First Things First

    "The older I get the more wisdom I find in the ancient rule of taking first things first--A process which often reduces the most complex human problem to a manageable proportion." - Dwight D. Eisenhower


With a myriad of changes and conflicting forces constantly swirling about us, how can we possibly sort it all out? How do we decide what to do next? If every atom is made of dualing opposites, and every cell in our body is struggling to survive, and every person on the earth has needs that, in some ways, conflict with other people's needs--isn't it a hopeless task to weave our way through the maze of contradictions?

Not really.

The Principal Contradiction--or, Chairman Mao Meets the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People

Dialectics uses a concept called the "principal contradiction," a phrase coined by Mao Zedong. This concept helps clear away non-pressing issues from the ones that need to be addressed. One way of expressing this is the phrase "first things first." (Habit Number 3 in Stephen Covey's book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) Identifying the key task, setting our top priority--allows us to focus on the most essential element of the process, rather than trying to do several things at once, or getting distracted by unimportant matters.

If the term "contradiction" sounds, well, contradictory, and doesn't makes sense to you, please click here for further explanation of the term.

For the most part, putting first things first is a natural process. For example, the phone may be ringing, someone may be at the door, and you may need to go to the bathroom, but if your hand is on a hot stove, the principal contradiction is getting your hand off the stove. Fortunately, our bodies direct us away from pain pretty automatically, so you don't need to think about dialectics in order to move your hand.

Another example that does take a bit more thought comes from the construction industry. Here the planning process identifies a "critical path" of tasks that must be completed before further work can progress. Thus, in building a house the foundation must go in before the walls, the walls before the roof, the roof before the wiring, etc. Each of these hurdles on the critical path must be cleared before the project can proceed; each of these is, in turn, the principal contradiction in the process as a whole.

The idea of a principal contradiction is primarily a human concept because it requires a goal oriented process. Most of nature--e.g. the sun, an ocean, a rock--does not appear to have any goal; it just is. Life, of course, has the goal of survival, or more importantly, survival of future generations. But most life acts on instinct or chemical imperatives, not conscious choice.

It is true that raccoons can figure out very clever ways to get into a garbage can, and dogs and cats do learn how to get what they want from their owners. However, it is humans who must constantly make complex choices. While genetics is undoubtedly important in human behavior, humans must make decisions that require judgement and planning. Should we build a highway or a light rail line? Should we put up a stop sign or a traffic signal or a traffic circle? Should we build a house, an apartment building, an office, a retail store, or leave the lot vacant? Should we buy whole wheat bread or the white bread on sale? Should we buy bottled water or drink from the tap?
Our primate DNA and our instincts are not much help in making such decisions, which involve many contradictions. Identifying the contradictions, and deciding which is the principal contradiction is essential for us humans.

Identifying the Principal Contradiction

The principal contradiction depends on what the goal of the overall process is. When you identify an explicit goal, you can identify the steps needed to achieve it and you can place first things first. In the construction example, the goal is to get the house built. Here are some more examples of how goals determine priorities:

  • If your goal is to live a physically active life, you will need to eat properly, exercise, and get enough sleep. On the other hand, if you really just want to kick back and watch TV, these healthy habits are not as essential. Could it be that the epidemic of obesity in the United States has to do with people finding their main joy in life comes from being a couch potato?
  • If you want good grades as a student, you need to do your homework, study, and prepare for examinations. On the other hand if your goal is to slide by with "gentleman C's," you may do the minimum of work, do term papers at the last minute, and put off studying until the night before exams.
  • If you are on a sports team, and you want to win, you have to practice, learn teamwork, study your opponent, and work out. On the other hand, if you would like to win, but don't care too much, you can go through the motions of practice and hope for the best.
  • As a government, if you want to stop global warming, you can pass laws funding conversions to solar, wind, and fuel cells; you can support higher taxes on carbon, and you can support targets to limit CO2 emissions. On the other hand, if you would rather promote oil company profits, you can deny that global warming exists and resist international protocols (rumor has it that U.S. President Bush opposed the Kyoto Accord since he favored the Toyota Camry :-)

Sometimes we can't decide what to do next, i.e. we can't decide what is the principal contradiction. This happens when we have conflicting goals. For example, we may want to do the dishes, but we may also want to relax and watch the ball game. What we do depends on what our main goal is. Watching what people do is a good clue to what they see as the principal contradiction. This is true even if the goal is subconscious, as advertisers are well aware.

