Are You an Instigator, a Skeptic, or Merely Somebody Else’s Tool?

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They say the world is made up of two types of people. They’re wrong. The world consists of three types of people, but two of those types get all the press.

Journalists like to frame issues in a binary fashion – one side against another. That’s simple. It’s black and white. It’s A versus B. Reporters don’t do this because they can’t handle the complexity of multiple opposing points of view. They structure their stories as a duel between competing interests because readers find those stories easiest to digest. The audience finds such pairings quite familiar. Literature is replete with examples: Ahab vs. Moby Dick, Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty, and Bambi vs. Godzilla, to name a few.

It’s not just drama. Philosophy often has an attraction to complimentary combinations. We see this most markedly in the Taoist notion of “dualistic-monism” as expressed in the Oneness principal of Yin and Yang. Perhaps it’s easier to understand this complementarity of opposites through the Greek concept of a unity of opposites as espoused by Heraclitus. He took the idea of a continual war of opposites, as posited by Anaximander with water (cold/wet) vs. fire (hot/dry).

Believe it or not, the same concept of Oneness spills over into advanced sub-atomic particle physics. The wave-particle duality mentioned in quantum physics refers to the sameness between light (which we normally see in terms of waves) and matter (which we normally see in terms of particles. In fact, light and matter exist on the same continuum. Both exhibit traits of waves and traits of particles.

Incidentally, this is why scientists, who by their very nature (i.e., their primary motive of discovery) must be Instigators, are simultaneously taught to think like Skeptics. That’s why no real scientist will ever concede anything in science is ever settled. We actually tried that twice and famously failed. First, when Galileo upended the “settled science” of Aristotle; and, second, when Einstein’s relativity theories superseded the “settled science” of Galileo and Newton.

Nonetheless, writers, therefore, have a rich history to fall back on when it comes to crafting stories as a conflict between two opposing parties.

In general, who are these parties? In one form or another, almost all reporting consists of “Instigators” versus “Skeptics.” And when I say reporting, I don’t just mean news reporters, I also mean historians. History can be written as one long battle of Instigators against Skeptics. There is no inherent “rightness” or “wrongness” to either side. Instigators can be good or bad and Skeptics can be good or bad. For example, America’s Founding Fathers, (whom we view as “the right side”), as rebels, represent the very definition of “Instigator.” The opponents, the Loyalists, (whom we view as “the wrong side”), can be seen as Skeptics.

This doesn’t mean Instigators are always right and Skeptics are always wrong. The actions of Marxist-Leninists in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century represent the epitome of “Instigator.” A hundred or so years later, the consensus is these Instigators were on the wrong side. The Capitalist Skeptics who opposed them are now viewed as being on the right side.

Moreover, it’s possible Instigators and Skeptics can be both right and wrong at the same time. The best example of this is America’s Civil War. The rebels (the Instigators) and the Yankees (the Skeptics) each possess elements of rightness and wrongness that we debate even to this day.

Speaking of contemporary debates, modern journalism relies on the outspoken and aggressive nature of Instigators to create the news they report. Ideally, the reporter will find an equally outspoken and aggressive Skeptic to provide balance to the story. Alas, in an industry built on the premise of “watchdog,” too many journalists take the easy way out and only go as far as reporting the point of view of the Instigator.

Beyond journalism, citizens need to be fully aware of the role of Instigators. They are the movers and shakers of society. As mentioned earlier, like The Force in Star Wars, they can be consumed by the Dark Side. You see this all the time, where Instigators challenge the status quo not to improve things (despite their claims to the contrary), but merely to challenge the status quo. Unlike scientists, their motive isn’t to discover some fundamental truth, but simply to replace those currently in power with themselves.

This is why we need a loud and vocal class of Skeptics. They provide the same level of audit and control that the peer review process does for scientific inquiry. Just as, in the ideal world, the peer review process prevents poorly constructed scientific ideas from being published, so, too, do Skeptics prevent poorly constructed ideas from Instigators from going beyond the brainstorming stage.

Society should exist as a unity of opposites between Instigators and Skeptics. Instigators should prevent Skeptics from holding progress back, while Skeptics should prevent Instigators from evoking inefficient change (or worse) “for the sake of change.”

If you’ve made it this far into this piece, you’re no doubt asking, “But what about the third type of person?”

Few people have the psychological make-up to be Instigators. Fewer still have the fortitude to be Skeptics. Most people, then, fall into the trap of becoming someone else’s Tool. They may be a Tool of Instigators (more likely) or Skeptics (less likely). Tools are the foot soldiers in the front line of the battle between Instigators and Skeptics. They are the public “points” the two competing sides tally to use as evidence of their “rightness.” (If you’re thinking this invokes the logical fallacy “argumentum ad populum” – “if so many people believe it, it must be true” – then you’re right. Remember, I did say there’s a Dark Side in this and a reliance on logical fallacies is a good measure that the folks you’re dealing with are on that Dark Side.)

We can break down Tools into two groups – “pawns” and “prisoners.” Instigators and Skeptics both want to recruit Tools as pawns to execute their respective strategies. For Instigators, they want their pawns to attend things like “peace rallies” and “million-man marches” (there’s that argumentum ad populum working for you). Skeptics, on the other hand, want their pawns to go to events like “bake-sales” or “neighborhood picnics.”

Both sides use their pawns to disrupt the other’s events, either by sending them directly to the opposition’s rallies as counter-protesters or by have them attempt to intimidate the opposition’s pawns. The measure of success of that intimidation is the amount of fear they can raise in the opposition’s pawns. If that fear rises to a critical level and the pawns stop all activities, then those Tools are no longer pawns, but prisoners. Prisoners are Tools who are so fearful of the opposition, they would rather imprison themselves in their own homes than risk inciting attacks from the opposition.

Most people don’t have the time or the interest necessary to become an Instigator or a Skeptic. So, what are you, a pawn or a prisoner? Are you somebody else’s Tool who robotically advocates for some party line, or are you cowardly hiding your views and feelings from the public for fear of becoming a victim?

Here’s the more important question: If you don’t want to be either, what are you doing to change that?

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