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I have been following with interest several posts over the past few days that deal with how to respond when candidates are not closely matched to our ideals of what a candidate should be or what or whom they should represent, what to do about elected officials whose policies are not closely enough aligned with our values and interests, and what to do about people "opting out" of electoral processes. Reading through the comment threads, I was constantly reminded of a conversation I had with my wife last spring. She is a college instructor and we were discussing one of her student's desire to see everything in absolutist terms, that every decision for him had to be black or white. We talked about how she might approach this student with the goal of getting him to open up to possibilities beyond "black and white." What follows is an outgrowth of the conversation that evening.

Black and white. Consider them polar extremes. The alpha and omega, if you will, of luminance or reflectance. What they do for a photographer is establish the tonal limits of what is possible in an image. Absent any other consideration, that is all they do. Imagine for a moment. an image of a white square posted on a white web page. You would not even be able to find it. However, if you where to impose two criteria on "black," that of dimension and position, you could create a black border around the image of the white square. The boundary of the image would become apparent, and the image would be revealed against the background. So, extremes can also provide the boundaries that help us place the image, that separate the image from its background or context, so that we can see it for what it is.

It is possible to render something recognizable out of a purely black and white image. Imagine a black silhouette against a white background. Depending on the familiarity of what was being depicted, black and white would do quite nicely in letting you identify the silhouette as the profile of Abraham Lincoln, taken from the everyday penny. It would not, however, allow you to identify me.  Being able to identify people, objects, activities, processes from simple black and white information is dependent upon education, acculturation, and exposure to the original. It can be done, quickly and accurately, if the the subject matter is familiar enough, and if a superficial understanding is all that is required in order to act.

So what do we need to do to increase our understanding of the subject? If we allow ourselves eight shades of grey, and a whopping 252 total squares to hold them, we could recreate the experiment done in the Bell Laboratories in 1973, and be able to identify a portrait of Lincoln with sufficient information that we could tell that the image was not derived from the portrait on a penny, but most likely from the portrait on the five dollar bill. What would that image tell us about Lincoln other than the barest bit of context from which the image was derived? Not much.

So what happens when you create an image that incorporates a thousand shades of grey? This is what creates the artistry of the photograph. Think of the majestic tonal range of the photos of Ansel Adams or Edward Weston. The artistry of these men revealed something of the world to us that we had not contemplated before. Now think back to the early daguerreotypes of the young Lincoln. Suddenly, a whole host of impressions come flooding to mind. Beyond Lincoln's general appearance, there are hints at what genetics provided him, as well as the effects of his life, both physically and emotionally, that were shaping what nature had provided him at birth. The sinewy strength, the sharpness in the eyes of a placid face that already has witnessed much sorrow. In each successive portrait throughout his life, we can track the the changes in the man. We get a sense of all that transpired, the cost of every decision, the toll of every hardship that befell him and his family. What would you have to say of the man if you only knew him from a black and white silhouette? How do a thousand shades of grey change how you might see the man from whom the silhouette was drawn and cut?

Life is not black and white. It is not even a thousand shades of grey. Each moment, it presents to us ten thousand shades of grey. Life is not a photograph. It is not a representation. Life is -  in all its glorious shadings from unfathomable darkness to blinding whiteness - simply life. It is the ten thousand shades of grey that vex us as much as inform us. We are challenged constantly to make judgments, make decisions, and act upon those decisions, in ways that can be matters of life and death. Most decisions are not presented in black or white, for life is not either/or. Black and white may define the range of what is possible, but it is the shades of grey that we must discern and place and judge that we may decide how to move or what to do or to not do. How much information is required to make a decision? Are eight shades of grey and 252 pixels enough? Does the consideration of 10,000 shades of grey overwhelm and thereby paralyze me? That is the challenge, and it is a very personal one, with a different answer for each person and each situation. You can limit yourself to eight shades of grey. You can shoot for 10,000. Know that your choice can, at one extreme, ill-prepare you to make a decision about a complex situation. At the other extreme, you may simply have too much information to place within a meaningful context such that you can make a decision. But one thing is true. This conundrum is what life confronts us with every day. Sentience does have a price. But it also has its rewards. It is precisely the 10,000 shades of grey that bring nuance, vitality, artistry and so much more to life.

