Shades of Gray

There are two types of people in the world – those that divide things into two categories and those that don’t. I’m one of those that don’t :-)

Okay, look… I get it. Our brains are pattern-finding devices and nothing’s easier than putting things into either/or categories. But not everything is easily categorizable as Right or Wrong, Good or Evil, Black or White… in fact virtually nothing is. It’s a mixed-up muddled-up shook-up world, right? So when I get into discussions with people who see nothing but absolutes, I tend to push back a bit. At least in my opinion, that sort of Dualistic worldview is not just lazy thinking, it can quickly grow dangerous if it prevents people from considering all aspects of a situation.

The particular conversation that sparked this blog post somehow turned to the Taijitu – the classic Yin/Yang symbol – which has for a lot of people has apparently come to embody this black-and-white worldview. Disregarding the fact that the Taijitu is a lot more nuanced that that, and is more about balance than absolutes, I decided to see if I could come up with something that more explicitly acknowledges the shades of gray that exist in the real world. A bit of imageprocessing mojo later, and I had this:

From a distance it maintains the general appearance and symmetry of the classic yin/yang ratio but up close we see the real story – the edges are ill-defined and chaotic, nowhere is the symmetry perfect, and most of it is composed of shades of gray.

I’m not sure what exactly to do with this now, but just in case anybody thinks it’s cool I’ve stuck a high-resolution version of it up on flickr with creative common licensing. Do with it what you will, and if someone wants to put it on a T-shirt or something, could you send me one? :-)

13 thoughts on “Shades of Gray

  1. This post is an interesting combo of imaging and personal philosophy. Trying to figure out how you arrived at the content of the post feels like a chicken/egg problem.

    I like the look of the gray yin-yang image and respect the sentiment, but I think the first image (no_yinyang) is more to the point and successful as a mark with a message.

    Thanks for the post and graphic(s).

  2. Ron
    Life is Grey is reality. (I’ve been using the Yin/Yang as a logo). I like the essence of your point, the dangerousness of black and white thinking. When we really think, and probe, in photography, our categories fall away. Your comment about balance (geek-artist, sharp-blurred) is important because it is not the endpoints but the variety of the spectrum that gives life its joy.
    Great post, Ron.

  3. This is interesting, but isn’t it true that when you are saying “virtually nothing” can be categorized in to right/wrong aren’t you in fact saying that statement is right and contrary statements are wrong?

    Just seems that someone saying “There are no absolutes” is an absolute statement.

    • This sentence is false. :-)

      But to your point, that’s why I put in the ‘virtually’ in front of the “nothing”. Because nothing is an absolute :-)


  4. interesting – you’re trying to occidentalise an oriental emblem. yet they don’t need to do this to understand it.

  5. Nice idea with several layers of meaning;

    Just wondering: did you consider doing the edges in a fractal-type manner, where whenever you zoom in, you see more black & white yin/yang symbols, which, when you zoom in, also have grey boundaries, which, when you zoom in, …. etc.

  6. I read a book once that described that the real key to the philosophy of the yin and the yang symbol was not that one side is black and one side it white. Instead, it is the small black dot in the center of the white and the small white dot that is in the center of the black that is the key to the symbol of the philosophy. In the symbol it is to mean that within good is a little evil and within evil is a little good or many combinations of the same. It can be argued that the symbol is a representation of absolutes, but not in the way most people use it. For instance, your absolute was to say that people who think in black and white terms use this symbol to highlight the idea. However, people who think in Grey also use this symbol for precisely the small dots representing that all things are not one sided at all. An interesting short story would be nice to highlight someone who used this symbol to believe in absolutes to then to switch to believing in everything is Grey within the same symbol.

    However, the world is black and white, for the symbol is wrong. There is pure good and pure evil, it is just not within man, instead, it is external to man. The conflict within man is not the conflict within the universe. Man in neither singularly good or singularly evil. But that does not mean absolutes do not exist just as laws of the universe exist. Water while fluid is H2O and this is an absolute. Gold like many things is an element and not a mixture of Grey. In good there is perfection and absolution in God who is perfect and this is the absolute of right and wrong. It is that we who are not perfect must strive against our nature to follow our perfect creator God, even though we can never do so perfectly. White and black does exist and surrounds and inundates man completely and ever presently. It is from denial of the whole truth and the lack of will to strive towards a higher truth that many choose to simply ignore that the universe is white and black and choose to only see that which man is, Grey.

    • I think that was perfectly said. While I can see where and how Ron would come to his conclusion on the Taijitu, I don’t at all agree. I think the explanation he gave is too simplistic and does not cover many important aspects of taiji or surrounding teachings. Daoism, for instance, is an important aspect stemming from the taiji and it expresses a lot of grey.

    • I think that explains it almost perfectly. While I can see where and how Ron would draw his conclusion on the Taijitu, I cannot at all agree. I believe his explanation to be too simplistic and a little misinformed. There are many aspects to the Taiji that express areas of grey including the philosophy of Daoism.

  7. The curving line between colors is called the interface , what that means is this dualism is in constant movement , so it includes grey already. Ancient taoist constructed it with much thought , doesn’t need to be changed. Finding stillness between this movement is part of reaching enlightenment.

  8. Others have beaten me to pointing out that the whole point of the taijitu is it’s fluidity and there is no pure white or black, everything contains the other. It makes me think of an episode of Friends where I think Ross and Phoebe were arguing about whether there’s such a thing as a selfless good deed, because if you give to charity, you feel good about yourself, so it benefits you. There’s a worldview that we’re all connected and what we do to others is reflected back on ourselves because of that interconnectedness. I’m digressing a bit. I just wanted to point out that the taijitu doesn’t represent pure black and white and those who take it as such are mistaken, so no new image is necessary, but also to thank you for the image you made, because I do like how it blurs the lines that much more – still fluid, but also unpredictable and ill defined as it goes. It represents life well, so I’m yoinking it if you don’t mind for personal enjoyment

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