Double Bind: Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t

In the late 17th Century, precisely from February 1692 to May 1693, there was a set of hearings and prosecutions in colonial Massachusetts in the United States for a set of people accused of witchcraft. These later came to be known as the Salem witch trials. People in the city of Salem believed that a lot of their misfortune was attributed to a few who practiced witchcraft. But then how do you be sure who practiced witchcraft?

Back then, there used to be a cruel method. A set of accused were thrown into a turbulent pond. After a few days, those who were innocent would drown in the pond and die, and those who floated were accused of witchcraft and executed. So an accused could never decide whether to stay afloat or drown.

Though this was a serious matter of life and death, this double bind kind of situation, is not uncommon in life. On a lighter note, most married men would experience this when the wife asks “How do I look in this dress?” Husbands are damned if you say good  and damned if you say bad.

These are basically situations where one can’t win, irrespective of what one does. While we tend to think ‘take the best decision that leads to a win’, these are ‘no-win’ situations where a win is not possible. Only an optimal decision is possible. If one is lucky, perhaps a ‘win-win’ may be possible, but the higher probability is that of ending with a ‘lesser loss’.

The government finds itself in such situations quite often lately. An era of indecision is followed by a spate of decisions in a short period – be it economic, political or anything else.

A recent example where it finds itself in a double bind is that of ordering the execution of the two terrorists (one from the 26/11 attacks, and other accused of masterminding the Parliament attack). Criticism seems to be a given irrespective of what one did in the situation. And some of the reasons for the criticism seem the same.

Consider this. Till the mercy petition was pending, the government was being criticized with statements like these:

  • We must not delay justice, we have lost security personnel and anyone who plays with the country’s sovereignty should get the right message OR
  • The Supreme Court has decided long back, why is the President taking so much time? OR
  • The government is not taking a decision due to vote bank politics

And now that the execution has been done, there are voices that are criticizing the decisions with statements like these:

  • Justice is already delayed, why did they do it now? At least they did it but it is so late, OR
  • The hearing of the case was not fair, the death penalty should be abolished. Why did the President decide and the orders executed in a hurry?, OR even better
  • The government has taken a decision due to vote bank politics

Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t. करे तो क्या करे?

Well it is a different matter as to which of the decisions is right.

Perhaps there is no such thing as a fully right decision, specially in double binds. Perhaps, rightness is never the criteria to take decisions in such ‘no-win’ situations, specially for those in positions of governance. In most situations, there is nothing like the best decision. All one can hope for is to be close to optimal.

But even with a double bind, one still needs to move ahead. Because either way, you can safely assume that you will be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

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