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On Earth Day in 1998, author Daniel Quinn was asked to speak at Kent State University. He gave a speech entitled "Reaching for the Future with All Three Hands". In it, he explained that our culture is severely limited by a dichotomizing approach whereby we tend to look at important issues as if they have only two possible sides and force people to choose one of those sides.

For instance, whether the issue is abortion (pro-life vs. pro-choice), capital punishment (for or against) or drug legalization (for or against), we tend to see only two possible, and mutually exclusive, positions that we can take. Our media reinforces this mindset, since they tend to report in ways that exacerbate such polarization. Quinn explains that it is this dichotomizing and polarizing mindset that often leads to intractable challenges and escalation of conflict. And he relates the notion to an old tale which claimed that everything, metaphorically, has two handles, explaining that, in his view, they actually have at least three.

In the speech, he goes on to explain how this dichotomizing mindset applies to some of the most fundamental challenges that humanity has faced (ie: the cold war) and that we are still facing (ie: overpopulation). Moreover, he explains how we can break through to more novel, innovative and harmonious solutions by reaching with our "third hand," in other words by seeking solutions that not only compromise between, but transcend these dichotomies.

In Systems Thinking terms, what Quinn is really advising amounts to seeking novel leverage points that can help us escape archetypes that seem to trap us in positive feedback cycles (aka vicious cycles). In another speech called "On Investments," delivered in 1993 to the Minnesota Social Investment Forum, Quinn gave another example of applying this mindset, discussing how we might take a third hand approach to the issue of drugs. In the process he explains:
"Those of you who have read Ishmael know that I never take sides in controversies framed in these terms. Either/or is a trap, and my approach is always to walk around it. My approach is always to avoid putting all eggs in one basket."
Another author, Andrew M. Lobaczewski, in his remarkable book Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes, proposes - without using the actual term - perhaps the most important third hand solution that I have come across.

Political Ponerology explains how human systems, for millenia, have cyclically alternated between two main forms:
  • Systems of Normal Man - These are systems controlled by those Lobaczewski calls "normals" - people of conscience that experience significant levels of empathy and value cooperation and peace. These systems are relatively healthy for their members and those that relate with them.

  • Pathocracies - These are systems controlled by those Lobaczewski calls "the pathological" - people with certain psychopathologies that distort their emotional processing, greatly diminish their capacity for empathy and induce them to excessively crave dominance (and, interestingly, in many cases, to specifically discourage and sabotage third-hand solutions!). These systems are very harmful to their members and to those that relate with them.
The problem is that neither of these forms of human systems is sustainable. Pathocracies, as detailed in my pathocracy page, contain within them the seeds of their own - and, sadly, often also others' - destruction. And systems of normal man, though pleasant enough for many while they last, are insufficiently resistant to the machinations of - and are thus almost inevitably eventually hijacked, coopted and transformed into harmful pathocracies by - the pathological.

In response to this dilemma, many split into two camps, each reflecting one of a pair of ineffective general approaches:
  • One camp consists of those, understandably anxious about the danger of pathological hijacking and the devastating consequences of pathocracy, who favor aggressive, yet usually futile, measures aimed at eradicating or eliminating dangerous psychopathological people and groups from our systems.

  • The other camp consists of those who, in denial of the threat posed by the pathological or daunted by the enormous difficulties involved in identifying or resisting them, unconsciously or consciously, and sometimes submissively, resign themselves to the miseries of pathological oppression, thus, in effect, allowing them free reign.
Lobaczewski suggests a third approach that would not only transcend the dichotomy between these two rather hopeless strategies, but also transcend the dichotomy - and break the perpetual cycle of alternation - between systems of normal man and pathocracies. He proposes the development of a form of social structure new in our evolutionary history, retaining many of the best features of the former type of system, but intentionally equipped with additional adaptations that render it highly immune to transformation into the latter. He calls this type of system - which accedes to the existence of the pathological, while firmly maintaining the limits and boundaries necessary to sustain normals' authority - a logocracy. It represents an intriguing example of a potentially game-changing third hand solution to what may be our very most substantial challenges.

It took being caught up in hundreds of dichotomized situations before I started to realize that the optimal solution in all of them laid not in either of the the particular sides in each debate, but rather in questioning the very concept that there are just two main sides to be considered. Later, concepts such as yin and yang, which makes up part of my website's logo, and Hegel's dialectic reinforced my awareness that synthesis, not thesis or antithesis, was where resolution most often was found. Since that awareness has grown, time and again in my personal development, in the development of my company, and in relationships both personal and professional, I have found that third hand solutions offer the optimal approach to seemingly intractable conflicts.

While Quinn and Lobaczewski discuss this principle mostly in terms of larger social issues, it is equally applicable in the most personal situations where polarization develops. In fact, it has gotten to a point where, whenever I find a third hand solution, I can usually bet that it will contain within it a rather profound and clever new insight that I can apply throughout my life. I also have taken, in times of challenging polarization, to more actively looking for that third hand solution that can burst open a previously stubborn dichotomy into a far more promising set of possibilities than I had been able to see before.


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