Sometimes we misjudge what the principal contradiction is, even if we know what we want. For example, if a car has a problem with its carburetor, it will not do any good to fix the ignition system. In such a case we may replace one part, then another, and still not get the car to run. Fixing a car requires identifying the problem--the principal contradiction. Otherwise it is just guesswork, and not likely to be successful.

What Happens if You Don't Address the Principal Contradiction?

The principal contradiction in a process must be resolved or the process will not move forward. There may be several problems blocking the process, but resolving the principal contradiction allows the other problems to be addressed. For example, you have to clear the table before you can do the dishes.

Of course, there's nothing that says you have to move a process along. Maybe you never will get around to reading that book on the coffee table, or writing that letter to your sister, or inviting your friends over for dinner. If this is a conscious decision, it may be OK. Sometimes, however, people maintain a state of denial about a problem because they really don't want to face up to it. In these cases a serious contradiction can be allowed to fester--like not going to the dentist--so the problem only gets worse. And your sister is likely to get mad if you don't get in touch with her before too long.

If there is a principal contradiction that cannot be resolved in a process, this is referred to as a "fatal flaw." If a project has a fatal flaw, it should not be attempted. For example, nuclear power does not have a safe means of disposing of its radioactive wastes; this is a fatal flaw that makes nuclear power highly impractical.

What About the Non-principal Contradictions?

We don't spend all of our time confronting one principal contradiction. We have to keep our "eyes on the prize"--i.e. the principal contradiction--while paying attention to many details to achieve that. In building a house, for example, the contractor has to order the roofing materials, electrical wiring, and plumbing even though building the foundation may be underway. Similarly, washing your hands or brushing your teeth may not be critical at any one time, but failure to do so would jeopardize your health in the long run. So the idea of a principal contradiction does not rule out addressing lesser problems. If they aren't addressed, they can become much bigger, and stop progress altogether.

At what point do secondary contradictions--cleaning up your desk, vacuuming the living room, fixing the light switch in the hallway, etc.--become important enough to resolve? This depends on your style of work, tolerance of clutter, and many personal factors. Eventually, we all get to the point where such problems do become significant enough to address (for me, not before I finish working on this essay, however!)

Some contradictions are not necessary to address. Often junk mail has misleading wording such as "RUSH" or "Open Immediately" printed conspicuously on the envelope, enticing you to open it. Perhaps they should just say "Principal Contradiction!"

Is There Just One Principal Contradiction?

With all due respect to Chairman Mao, I think there are limits to the concept of principal contradiction. For example, in my weekly trip to the grocery store, it does make sense to buy the bread before the vegetables since the bread aisle comes right by the entrance to the store. In that sense buying the bread before the vegetables is placing first things first, or identifying the principal contradiction. But what about when Iím buying peanut butter vs. jelly? They are all together. Does it really matter which one I buy first?

Similarly, when Iím folding laundry, it does make sense to fold the shirts and pants first since I donít want them to get wrinkled. However, does it matter whether I fold the socks, towels, underwear in any particular order? I donít think so.

For a third example consider a stack of bills--some may be higher priority, but is it worth sorting them out rather than just taking the top one off the stack?

[An aside--As in all of this web site, Iím sure I could be accused of trivializing philosophy in general and dialectics in particular by bringing in all these mundane examples. Mao, in his essay, "On Contradiction," wrote about the Japanese invasion of China as a more important contradiction than the struggle between the Chinese Communists and the Nationalists. Because he saw the need to defeat Japan as the primary contradiction, he urged the formation of a united front with the Nationalists (Chiang Kai-Shek). So the concept of principal contradiction was introduced at a very high level of political importance. Still, I think any useful philosophy should apply to all questions, great and small. As a tool, if dialectics doesnít apply to grocery shopping, how can we expect it to apply to political strategy?]

My point here with regard to the principal contradiction is similar to my discussion of negation of negation--i.e. it is a very useful description of many processes of change, but it is not a law. I canít think of anything that isnít composed of opposites, but I can think of situations where there may not be a single principal contradiction.

As a practical matter I find it useful to follow the popular time management technique of writing down four or five key tasks and trying to stay focussed on these during the day, even as distractions naturally arise. This doesnít take away from the importance of identifying the key contradiction at any one moment and trying to resolve it. Itís just that occasionally there may be a few contradictions overlapping, like the socks and towels, and they can be dealt with as equal priorities.

