“Invert, always invert” recommended Jacobi. Like a cat, when we’re trying to see something clearly we should move our head around quickly to get different viewpoints before pouncing (style is important too). One way to do that with “thinking” is to ask, “if I turn this upside down, will I see it differently? does it make any sense?” That is one axis we can move our viewpoint along. Depending on the thinking task at hand, we may understand the problem better, or it may be a way of moving our trapped thinking to get new ideas.
An example. If the focus is on dealing with the problem of an ageing society. Invert the problem: is it the ageing society that’s the issue or is that element in fact ok, and it’s the young end of the spectrum – attitudes, work practices, how the economy works – that is actually the issue leading to a focus on the elderly as being the problem?
Another. People who identify a plot on the part of the establishment, are called “conspiracy theorists“. Can we invert this idea? Yes, we get something like “lack-of-conspiracy theorists“. Is there any value in that? Where does it lead though? Well yes, people who unquestioningly accept whatever the establishment says are historically just as dangerous, possibly more so than those who see more suspicious explanations. But as far as I know we don’t have a corresponding term for lack-of-conspiracy theorists. Still, that’s the start of what may be a productive line of investigation for an idea, which is the point: invert -> new idea; new way of looking at a common-place. After all, looking for something genuinely ‘new’ isn’t historically as successful as looking at the same thing that everyone already sees, but seeing that same thing in a way no-one else has done – to paraphrase Schopenhauer.
Similarly “Luddites” are people who distrust technology and want to hold it back. But is there any inversion of that term. A term to identify those who accept any new technologies uncritically as obviously good and unstoppable. Isn’t that just as dangerous an attitude? – shouldn’t we have an equally provocative term to signal that danger – even if it happens to go against the mood of our particular times? Perhaps the mood of the times is as it is, in part because we don’t have such a term to make that alternate view ready to hand. Instead of the unquestioned vision of the Star-Trek future (next-gen) where technology has advanced and almost flawlessly is at our service, it might be we’re headed for the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide future, where nothing quite works as it should and no-one is able to fix it – perhaps the microsoft future? If that’s a possibility we should be considering, so that we can handle it better, then we do need a word for blind unquestioning faith in technology and new ideas, just as urgently as we need “Luddite”.
Or another phrase: “innocent until proven guilty” is richer than the obvious inversion. There are all sorts of re-combinations. One that strikes is “innocent even when proven guilty” . Does that happen? Indeed it does seem to apply at times – for example the “Train-gate” splashed over newspapers casting doubt over Jeremy Corbyn’s honesty…. now that the leaked full videos from the train are available they show Corbyn having been entirely accurate (there were no rows of empty seats, different frames of the video show heads of children and others appearing from them). So the media are guilty of misrepresentation on that occasion, but apart from some small-print retractions, they carry on as innocent, telling us what to believe now, with equal certainty. It seems there is some mileage to be had pursuing the line of thinking that “innocent even after proved guilty” – by comparing and contrasting cases in society where retribution falls upon the guilty, and where it does not: which was the point. The start of an idea.
But for entertainment, lets take something more pointed – depending on your beliefs (beliefs simply being ideas that you identify with). The one I would like to develop here is Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s exhortation at the 2016 Labour Conference, that we should not dwell on mistakes of the past, but instead celebrate our achievements – which makes a certain forward-looking sense in everyday life. The uneasy feeling here however, is in spotting the conjurer’s trick, that what we’re being asked to ignore – not even acknowledge and actually learn from, but to ignore and leave behind as unimportant - are not every-day-life things, but enormities occasioned by those when last they held power. The statement provokes the thought of generations who directly experienced two world-wars, namely “lest we forget“. Those people were really concerned, scared, that after two wars to end-all-wars, there would be a third we would blunder unthinkingly into, immune to the prospect of the conseqences. Hence the UN, and the emotive call to sanity in the wording of its charter. It meant a lot to them with that experience which few alive now have visceral access to.
Idly inverting that phrase of hard-won pained experience gives “lest we remember“, a handy aid for politicians when seeing recent history isn’t helping their agenda, and when people should be encouraged not to think about the horrors we supported last time…(and reminded that the reasons we gave were, to be generous, obscure). Isn’t the risk of this that we’re just setting up to do it all over again?
There’s some insight value here if we explore. All those labour party MPs voting against having any inquiry into the Iraq war…perhaps didn’t want to remember, or to learn from the experience – understandably. Or perhaps they thought all useful learning has already been had, and it’s time to move on. Well, I suppose they would, wouldn’t they? It’s a psychological and real-politic necessity. However there’s little evidence to the public of that learning, beyond the words. And to generalise the insight, if winning is all important, then mistakes and errors of the past tarnish us, and must be forgotten – which does make learning difficult. That would be why we blindly go about setting up the conditions to go round the same old treadmill yet again. “Without power we can do nothing” (untrue historically – think of the Suffragettes; anti-slavery…); “and we are just and therefore must attain power so that we good people can benefit all”…. ” now we have power”…. “the most important thing above all isn’t in fact to do the good we promised, but … to … hang on to power (because without power we are nothing)”… “therefore we must, for the sake of unity…”…. and so it goes on. Be wary of people who say “the most important thing is winning”. Douglas Adams was right.
If that’s all so, then what can we learn from this exercise? Is a better way forward to genuinely acknowledge a past; acknowledge rather than dismiss it, and then actually learn from it in order to move forward – as JF Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs, hence handling the Cuban missile crisis more wisely. Obvious, and easy to say, but it does seem by observation, that such an attitude of genuine learning and adapting is rare in practice. The “lest we remember” gambit is common though. Yet this is a powerful opportunity because people sense whether we’re genuine, or dismissing and explaining away. That is why trust vaporises. If everyone is playing the same game we ourselves don’t notice (“they’re all the same”) until… someone people can trust comes along, then there’s shock all round that the game isn’t being played properly. Perhaps having values you believe in turns out to be more important than compromising them in order to win….truly rare indeed in politics it seems, but yes, really.
I won’t pretend the above are crisp work-shop-able uses of inversion as an insight/idea tool, and whether you like that particular line of thought will depend on your own beliefs. But I think it does illustrate how the mundane use of inversions can lead to ideas and investigations of perspectives we might not otherwise come up with. In that example it’s important to say there is still work needed to develop and make constructive use of those explorations, it just illustrates an effective way of exploring further when otherwise we feel stuck, or worse, when we’re certain and don’t believe we need to look any further.