centers of gravity

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I have been thinking recently about the difference between Canada and the U.S., and especially their relative dynamism.

It’s as if the imagined Canadian center of gravity is lower. They like a low center of gravity because they believe it protects them from dynamism. It makes them, they suppose, less tippy. The wind may blow, the earth may quake, but this little house will stand. Having a low center of gravity puts them on good terms with stasis. Movement is expensive (in energy/effort) to achieve, and once you get going, the momentum effect can be formidable. You never know where you’re going to end up.

If, on the other hand, you have a high center of gravity, as I am beginning to think many Americans do, movement is the place of safety. This is because, to roll out the metaphor, the mechanics of motion allow the individual to correct against small perturbations that might become larger stability-threatening perturbations. Motion allows Americans to work perturbations out in transit. Canadians huddle, the better to make themselves, as an Elizabethan might say, “unconcussable.” With a low center of gravity, they are confident that small perturbations will not start or that they’ll “bounce off.” Americans accept perturbations as inevitable, and they keep the center of gravity high, the better to “work them out.”

The American model bears a resemblance to most sports and especially football. When you are playing football, you never want to be flatfooted. It is actually better, in most cases, to be going in the wrong direction than no direction at all. You are mobilized, and as the game begins to change around you, it is “cheaper” (from an energy/effort point of view) to change direction than to “get going.” This is, of course, a game that systematically manufactures perturbations, large and small, but even here it is better to be in motion than not. This is why Coach is always yelling at you to “stay on your toes.”

When you have a low center of gravity you may let the world swirl around you. You don’t need to take constant readings with the sexton or your GPS PDA because, well, the whole point is to ‘turtle.” It’s for the world to move, not you. Those with a high center of gravity are take readings constantly. They are inherent tippy, and only thus can they hope to remain upright. Stability is not build in. It must be read off the world often and carefully.

In sum, our metaphoric center of gravity will determine whether we move, whether we survey the world, and what we regard as our place of safety. Dynamism comes, in this metaphor, from a basic motor-mechanical decision about the world. Where we imagine our center of gravity will decide a host of other questions: Do we accept dynamism, or, do we fight dynamism. Are we, in response to dynamism, dynamic too or dynamic not. Are we in a “sense and respond” mode? Or do we turtle? History and culture gives us our center of gravity and this helps then decides a good deal else about us.

Where am I going with this, you might ask yourself. Very good question. The American in me says that it is better to be writing anything than nothing at all. Canadians are more inclined to just shut up. It’s a dynamism thing.

But I was also wondering whether there was a way to think about the relative dynamism of individuals, corporations, countries and corporations without resorting to self congratulation. Some of the readers of this blog will agree that dynamism is better than stasis because it is, most of the time, more productive of human liberty, economic accomplishment, intrinsic satisfaction, mutual tolerance, creativity of several kinds and the most interesting kinds of potentiality. This seems to us so self evident that we are inclined to celebrate dynamic people and institutions, and to scorn their static counterparts. I have done this at least three times on this blog (excoriating cultural institutions, Canadians and corporate naysayers).

But the problem is clear. As long as we proceed in this way, we are inclined to marginalize, perhaps, even stigmatize the static camp. We treat them, to use the language of the recent Presidential camp, as people “who just don’t get it.”

The result is also clear. Treated in this way, the static camp is sure to react as everyone does in these circumstances: with resistance, defensiveness, and by actually becoming more static. I am wondering if it’s not better to say they have a low center of gravity…and perhaps begin a fund for corrective surgery and counselling.

5 thoughts on “centers of gravity

  1. Tom Guarriello

    “Jungspeak mode: on”

    Americans are an extravert culture. This doesn’t mean we’re loudmouths (although loudmouths we may be!), but that we look externally, to others, for our energizing stimulation. We “look up” (or, more accurately, out) to those who “stand out.”

    I’ve always felt Canadians embodied an introvert culture, where individuals looked inside, to their own ideas for guidance. This is where that “reticence,” “modesty,” low center of gravity, characteristic comes from. “Standing out” is culturally out of phase.

    This makes us a more “dynamic” culture, feeding off one another because we look to one another and morph/mod/mash-up one another. And, of course, we’re in an extravert/dynamic age. There have been times that were more oriented towards introversion (early 19th century, for example), but this isn’t one of them.

    So, for Canadians, it’s a phase/adaptation mismatch problem, which is difficult for a temperament (read: inborn)-based function (introversion-extraversion). Short explanation: it’s hard to “choose” to be an extravert.

