The napkin analogy

I believe in balance. Not to mistake with total equilibrium, an absence of all emotion and not in the sense of mellow or mediocre – but in the sense that the world needs variety and different forces pulling into different directions at all time, so the bowl won’t topple over. The older I get, I believe in such balance and freedom for myself and my personal life, too. It’s difficult to accept and yet a relief at times, as paradoxical as that sounds. Darkness and light.

I believe in strong opinions, not to mistake for extreme opinions. I don’t believe in extremes, although when it comes to some political questions I don’t believe in the middle, either. But then, the middle means something else there altogether.

Strong opinions, different opinions are a good thing. They don’t make life easier or decisions necessarily swifter, but they make things a great deal better. For one thing, they make for interesting discussions where an open ear is assumed. More informed and thoughtful decisions. Most importantly, they maintain balance. What a scary thing would it be if we were all the same, always and in every aspect; if too large a group of people in a society were in complete and utter agreement on all the important concerns. What would ever save us from radical extremism, if we never disagreed?

So this is the end,” Tanis said. “Good has triumphed.”
“Good? Triumph?” Fizban repeated, turning to stare at the half-elf shrewdly. “Not so, Half-Elven. The balance is restored. The evil dragons will not be banished. They remain here, as do the good dragons. Once again the pendulum swings freely.”
“All this suffering, just for that?” Laurana asked, coming to stand beside Tanis. “Why shouldn’t good win, drive the darkness away forever?”
“Haven’t you learned anything, young lady?” Fizban scolded, shaking a bony finger at her. “There was a time when good held sway. Do you know when that was? Right before the Cataclysm!” [Dragons of Spring Dawning; M. Weis & T. Hickman]

The napkin analogy – A fond memory

When I was still teaching teenage 10th-graders whom today’s society calls the “under-privileged”, I tried to include analogies and graphic or figurative examples as often as I could when attempting to illustrate a more complex matter. I’m a very visual person myself and I believe in the lasting effect of using several channels at once for education (as many senses as possible). It’s frankly also a lot more fun. So, on the subject of political extremism, when discussing contemporary politics in class together one day, I returned with a stack of red napkins after morning break. The idea had occurred to me while listening to my students discussing extremist riots (which had occurred at the time), the legitimacy of such acts on behalf of values and political viewpoints, the whole “left versus right” debate and who’s worse and why. Uh-oh.

I could just have talked about how extremism is always cruel, no matter coming from what direction. That it’s destructive and wrong and comes in fact down to the exact same thing, left or right, because it leaves no room for anything or anyone else. That it is tyranny and tolerates none other, the opposite of balance and freedom of choice. Oh, I believe in social(ist) values a great deal more than I believe in free markets and lower taxes (*cough*); but I do not believe in burning containers and smashed windows, no matter who’s throwing the stones. I don’t want that – I don’t want extremism. 

To simplify just that, how opposite extremes boil down to the same and become a totalitarian system – that’s right, the napkins! I had cut them a little in order to make for the shape I wanted, basically an arrow shape pointing in two directions. I gave one to each student with the explicit request to wait for further instructions (skip this and the time to penis is on you faster than you could ever dream). It was a collective exercise in the following easy steps, accompanied a few simple questions for my audience.

 /enter wise voice….

Me: “So, hold the napkin horizontally between both hands. What do we have here? Basically a pole at each end of the napkin, completely and utterly opposed, out there at the very edge of each side. Right? Great!”

“Now, fold the napkin right through the middle. Where lie the opposite ends now?”

Them: “At exactly the same spot.”
Me: “What happened to the middle?”
Them: “It’s been folded / It’s gone.”

Me: “Now, if you look at that new shape holding it up in one hand, where is its one end?”

Them: “It’s at the top.”
Me: “Where is everything else?”
Them: “Below it.”
Them: “Ahhh..”

That’s when some eyes grew larger as insight grew within them. That’s where I got to nod with a satisfactory smile, that province of the insufferable and teaching. Sometimes a nutshell is all you need to make it stick. And if not, well then it was good manual exercise.

This article is dedicated to yesterday’s topic. And also, to recent blog discussions, to strong opinions demanding to be heard and to those who are able to listen.


  1. It’s strange how extremes always manage to loop back around. Makes me wonder why waste the time to go all around when the middle is nice and comfortable. Of course the middle keeps getting moved by whoever is claiming it at the time… So maybe the middle is more like the Red Queen and less like Panama (book references, if anyone is horribly confused).

    Maybe it would help if we used a classification system that wasn’t based on old French political custom.

  2. @Kleps
    Book references – bring’em! and I agree in essence, I just don’t believe in the “middle” as in middle-way or “half of everything” or some other fixed, intended place like that. for me it needs to be a natural result, a cross section maybe between all the forces that pull into different directions all the time. like the quote said, you need all colors to be there for balance or the pendulum will stop swinging and come to a halt somewhere (which you never want).
    I don’t think the absence of that endless struggle and tension is realistic for the human race. so yeah, if you want to mix for “white” (as in relative peace), you need the exact right amount and mixture of all the colors of the spectrum.

    A brilliant book and hillarious interpretation of this matter is “Good Omens” by Pratchett and Gaiman, by the way. I can highly recommend it (I have a feeling I already did that once?!).

  3. Good Omens. Pratchett (yes and Gaiman too. He’s good too). Love it. I love teaching things.

    I’m doing a course this semester (since I now am a part-time college prof) on game theory, fun, and how we learn. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with it, but I’m a very fly-by-the-seat teacher whose lesson plans might be bullet points if I think I may be getting observed. Otherwise, of course, there’s no lesson plan at all (;

    At any rate, great exercise, and great post!

  4. @Stubborn
    Thanks muchly! and that sounds like a very interesting course to teach on – you should definitely blog about it sometime!

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