Wednesday, October 11, 2006


There's a circle of hell reserved for those who, when faced with a group dilemma, immediately try to claim the moral high ground by saying “it's not one or the other, it's both! Let's do both!”

It's the same move as “if we have money to spend on x, then we certainly have money to spend on y!” No, we don't. We spent it on x. By a process that mathematicians call subtraction, once you take money away, you have less.

Educated people make this mistake.

I've been working with a department that has a really basic choice to make. It has two fairly attractive options, and can only afford to take one. When I met with the department faculty last week, their first suggestion was to do both.

I managed not to throw anything, but it did cross my mind. While we're at it, why don't we just give ourselves 25% raises, install jacuzzis in our offices, and power our offices with perpetual motion machines? Sheesh.

Doing both would require thin-slicing the resources to the point that neither option would succeed. 'Both' would be a far less viable option than either. It's the proverbial hot-fudge-and-tuna-fish. They're fine separately, but combining them turns two good foods into one terrible one.

More maddening than the suggestion, though, was the tone in which it was presented. It was the patronizing/conciliatory tone of the peacemaker who saw the common ground between adversaries. “We don't need to argue about resources. We'll just magically conjure more! Silly little people.” Grrr. If I could magically conjure resources, would I do this job?

One of the old cultural-studies moves I remember from bygone days was the phrase “both/and strategy.” Should we first target racial or class discrimination? Both/and! Luckily, time and resources are infinite. Otherwise that would be messed/up.

I once heard 'growing up' defined as 'the process of taking various prospective futures out behind the shed, pointing a shotgun between their cute little eyes, and blowing their #%*@# heads off.' It's a bit dark and dramatic, but it gets one big thing right: sometimes you have to make choices. That means saying 'no' to perfectly fine and valid things. I've made peace with the facts that I'll never play third base for the Orioles or sleep with Winona Ryder, as worthy as both of those pursuits are. Choosing to pursue other goals crowded out the time that could have gone into chasing those. That's okay; there's a time to keep options option, and there's a time to get on with it. You can't say 'yes' to everything.

Why this basic truth eludes educated people, I still don't know.