all in black or all in white.

I even said "shades of gray," not "gray," and any reasonable reading of that means "something other than strict yes/no, black/white," including all the colors of the spectrum.

Watch many "black and white" movies (where everything's pure black or pure white) or many "black and white" photos (ditto)? Without shades of gray, they're basically ruined. "Posterizing" is one name for that effect. And that's what you've done with my journal entry: Posterized it. Eliminated all nuance, all subtlety, and set up a series of yes/no strawmen.

For that matter, shadows are part of what makes light and dark interesting.

I'm not sure how John Kerry entered into this discussion--I sure didn't bring him up, but I guess you're always looking for a chance to Kerry-bash--but yes, John Kerry does see the world in shades of gray (and other colors), and doesn't believe that every problem has a simple, unwavering, unchangeable-no-matter-what-the-evidence, yes/no answer.

Sigh. I expected better from a retired academic librarian at one of America's premier public universities.

Sigh. And I didn't expect personal attacks. Oh well.

Nbruce, maybe you should make your comments and share you thinking on your OWN journal, instead of attempting to skew other people's journals in your direction. You have your own journal, and I note that you write in it relgiously. That's the place to put your own thoughts and opinions instead of treading on other peoples space. I don't think you'd like it if I came onto your journal and "dissed" your cookie recipes or cat paintings or other personal accomplishments in which you took pride.

You made my journal entry out to be nonsense by erecting a bunch of straw men, which certainly implies that I don't know what I'm talking about;
you turned a commentary on thought patterns into an attack on John Kerry--while there had been absolutely zero political intent in the post--and my expressing disappointment is a "personal attack" and out of place?

Whatever. I apologize for any "personal attack."

This may sound odd, but I would say that seeing the world in shades of gray is itself too simple an account of ethics and human choosing.
Most people have a number of general moral or ethical beliefs that they hold to as a matter of black-and-white truth. I suspect that I
could state a large number of non-trivial moral propositions that we could agree were absolutely true (even if we disagreed on the grounds
for regarding them as true). For instance, defrauding the elderly for no reason other than personal gain is always wrong. Driving drunk without a compelling reason is always wrong. Working for a society free of racial prejudice is a good thing.

The shades of gray typically arise either in applying the moral truths to specific situations, or in working out how to achieve the ends we consider morally imperative. For instance, we can imagine situations where driving drunk is better than not driving at all--let's say we represent the only hope to get a seriously injured or sick person to a hospital, apart from which they will die. But there will be cases where it will be exceedingly difficult to work out if the reason for driving drunk is compelling enough to make it the moral choice. Likewise, we can agree on a number of means to the end of achieving a society free of racial prejudice, but I suspect that either of us could name some means to that end that we would reject, and other that would be (shades of gray!) questionable.

Sadly, the notion of casuistry has gotten a bad rap, and yet it represents the attempt to think seriously and systematically about the application of general moral and ethical principles to specific situations in life. Such serious thinking has nowadays largely been replaced by facile resort to metaphors like "black-and-white" and "shades of gray", which in my view seriously distort the nature of moral deciding. This is not a special dig at you, Walt. I suspect it would apply to some of what nbruce has said as well.

I do think nbruce has a point about the medical tests. A doctor's reaction to a mildly elevated PSA can be stated in black-and-white terms: no, we are not going to remove your prostate at this time; yes, we will continue to monitor the situation very carefully and frequently; if the level increases suddenly, or if over time it increases to such-and-such a level, we will operate. What you portray as a shade of gray is is really made up of a number of discrete propositions, each with its own value. At a certain point (which we hope and pray will not be reached in your case :), the doctor would make a definite, discrete decision to operate. There is no shade of gray about the decision to operate or not: you can't "sort of" operate. The situation of a particular person with an elevated PSA level is a complex one, but it can only be grasped in terms of the black-and-white propositions that are proper to it.

Black and white and gray are important themes in life, in art, in literature, in politics and in religion. His comments resonated with me, and he didn't agree with what I wrote. What first came to mind when I read it was sitting in a room with 5 medical specialists, all adamant that their specialty (black and white) was the only way. There was no gray, but we did have to choose one.

