2 sides of the coin

Exploring the wonder of diverse perspectives and why they are critical in making sense of the complexity of our world

diverse perspectives
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Thank Goodness the coin has 2 sides! There is some divine logic and poetic justice in this fact. It gives the impression that somewhere in universe there is a delicate balance – there is multi-dimensionality, as against polarity. That alone is enough to make me happy… confused… but happy.

I like the fact that there are multiple explanations and alternatives for everything. Human beings have too much ego to believe in simplicity I think, and I am no exception.

A while back now, I was completely taken up with Gladwell’s ‘Tipping point’ and particularly enamoured by the Broken-window theory. It is such a cool concept and has such instant and universal appeal.

The book charts the course of the crime drop in New York City in the 90s. In a span of 5 years from 1992, murders had gone down by 64.3% and total crimes had almost halved. Gladwell positions the controversial ‘Broken Windows Theory’ by criminologists James Q Wilson and George Kelling as a possible explanation. Their contention was that “Crime was inevitable in disorder”. Thus, a swift response to relatively minor crimes, leads to a reduction in total crimes. Gladwell takes us on the journey to explore how the New York City crime rates went down, along with the lead protagonists David Gunn (the new subway director), and William Bratton (Head of New York City Police Department from 1994). They cracked down on graffiti and turnstile jumpers in the subways, public drunkenness, public urination etc., and believed that “seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes were tipping points for violent crime”.

My love with this breakthrough idea lasted till I read Freakonomics, which had a unique take on the Broken Window concept. The book by Levitt & Dubner, takes us on a journey full of twists and turns, and unexpected insights, starting with 1966 and Nicolae Ceausceau’s ascend to power in Romania, and decision to make abortion illegal. As Romania’s birthrate doubled in a year and continued to increase, other European nations followed suit. The core contention here is the differentiated trajectories of life of wanted children, and unwanted children. As the element of choice for parents, especially mothers goes away, the crime rates went up dramatically as those children grew up in sub optimal conditions. They cite data that shows that these children did worse in every measurable way, at school, in the labor market, and were more likely to get into crime. They draw a parallel to New York City and the landmark Roe v/s Wade, and present data that disputes the ‘Broken Window Theory’ and highlights the fundamental demographic shift in the population of New York City, as more wanted and cared for children grew up to become productive members of society. Their argument is bolstered by the fact that 5 other states that had legislation for abortion, experienced similar decline in crime, without the extreme policing. It is also bolstered by the fact that crime was on a significant decline before Bratton took office, and continued after the extreme policing was relaxed.

So there you have it!

Here are 2 arguments, both equally compelling, both supported by data, both with equal instant and universal appeal and charisma, both presented equally brilliantly by authors of great repute… so which is right?

Isn’t it infinitely annoyingly exasperating that there is no right answer? But that’s the beauty of it! How boring life would be without the gut wrenching dilemma of how to take sides… So here I am.. confused … but happy… and glad that the coin has 2 sides!

I am glad that there are 2 sides to the coin for the simple reason that it means that people out there are not satisfied with just one explanation for an event / phenomenon… there is a desire to dig deeper, challenge established norms and explanations (the ‘broken window’ theory itself challenged the established norms and explanations of its time… till it was challenged by an even more outrageously controversial theory) and there is hope of new discovery… there is creative dissatisfaction and creative destruction… and a better world… I am inclined to think.

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