The Good, the Bad, and the Whole

Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 – 2009)

It struck me today how much we struggle with taking the bad with the good. This isn’t just something that you or I can change by making a decision. It’s something that’s inherent in our view of the world.

We like some things, we dislike others. That is the way of things. And that’s fine, when it’s just you or me. But when we’re looking at whole cultures, it can become something of a problem.

Binary Oppositions

One of the famous, if now outmoded, theories of culture in anthropology is Structuralism. While Structuralism was an older theory, coming from linguistics, it was the work of Claude Levi-Strauss that brought the theory to the forefront.

One of the key ideas that invests itself in Structuralism is that all thought, all concepts, exist not by themselves, but as halves of pairs — a “presence” and an “absence.” These pairs are called binary oppositions. Over and over (the theory argues), we understand the world through pairs.

So, says Structuralism, we only understand good relative to evil. We only understand light relative to its absence, darkness. This is how, they argue, people (and cultures!) understand the world.

But There’s a Hitch

Okay, that’s all fair enough. Even if the theory’s not perfect, it can be a useful tool for understanding some aspects of life and culture. It might not be “the answer” to all things, but it’s an excellent observation.

While cultural theorists might throw it away as imperfect (theorists have a way of doing that), the rest of us can benefit from this observation to understand something more about the world. Sure, it’s not cutting edge; in fact, it’s rather ancient by the standards of social theory.

The rest of us still have something to learn from these binary oppositions. What we can realize is that such ideas as “good” and “bad” or even “like” and “dislike” are insanely complicated. There are physical aspects, psychological aspects, and cultural aspects all tied together in some kind of experience that we call “good.” Or “bad.”

By definition, we want more good, and less bad. If we were 19th century Scottish philosophers, we’d call that “progress.”

But when we say “more good, less bad.” we usually fail to recognize that the good and the bad are often tied together.

Trade Offs

For instance, it’s common knowledge (among anthropologists and other social scientists) that complex societies, like ours, require social stratification. That means, if we want to keep enjoying things like, oh, technology, education, health care, mass transportation, public roads, books, the Internet, money, public safety, and a host of other little “good” things, it’s going to be impossible to win any war on poverty.

So, we can’t just say “poverty bad!” “End poverty!” actually means “End society!” We’ll just have to assume that it’s a shorthand for “make the distance between the top earners and bottom earners less gross.” And sure, that could very well be a good idea.

In fact, I’d argue, the top earners seem to have fallen into a similar trap. “Money good!” “Power good!” they seem to say. Sure, all the money and power in the world feels good. But such a concentration of “good without bad” is probably unsustainable — or more accurately, will be very very expensive to maintain.

The point is that there are lots of things that we ‘don’t like.’ What we find, on examination, is that they’re often trade-offs for things that we like a lot. Most of us don’t like work so much that we’d do it for free, after all. But we “make the trade.”

Taking the Bad with the Good

There are a lot of things we don’t like it the world. When I was about ten, I thought it would be great if we just got rid of taxes. My father patiently explained to me all the things that taxes paid for that I used every day.

But there’s a broader application, and a deeper truth, here: we can’t get rid of the bad aspects of anything just by attacking it. We need to either get rid of the good parts too, or we need to improve the whole system.

If every day were an awesome day, we’d quickly become inured to its awesomeness and have to move on to more awesome things — or start complaining. That’s just human.

We’re people. We divide things into good and bad. That doesn’t usually mean that we get to pick and choose between them.

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