I have my own views, but I was not attacking Walt's professional or personal values or even his thoughts on black and white. I never tried to twist Walt's intent, if indeed he had one, which wasn't clear to me anyway. I admire him and have learned a lot from him here and from his professional writings. I was shocked that this brought on a personal attack which are really fairly rare here (compared to Usenet).

You Birdie, wrote a political comment in your journal a few days ago, then brought it down within minutes when 2 people left comments. You then reposted it, disabling the comment function. And that's OK--it's your journal, and I won't tell you what to write, or how to write comments, or analyze your reasons. You had second thoughts. Fine. But please, don't accuse me of attempting to skew Walt's journal, when I was simply posting MY thoughts on a comment enabled post.

And actually, I do get dissed at my journal. There are writers here who never change, and so they regularly advise me on what and how to write whether it is cookies or Kerry. I have learned to skip over their journals.

I take my own off-topic posts down after a few days.

ChuckB: Thanks for the thoughtful comment, which strikes me as very much "shades of gray." I certainly agree that for most of us there are some absolutes. But what I was responding to, and what I see in too many cases (on both sides of issues in many cases) is a rejection of nuance altogether.

Thus, to some, if you're not 100% in favor of ebooks, you're anti-ebook. To others, if you're not 100% in favor of giving copyright holders whatever restrictive legislation they ask for, you're anti-copyright. To still others, if you're not 100% in favor of putting all efforts into seeing that all research papers are deposited into institutional repositories and not "wasting time and energy" (a paraphrase) on other steps that might help libraries, you're anti-repository.

My commentary was not, I would argue, using a "facile resort to metaphor" to "distort the nature of moral deciding"--and these aren't all moral questions, by any means. (I'd suggest that at most one of the three examples noted above--and these are the kind of examples that led me to write the original posting--is even remotely a moral or ethical problem.) I was recognizing that a fair number of people simply do not show any interest in questioning or nuance, but paint any issue they're interested in in simple black and white: You agree 100%, or you're an enemy.

And I was concluding that it was a waste of my time and energy to continue a discussion with such people once I'd recognized the trait. You clearly don't fall into that category.

As to the doctor example: Well, you know, even when the doctor says "there's a problem with your PSA," there's a whole range of possible treatment options, and a good doctor will not typically say "DO THIS!" to an informed/intelligent patient. The doctor should lay out the possibilities, discuss the positives and negatives of each as they relate to the particular patient, admit to the uncertainties (and this is a case where the uncertainties are enormous), maybe suggest where the patient could get more information, and leave it to the patient to choose among the shades of gray. Will those shades eventually clarify to a yes/no decision for that person for that moment in that situation? Yes--but they won't provide a simple Yes/No answer for the next person in a similar situation. (They won't always even settle out to a true Yes/No answer for the individual patient--just a "Yes/No for today.")

Thanks again for a thoughtful response.

Yes, I know, I'm incapable of shutting up but...

The problem with the doctor analogy is that, to me, that is the essense of black and white. A doctor says you can do A, B, or C, if you do A you get 1,2, and 3, if you do B you get 2,3,4, but not 1 and so on.

The choices are always going to be limited and each will have pros and cons. You decide what works best for you or what you are willing to risk.

My experience with the 'gray' is that it is an excuse not to make a decision, and its usually on moral issues. When it affects the individual they have no problems making a decision but when its a moral issue suddenly 'its a gray area'. Break down any moral issue to its parts and it is as black and white as the doctor's appointment.

"I was not attacking Walt's professional or personal values or even his thoughts on black and white."

I've reread your comment five times now, and for the life of me I can't read it as anything other than an attack on my thoughts. (Or as a chance to take a cheap shot at John Kerry.) You basically denied that "shades of gray" were worthwhile. Thus, you're saying I'm wrong to think that it's reasonable to think in terms of shades of gray. That's different than saying "I prefer black and white" or even "I disagree"--you were attempting to show that gray was bad, which is saying that I'm wrong to take the view I do.