    Wild generalizations, of course…but hey, it’s a blog, right?

    Roberton Davies, the magnificent Canadian author (and accomplished Jungian) wrote of these things, and many, many more, in his wonderful novels.

    “Jungspeak mode: off”

  2. patrick

    Center of gravity might also depend on your expectation of shocks and your ability to move with them. If I am fast on my feet, relative to the strength of the shocks I expect, it makes sense to go for the high center. But if I know that I can’t move fast enough to account for the shocks, the low-center is probably the way to go. Take a turtle, for instance: you could raise his center for gravity by sticking a plunger on the back of his shell, but that doesn’t mean he could suddenly adopt the move-with-the-punches strategy… his poor legs just couldn’t handle it.

  3. fouroboros

    I’ll take your C/G metapahor and raise you: Box or Frame? A box offers shelter and anonymity, but the wind can blow over your box. What was once an opening at the top or sides is now your floor — you’re trapped. If that opening is at the top, a certain access or “ability” is required to jump in or make your way around to the opening (Only tall people may climb in; only people who live on the west side, where the opening may be pointed can get in.) And you’re in or you’re out, no two ways. A box is a box–it is complete. Any efforts to flex or torque its dimensions render it weaker, buckled, crumpled–a once proud box rent asunder.

    Now, a framework: More flexy, more aerodynamiclly pure, it can withstand the wind but offers less simple protection. Or rather, it offers a different kid of protection with a higher threshhold of sturdiness demanded of its occupants. Why? Because a framework is what you latch onto during those high winds. Its stability is there to use, and far beyond that which a box would offer. Knock it over, roll it to and fro, hither and yon, and it is still a frame–you can pass through, or latch on. But it requires a certain understanding of its advantages and demands, otherwise your frame begins to appear dowdy–or dangerous.

    Dowdy, because you want to dress the place up, make it feel more like home, more permanent. So you put up walls to hang pictures on. Maybe a porch would be nice too, so you point your frame toward a view you like and build the porch facing that way. Nice view. Such a nice view. We wouldn’t want to lose it or not be able to enjoy it on windy days. So you build a roof. And a foundation. Dangerous.

    Grant, I like your analogy, but I’m not sure it isn’t about 10-15 years out of date. America *was* founded on unprecendented mobility and free will and that fact’s appeal guaranteed it’s gene pool. Currently though, there are some recessive genes splapping up siding, insisting on porches and doing everything possible to deny that Punctuated Equilibrium is attempting a strong peak. They’ve had enough of the kind of “windy” our Framers thought so much of. They’re tired. They think the future doesn’t want them. They may be right. Call it Frame-fatigue.

  4. Jason Ligon

    I like the center of gravity concept as well as the box / frame image raised by fouroboros.

    We are talking about risk tolerance. One of the fortunate side affects of high tolerance for risk is that big returns are possible. The low center of gravity crowd tends not to appreciate the extent to which they are free riders in that sense. Most of that which they employ to enhance their stability was created by the other camp.

    Fouroboros comments that America is becoming more enamored of the box and less of the frame. My hypothesis would be that, just as with invested assets, older people shift from risk taking and accumulating strategies to preserving strategies. America is getting older, so this may be a case of demographics and destiny.

  5. fouroboros

    Jason, I’d bet you’re right on the demographics to a degree. But also, I’d place cause with a certain ‘softness” that’s crept into the mind and mythos of parts of American society (business, politics, faith) that goes beyond generation. After an unprecedented 50 years of economic growth, many folks want a breather, a recalibration. (9-11 may have been the TV Time-out.) In a way, many Americans have been sold the softer side of Sears when it comes to their manifest destiny, with the rough and tumble hard bits left out. In this way they think their Amercan “character” is manifest or God-given rather than earned and so they equate it’s edges and unpredictability as nuisance or shame rather than essential character development.

    I’m reminded of a relay race, except they want to contemplate the baton before handing it over–maybe repaint, pretty it up, sand the rough edges off, and, most tellingly, make sure the next runner’s shirt is tucked in and he speaks just as they–which goes counter to the concept of the race and to America.

    As I suggested, they are fighting, tooth and nail, the next evoutionary stage, clinging to legacy at all costs and forgetting that by dint of genetic destiny they are builders, not admirers or curators. Forgetting that legacy is backwards *and* forwards.

    The frame is mighty versatile. And mobile. We inherited it, not a Cape Cod Saltbox , from our grandaprents and theirs. That realization is hard on a psyche sometimes.

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