And so, when confronted with candidates who don't "fit my bill of particulars," actions that I disagree with by officials I helped elect, or people who "opt out" with comments like "Voting is for suckers," I try to understand that nothing is as it seems when reduced to a silhouette or caricature, and sometimes eight shades of grey at 252 pixels is not enough to help me know how to respond.

Epilogue... There is one place where it seems black and white are sufficient to communicate nuanced information - the printed word. I hope that these musings have been a fair example of that.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (4+ / 0-)

    “The aim of mankind should be to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”--Edith Hamilton (1867-1963)

    by cinepost on Thu Aug 07, 2014 at 07:03:28 AM PDT

  •  When a candidate has to have 65-70 million votes (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Catte Nappe, Roadbed Guy

    to win the Presidential election, it's never going to be an exact match. The infinite shades of gray could be the infinite variations in people across a broad spectrum in one political party. If we have two in the US it's simple math that it has to be this way.

    We have political parties as a manifestation of the human tendency to cooperate. Self-preservation is primary but human behavior encompasses recognition that other people have needs and pooling efforts. There are people who suffer from an inability to recognize the needs, the desires, the feelings of others. It's a psychosis that pairs with violence.

    I think about these things when I encounter people who are so rigid that they condemn others for seeing shades of grey.

    •  Yes, for example what is this word "grey"? (0+ / 0-)
      •  Gray and grey... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        ... are different spellings of the same word, and both are used throughout the English-speaking world. But gray is more common in American English, while grey is more common in all the other main varieties of English. In the U.K., for instance, grey appears about twenty times for every instance of gray. In the U.S. the ratio is reversed. But if you want to play of the title of a popular book, only "grey" will do.

        “The aim of mankind should be to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”--Edith Hamilton (1867-1963)

        by cinepost on Thu Aug 07, 2014 at 12:12:52 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well sure, but in this day and age of (0+ / 0-)

          GOP and Dem candidates being about 99.9% identical on "the issues" - this type of thing can be totally make it or break it for me .. . .

          •  I'm having trouble with English today. Are you (0+ / 0-)

            saying you don't see polar opposites and intermediate shades between them? The Democrats are 45% gray and the Republicans are 55% gray which the eye can hardly distinguish?

            •  I try to see it all (silly me)... (0+ / 0-)

              I have engaged in photography for about forty five years, and film-making nearly as long, so the photographic metaphor is second nature to me. Perhaps I should have made sure to proofread with an eye towards clarity for those for whom photographic principles are not second nature.

              To your question: I try to first identify the extremes, as they are usually easily identified. They create the range of possibility, and often provide the boundaries of what is possible. From then on, I try to see everything and place a value on it, to "place it in the image" if you will. All the while acknowledging that everything has its place. That which I abhor, in a sense, establishes the value of that which I cherish. It is the contrast between the shadows and the highlights that creates meaning in the image.

              Does that help?

              “The aim of mankind should be to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”--Edith Hamilton (1867-1963)

              by cinepost on Thu Aug 07, 2014 at 12:50:08 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

          •  If you drop the resolution of the image far enough (0+ / 0-)

            then everything becomes black or white, and if you place your threshold low enough, anything that has more than a single lumen reflectance can be considered white.

            I have a deep and fearful dread of the security state... my mother grew up in Nazi Germany, so you can imagine the lessons I learned at her knee. So of course, I am repulsed by the growth of the security apparatus under this administration. There are many other examples. But not for one moment do I believe that it would be any different under a Romney administration, and I know that the ACA, Lilly Ledbetter, marriage equality, the fight against voter disenfranchisement, etc., etc., would not be happening under a Republican administration.

            If you raise the resolution of the image high enough, then the differences stand out in high relief. You can identify that which you can support, and you can identify the areas where you need to fight.

