Sunday, August 1

On Balance

One of the major social curiosities amongst Muslim social circles is the issue of balance. More specifically most people we meet out there on the scene will claim to be balanced, and yet at the same time everyone is so different and leads their lives in so many different ways that at first glance you would think it impossible that everyone can be true to this claim. As such the term "balance" tends to mean nothing at all, its value ever decreasing as everyone rushes to label themselves as such - you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who claims not to be balanced.

The same goes for similar phrases like "moderate", "progressive" and "east-west mixture", where the respective sides of the scale can be religion, culture, family orientation, etc. The following discussion doesn't really consider whats being balanced but I think it can be applied in a generic way anyway.

So what exactly is balance? Are people fooling themselves or even lying about how balanced they are? Are there any examples of true balance that the rest of us should model? Is it possible for so many different people to lay claim to having balance?

I think there are various aspects in which this attribute gets into trouble. The first two are largely subjective and so in my view pretty uninteresting, but I'll cover them anyway.

Firstly since balance is largely a self-assessed attribute, it can be skewed with habit, bias and post-justification. Essentially everyone thinks they're right and good and so are doing things in a right and good way. No one wants to be unbalanced, so therefore they must be balanced. This isn't a selfish or bad thing, but simply just human nature if we assume that everyone wants to be the best that they can be.

The second subjective take is that balance is also a relative term, one which can't really be defined absolutely. No two people will ever be equally (or even correctly) balanced, and so both might feel they have a right to use the label. Apply this across society and topics and you'll end up with everyone saying they're balanced to a degree.

Since it's difficult to comment much on subjectiveness - after all, almost by definition these things simply are what they are - the final take is slightly more objective and analysable. The thing is that due to its nature, balance is actually a composite or aggregate term. And as is the case with most aggregates, the detail is lost with the summary result.

This might be clearer with a practical example. If you take a balance scale then it's perfectly possible to balance it with a few grams on each plate. However the fact that the scale is balanced says nothing about the respective weights on each side; and in fact it's also possible to balance the scale with an infinite amount of different, but equal weights. In this sense the scale isn't even measuring weights, but simply compare and contrasting them.

A balance scale is one dimensional, that is that it is only absolutely aware of one thing: weight. We can (kind of) make this multi-dimensional by imagining a plate on a fulcrum or bump, and laying on it different measures at different radial positions and distances from the bump; now we're not just contrasting two things. Not only that, but each measure has an effect on everything else. The bottom line is that there's an uncountably infinite way in which to balance this plate.

Which brings us to people. Trivially, people can also be balanced in an infinite number of ways; they can be narrowly balanced by doing nothing, or more widely balanced by doing everything. There could be a single part of a person's personality which mitigates everything else, or one could just be a total all rounder with a bit of everything. The point is that all these people can fairly and objectively be considered balanced, but since that single label loses so much of the detail that matters, they could all be vastly different kinds of people.

Bear in mind that this discussion isn't about what's right or wrong or even that balance is something to be desired and aimed for; someone who prays five times a day but thinks nothing of dating doesn't have their right to label themselves balanced taken away just because a consensus think the latter is prohibited. However it is perfectly reasonable for two people each of whom consider themselves to be balanced to not sit well with or accept the constituent parts which make up those respective balances in each other.

And just to add the marriage spin (you all knew it was coming) this is why I think we so often hear so many self-proclaimed balanced single people complain about the lack of balance in the people they meet. It's not that they're not meeting balanced people at all, but more that there would be a part of that person (which contributes to their overall balance) which, when taken in isolation, becomes a bit of a undesirable or deal-breaker. Whether or not this is reasonable is beyond the scope of this post; it's up to the individual what can and cannot be weighed away. However I guess the real point here is that for every balanced person with extremely desirable qualities, he or she will also inherently have extremely undesirable qualities which should be expected.

In conclusion, it seems that "balance" alone is a useless and redundant term, unless it is qualified with enough detail to say what makes up that balance in the first place. Other measures like range and breadth may help, but eventually some kind of explicitness will always be needed in order to portray someone in the most accurate and more importantly useful way.