When Tension is Good for You

Brian Gongol

When I was a kid, one of my formative experiences was taking part in the Boy Scouts. I'll admit straight out that I was a terrible camper: Everything that could have been packed light, I packed heavy. I didn't care for being dirty, and don't get me started on the my revulsion at things like latrines.

Thank goodness camping was only a fraction of what we did, or I never would have made it. As most people know, there is a lot more to Scouting than that -- including a lot of practical skill development. One of those skills, useful in camping, but also useful elsewhere, was learning how to tie knots.

I wasn't intuitively good at it. But, when I could really wrap my brain around it, I came to appreciate some of the elegance to knot-tying. A person could take a simple piece of rope and turn it into tool to lift logs, hold a tent upright, or even rescue someone who had fallen through the ice.

One of the concepts about knot-tying that stuck with me was that many knots will fall apart unless they're held under tension. To the person whose experience with knots begins and ends with making a granny knot in their shoelaces, it's not an intuitive idea. After all, when you put most things under stress, that's when they break. Most things at rest aren't going to fall apart.

But once you really get your hands dirty with knots, so to speak, you start to get the idea that sometimes it's the tension that creates the friction that actually holds things together. With many knots, you can only hold things together if they're trying to fall apart.

This idea -- that tension may be necessary to hold something together -- is an excellent model for how we ought to view matters of political and ideological identity.

It's fairly common for people to pick a single political label and stick with it as the way they define themselves -- "conservative", "progressive", "right-wing", "left-wing". But choosing only one form of that identity lacks tension. If you choose only to think of yourself as one thing, you're susceptible to being led in the direction of the loudest voice claiming the mantle of that one thing. It might be a politician, it might be a commentator, or it might be an institution. But without a sense of tension, most people will tend to display a bias in favor of trying to be (or at least appear) consistent: "I'm a conservative, I've always been a conservative, and other conservatives are saying this, so I must believe it, too."

It is far better to subscribe to more than one way of looking at things, and to not just acknowledge but embrace the tension that results from the conclusions one might draw from those different viewpoints. For example: Better than being just a "conservative" or just a "libertarian" is to acknowledge having sympathies for both, and embracing the tension that results from the competing claims of each.

Sometimes there will be no tension at all -- but in other (often important) cases, there will exist quite a lot of conflict, and the process of struggling with that conflict thoughtfully will tend to make for a better decision. Let the heavy sense of duty and communitarian obligation that often goes with a Burkean conservatism compete with the primacy of individual freedom that so defines libertarianism. It's not essential that one win over the other, but rather that a person be faced with the inherent tensions that separate them.

We don't often use terms here that are commonplace in our companion democracies in places like Europe, where "social democrats", "liberal democrats", and "Christian democrats" all share half their names but often disagree because of where their respective "other" halves pull them. And while there's often mockery of those who claim to be "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" here in the United States, it would in fact be a step in the right direction if we were more comfortable with embracing multiple pathways of thought, even when they result in conflict.

Thus, even if nobody changed their mind at all -- if we froze our ideologies for a moment in time -- but everyone were required to pick a second, different word to acknowledge where they were coming from, then we would be much better off for causing people to think about the necessary tension where they had not before. Let us hear more about Christian libertarianism, or technocratic capitalism, or conservative utilitarianism, or social democracy, or whatever else causes any and all of us to think a little more and embrace ideas that appear to rival one another. It would make us all a little smarter, a little more resistant to mind-bending trickery, and perhaps just a little more likely to think of even our rivals as people with whom we might be able to make a deal in our mutual best interests.

Silos and blinders may have their places in other parts of life, but when it comes to making decisions about self-government, sometimes the knotty issues are best tackled by people who appreciate some tension.