The Art of Contradiction

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then … I contradict myself;
I am large … I contain multitudes.

Thomas More

Contradictions are everywhere. We change our minds, we give advice we don’t follow, we do things we know are bad for us and not nearly enough of what’s good for us. Our emotions can be contradictory, so can our actions. Contradictions make us human and can be a creative doorway.

Oscar Wilde said, “[t]he well bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.” Yet we often feel ashamed when someone catches us contradicting ourselves. And we may feel guilty when our actions don’t align with our principles. 

Contradictions can be more like inconsistencies, like flying while worrying about our carbon footprint. They can also be dishonest, like making grand statements at COP26 that you do not intend to follow through with. We may contradict ourselves because we forgot what we said, or once we have new information that makes us change a previous position or opinion. This is where things can get interesting.

But it doesn’t come without its challenges. If we think, for example, about the ethical principles that guide our decisions (personally or as an organisation), the more we endeavour to practice them, the more we realise acting ethically at all times is full of contradictions we would much rather avoid. 

Take for example, who we receive funding from. Can we be certain that the donor whose money we accept doesn’t, in fact, contribute to exacerbating the problem we intend to address in the first place? Where do we draw the line? 

Or if we think about the Do no harm principle (which originated in the medical profession but is also widely adopted by humanitarian and aid agencies), its intention is to avoid putting people at further risk from our interventions, so it requires us to take a step back and understand the wider context of the situation we hope to improve. How wide should the context be?

In today’s interconnected world, the do no harm principle might, according to Margaret Wheatley, be increasingly difficult because it’s not just about doing good, it’s actually avoiding harm. We don’t see the consequences of our actions — we don’t even know what we’re doing that’s causing harm.” 

In fact, the more we know about the world, the more aware we become about our own entanglements, the more contradictions we discover. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that while we need to be guided by morals, it’s impossible to be perfectly moral in an immoral world. 

Recent conversations and calls for the NGO and philanthropic sectors to decolonise are asking us to face up to such contradictions: our accountability, legitimacy and long held beliefs that we were ‘doing good’ are being put to question. Are our actions, organisations and institutions inadvertently perpetuating the problem we think we are fixing? 

Our unease about facing these contradictions may be related to our desire to be right, to hold on to certainty. It’s ultimately a form of over-confidence. And according to Daniel Kahneman, over-confidence “is associated with a failure of the imagination… when you cannot imagine an alternative to your belief.”

So, how could we use our contradictions to disentangle our complicity? What usually happens when we are found to be complicit, whether inadvertently or due to careless policies, is that we rush into reactive mode, we may look for justifications or we adopt new policies, in the hope that it will not occur again. But what if we started from a different angle? 

Leila Billing, Founder of We are Feminist Leaders, suggests that “if we approached accountability from the assumption that we’re all flawed, that it’s inevitable we will cause harm and disappointment at times, perhaps accountability would feel much less painful.”

She argues that in “a deeply damaged, globalised, interconnected world, we are all complicit in much that is harmful because we live within oppressive systems that cause harm every day.”

Working with these contradictions could be a way to reject binary thinking, practice openness and curiosity, but also, crucially, recognise that we can’t make the world to our liking. This might lead to better and deeper questioning and move our thinking forward. 

Painter Fabienne Verdier described her journey through contradictions while studying calligraphy with a Chinese Master who “would say one thing, and its opposite the next day. His teaching was never a lecture, a demonstration, or a theory. He proceeded through touches that were both in opposition and complementary, so that, little by little, I would be able to find my own equilibrium.”

Words, Veronica Yates
Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

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