I didn't comment on Birdie's comment, because I wouldn't leave the Comment feature enabled if I didn't want anyone to comment or disagree. And I don't intend to disable it or take down any posts now. (Just as I don't correct typos and other errors in my zine, once it's published: Respect for the record.)

"I never tried to twist Walt's intent, if indeed he had one, which wasn't clear to me anyway."
Huh? You're saying I made the original post unintentionally? You twisted it into a political post, which it was not. I intended to say just what I said. It wasn't accidental typing. It didn't have a hidden agenda.

Number one: I took down the comment function on my post about the Op-Ed from the Notre Dame professor writing on "Voting Your Conscience" and the article about Catholic bishops telling their parishoners that they must vote for Bush, or essentially, be damned in the afterlife. I felt that the comments that were added diluted the message I was trying to convey about what should inspire one's vote (conscience or threat of damnation). I wrote "I'm reposting these two articles without comment, as I think they speak eloquently on their own", and that is what I meant. I'm feeling right now that I might have to disable comments more often, and that would be a shame.

Number two: it was a shot at Kerry, make no mistake.

I made a political comment, as an after thought on gray. Had no idea I was going to add that until I did.* Kerry strikes me as gray and you gave me the opportunity to say it. Perhaps he's nuanced fuscia to you. You can add that to any Kerry post I make if you wish. You can add all the wonderful things you think Kerry will do for libraries anytime I bring his name in, or even if I don't.

"Some people see things as black and white. Other people see most of life as shades of gray. For now, I won't characterize either in terms of politics, religion, or whatever--partly because it isn't that pat."

I didn't twist your comments in any way, I only stated mine. I gave examples of times that we need a yes or no, just the facts. There are thousands more, and some will be gray. The fact that my comment attached to yours was simply the vehicle.

You threw the topic out there for discussion and then didn't like the direction it took. You implied you had no particular intent or message, just musing. How could I attack what you weren't saying? I could have expounded on the Book of Concord, and black and white theological statements, but that wouldn't have added much. Please disable the comments if you don't want responses to what you write so the rest of us don't misinterpret your intent.

"Sigh. I expected better from a retired academic librarian at one of America's premier public universities."

And what does the fact that I'm retired from a state university known more for its football than anything else have to do with my personal opinions? Have I ever spoken on behalf of OSUL here? It was condescending.

I think we've bored this group long enough with black, white and gray mish-mash, and can take this to e-mail if you wish to continue.

*Even when I write fiction, I have no idea what the last line is until I write it.

This response is primarily aimed at walt, birdie, and nbruce.

Walt: While I believe you that your original posting had NOTHING to do with politics, the mad commentators running our campaign coverage have devoted countless words and hours on the subject of "Bush is black and white" and "Kerry is shades of gray." The ether is full of this talk, so even nonpolitical philosophical postings like yours that use this language will set off political alarm bells in the strongly committed, IMHO. I hope this doesn't turn you off to journalling. I really enjoy your entries; library related or not.

Birdie: I didn't love nbruce's posting either; but it seems very intolerant to demand that she confine her thoughts to her own journal. LISNews is a public forum. We "journallers" have chosen to write journal entries that the entire wired world can see. WHETHER OR NOT we enable comments, people have a right to react to whatever we write.

nbruce: Thank you for not mentioning me by name this time. I still think that questioning your facts does not rise to the level of disrespect. Since you've made it clear that you disagree; I no longer make comments on your political journal entries. I don't that even I have dissed your cookie recipes though and hope that you will continue to share your lovely paintings.

To everybody: I understand the temptation to shut off comments to some or all of my postings. But I think to do that would be to participate in the general breakdown of dialog that curses our society.

If you don't think the comments that people leave on your journal are worth responding to you can always ignore them. There are several people including me who practice this. But please don't try to stop people from commenting in the first place. If we believe in intellectual freedom; we should not be afraid of comments.

Tip of the hat to ChuckB who explained that most people see the world in BOTH "black and white" and "shades of gray" far better than I EVER could.

"Before anyone at LISNews gets all upset: The lesson doesn't have anything to do with interactions at this site. Yet."

Well, there went THAT....