Think Opposite: A Movement In One Direction Inevitably Produces A Movement In The Opposite Direction

Editor's Note

The concept of competing opposites is well-known to historians, fiction writers and savvy marketers.

Apparently, it's not well-known to many best described as “long on schooling but short on education.”

Said Harvard's Ted Levitt, “The prevalence of competing opposites is a persistent theme in the history of mankind; Othello had Iago, Jefferson had Hamilton, Lenin had Stalin, the id has its ego, the straight culture of the 50s and early 60s had the counterculture of the mid-60s and 70s."

Of course, today we have Conservatives vs. Progressives/Socialists; climate change advocates vs. climate change deniers; Trump vs. the liberal media; all the poor need is money philosophy (a.k.a. the Social Worker's Creed) vs. all the poor need is competency to become self-supporting, productive members of society.

Our point? History shows there have always been simultaneous eruptions of opposing forces. That's the way the world works.

Powerful forces are always met with competing or opposite forces.

Hegel's Model for Understanding What's Happening & What's Apt to Happen with Respect to Opposites

Friedrich Hegel, a 19th-century philosopher, sketched out the following rather simple (but extremely insightful) model for interpreting history:

The Thesis

In a long-out-of-print book, Ted Levitt popularized the “go-reverse” principle, which is every time there is a strong movement in one direction of tastes, values, attitudes, and activities, another movement emerges that’s almost the complete opposite.

The thesis can be thought of as a strong, established movement in one direction. For example, capitalism is the accepted norm in the United States.

Capitalism in its varying forms believes in self-reliance, creation of competencies not dependencies, free markets unencumbered by government controls, regulations, interventions and the like.

Bernie Sanders in his quest for the presidency represents competing opposites, that is, he believes Democracy is in decline and should be replaced by a centrist (i.e., near-government controlled), entitlement-rich economic system.

Simply put, in Hegelian terms, Sanders' agenda represents the complete opposite of capitalism or the antithesis of capitalism (i.e., Socialism). 

Paraphrasing Winston Churchill: The inherent flaw in capitalism is that it produces an unequal sharing of the blessings; while the inherent flaw in Socialism is that it produces an equal sharing of the misery.

However, Churchill's insight has not stopped a significant percentage of today's Millenial generation from believing (not necessarily knowing why) they are opposed to capitalism and prefer a state-controlled economy.

More on Antithesis

Times change. People don't. There's always going to be an opposite movement (or an antithesis) to challenge an existing system of any kind.

Specifically, Levitt wrote:

"In the early nineteenth century, Friedrich Hegel enunciated in elaborate detail his dialectical conception of history.

According to Hegel, successful historical forces or ideas inevitably generate their opposite—what he called the "antithesis."...

The Inevitable Synthesis

The resulting struggle or competition between the thesis and antithesis leads each opposing force to ingest some features of the force it opposes.

In the process, there emerges a synthesis of the two. In time, this synthesis becomes a distinct new force in itself, which in turn generates a new antithesis to repeat the cycle.

Said Levitt: “Hegel thus viewed historical development as a continuous evolution of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.”

Some claim President Trump is adopting some of the ideas of the Progressives/Liberals (e.g., providing free child-care) and should stay true to the core principles of conservativism.

But, another view, could simply reinterpret this in terms of the Hegelian dialect, that is, President Trump is "ingesting some features" of the Democratic Party's platform he particularly likes, and in the process is creating a new synthesis.

Applying Hegel’s Model to the Business World

Levitt, for example, brilliantly showed how to apply the Hegelian principle of opposites to project what lies ahead for many businesses:

“When there develops, in any area of activity or taste or values, a strong thrust in one direction, we may expect in its wake a strongly opposite thrust.”

Consider this: The great growth in already-prepared/packaged convenience foods is paralleled by an equal growth in gourmet/start-from-scratch cooking... and the explosive sale of cookbooks, herbs and exotic condiments.

The great boom in one-stop retail/e-tail stores/websites is paralleled by an enormous increase in small specialty outfits.

For example, the growth of companies successfully specializing in one specific product such as pillows, sheets baby diapers and razor blades.

Another Example: Hegel On Training Trends

The Hegelian model helps us understand what appears to be opposite phenomena in training today: the growth in live instructor-led training programs and the growth of instructor-less online training courses.

Predictions regarding the imminent commercial annihilation of live instructor-led training courses are already contradicted by a new growth in niche market live instructor-led seminars short training courses.

Live instructor training when coupled with performance consulting and performance support enables practicing professionals to immediately put into practice what is learned.

In terms of on-site (i.e., in-house) training, the need for live instruction from a true expert has proven itself time and again.

For example, take a subject like statistical process control (SPC). An online program can teach the basics of quality prevention and quality control. No doubt about it!

But what has also proven itself is: the best way for SPC to be taught (and more importantly put into immediate practice) is to use an organization's actual processes to demonstrate the value and implementation specifics.

Online training has become an industry all its own, one of our more thriving growth industries.

But we also believe it must be supplemented or augmented with performance support, performance consulting, coaching and mentoring and the like.

In short, blended learning represents the much-needed synthesis.

Summary and Conclusions

The Hegelian prediction of opposites always exists. Where there is thesis, there is antithesis.

For example, our educational system, from its very beginning, encouraged critical thinking. In other words, people were taught "how to think."

Yet, many believe our educational system has been under attack by an opposite movement designed to teach students "what to think," that is, promoting ideology as opposed to critical thinking.

In the final analysis, we believe understanding Hegel's models of thesis, antithesis and synthesis helps us understand and chart the inevitable occurrence of competing opposites and–in many instances–concludes with a purposeful synthesis.