            “The aim of mankind should be to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”--Edith Hamilton (1867-1963)

            by cinepost on Thu Aug 07, 2014 at 12:33:59 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I keep a database of the roll call votes in the US (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              House of Reps. I only use the bills that can be clearly categorized as Left or Right. Each House member has a cumulative voting record. They can be ranked from far Left to far Right and when their party affiliation is used as an identifier it's easy to see where the Democrats and Republicans are on the Left-Right spectrum.

              There's almost zero overlap at the extremes. Even moving toward the center there isn't much overlap.

              When I examine the few Republicans with atypical, far-Left scores, I know from the reputations that they are far from Leftists. These are politicians I label "DC-Sceptics" because they remind me of the Euro-Sceptics who are far from Leftists as well. They share some positions with the Left, but they don't share ideology.

              For example, DC-Sceptics might be opposed to NSA mass surveillance and their roll call votes push their scores to the Left. The Left's rationale for opposing the NSA is civil liberties, while the Right sees big government taking responsibilities without Constitutional authorization.

              •  That is one thing I wish I had the time to study. (0+ / 0-)

                Do you do the same thing for the Senate? Curious about how they might compare/contrast. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, I have often wondered if the behavior of Democrats in the House might be influenced by the dysfunction of the party in the majority.

                Just curious.

                “The aim of mankind should be to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”--Edith Hamilton (1867-1963)

                by cinepost on Thu Aug 07, 2014 at 01:02:25 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

                •  I only do the House. The Democrats have scores (0+ / 0-)

                  that are farther Left this year than last. It's hard to measure behavior but there's a lot to observe. The bitterness is displayed in incidents that never happened on the House floor in my lifetime.

                  For example, last week a Republican breached the rules on decorum and debate when he called out Nancy Pelosi by name for personal criticism. And what he said was a point-blank lie that anyone could check by looking in the Congressional Record. It wasn't a matter of opinion. It was black and white. :-)

                  Pelosi got up from where she was sitting, charged across the aisle and got in his face. I can't say I blame her.

            •  The thing is that if a Romney administration (0+ / 0-)

              was pulling all the shit that the Obama administration is, at least at sites like DailyKos we'd be allowed the privilege of righteously ranting about it . ..

              •  Did you miss the pitchfork and torch parade the (0+ / 0-)

                other day over the CIA torture report? There were quite a few folks and some of them were sanctimonious.

                It seems Obama didn't see to the faithful execution of the laws of the land.

                •  The thing is, that there is always *some* pushback (0+ / 0-)

                  here at DK about criticizing Obama over these  matters (compared  to when the likes of Cheney, Rumsfeld, or Bush the 2nd are similarly dissed, to complete agreement .. . )

                  •  I criticize but I go overboard to have solid info (1+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:

                    that I get from non-commercial sources. I don't think many people would want to do what I do. I end up with views that are hard for people here to categorize. I do this for a reason I'll skip.

                    If I want to say Obama didn't see that the laws related to torture were faithfully upheld, I have to be able to show evidence and proof that would stand up in a court of law.
                    Otherwise, I'm just "Talking Loud, and Saying Nothing."

                    People were saying that Obama should be tried in The Hague or in federal criminal court because no one from the last administration was ever prosecuted for torture. There were people who could copy and paste a federal statute on torture. But the law's existence doesn't prove that Obama broke it.

                    It was like people forgot burden of proof and the presumption of innocence.

                    No one knew that there were investigations, that the CIA destroyed evidence and refused to testify, that Bush wrote an executive order to seal his records for 12 years, which Obama revoked with a new executive order, etc,

                    I found out unintentionally that there's a lot of information that isn't delivered to the public the way I'd expect considering its importance. It can be found if you go looking for it but why would you if you don't know it exists?

                    Most of what I write about here is to publicize the unreported or underreported news. Everything is linked back to original non-commercial sources.

      •  Funny I spelled it two ways. Maybe my half (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        and half heritage did that. And I blathered incoherently.

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