The Principal Contradiction in Our Lives

As noted in the hot stove example, in many cases our bodies automatically respond to the contradictions we face. This is because we are a well-evolved part of nature. As such, most of our bodily functions are managed without any conscious effort. We don't have to remember to breathe; our food digests automatically; our heart keeps a steady beat. When our body needs food or water, it lets us know. If something is coming toward our eye, we automatically blink (or if it's a big object, we duck). Our instinct to survive guides us around lots of pitfalls--we don't step out into the street in front of moving traffic; if there is a tornado or hurricane coming, we take cover; when it's cold, we look for warmth and shelter.

If most of our basic needs are driven by our animal natures, what choices do we have, and how do we make them? Below are listed four fundamental contradictions facing us as human beings in our personal lives, more or less in order of priority. Both as individuals and as a society we have many choices in resolving these contradictions.

    1. Health - Our health depends on food, water, rest, exercise, sexual release, and freedom from disease or physical danger. Of course, some people risk their lives in the military or in dangerous occupations, but only rarely do people consciously sacrifice their life for a cause bigger than themselves.

    2. A Job - To buy the food and shelter we need to survive, we must have a source of income. After health, this is the principal contradiction in our lives. The human race is a long way from providing jobs or adequate income for everyone, so this is a serious contradiction facing many individuals. Unfortunately, some jobs, such as coal mining, are injurious to health so workers face a dreadful choice between starving or destroying their health bit by bit. For young people, or unemployed people, education and job training are a vital means to get into the labor force; so, in that sense going to school is their job.

    3. Housing - Even having a job doesn't ensure a decent place to live. Where I live in the San Francisco Bay area, getting a house or apartment is a huge problem. Many people have to crowd into housing since their incomes are not enough to pay rental rates. And some people are homeless, even though they have a job. On the other hand, where my wife was born in the Philippines, people can make nipa huts that provide adequate shelter in a few days, so maybe housing isn't such a problem everywhere.

    4. Social ties/art and beauty - Even if you are healthy, have a job, and find a place to live, you can still be miserable. Most of us look for a sexual partner and family life to make our lives fulfilling. But people also need to stay connected with other people through their work and through social activities such as sports/music/dance/arts, volunteer work, and participating in community groups to live full lives. Of course, marriage itself is no guarantee of happiness as the high divorce rate attests. Many single people are happier than married couples through their social and artistic endeavors.

Most of our lives are bound up with resolving these contradictions--staying healthy, holding down a job, finding a place to live, and seeking fulfillment through intimate relations and self expression. This list of contradictions is similar to the psychologist, Abraham Maslow's, "Hierarchy of Needs." Maslow listed five needs in his hierarchy, each of which has to be resolved before the next one can be addressed:

    1. Physiological Needs -- This is nearly the same as health as described above.
    2. Safety Needs -- Maslow thought of this more in psychological terms than physical, but I think he would agree that a job and a place to live contribute to feeling safe as well as physical needs for food and shelter.
    3. Love Needs -- Maslow lists clubs, work groups, religious groups, family, gangs, etc. as helping to meet our need to feel loved and accepted by others.
    4. Esteem Needs -- Maslow refers to self-esteem that comes from competence or mastery of a task, and esteem that comes from impressing others. The latter type of esteem seems to me more like insecurity due to lack of feeling loved, i.e. failure to move past level 3 in the hierarchy of needs.
    5. Self-Actualization -- "the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming."

I don't see any need to debate about whether Maslow's list is better than list I came up with. Roughly, I would say that Maslow's first two needs correspond to my first three contradictions and his last three needs correspond to my fourth contradiction. In any case the general idea is that basic material needs have to be addressed before people can move on to developing close human relationships and working for positive social change. It's difficult for a person who is starving to help other people.

Hopefully, this short essay has explained the concept of principal contradiction in dialectics. As in most of this web site, the examples have been chosen to show that dialectics applies to all of reality, not just politics, as some people may assume. I welcome comments and counter-examples. Maybe you think this whole concept of principal contradiction is flawed. If so, let me know at dialectics4kids@igc.org.

Besides our daily lives, dialectics definitely does apply to politics as well. For a political essay on the use of dialectics to analyze the principal contradiction in society, please read "What is the principal contradiction?".

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