Saturday, January 28, 2012

How to Stop Butting Fishbowls

My parents and I have a difficult time talking about important issues, because we're operating from completely different paradigms. Their paradigm says "The only thing we can rely on in this world is God's word; the rest is madness. If we trust the holy spirit of God, it will lead us to the truth." My paradigm says, "The only thing we can rely on in this world is our reason, our senses, and our experience, which will typically point us to the truth." We are negotiating the world around us using different foundational principles, principles which are essentially and irreconcilably at odds with one another.

I know that I sometimes feel as though this essential irreconcilability is a cause for despair. I sometimes think that we must always be at war until one side or the other gets their way entirely. Even though I love and respect my parents, trust their basic goodness and think they're quite intelligent, and though I'm confident they reciprocate this, sometimes I despair that we will ever find common ground. And if we can't find common ground, we're doomed to repeat the revolution cycle: the different groups try to overpower one another until one group triumphs and uses their new power, like it or not, to actively oppress the other camp(s), until the oppression reaches such an unbearable level that the other camp rebels and takes over and oppresses their former oppressors, and so forth, until they find balance again, which only lasts until someone figures out how to upset the balance and gain disproportionate power again. It's very possible that humans will be constantly trapped in that cycle--we will never learn from history, we will never become better at mediating the tendency of power to concentrate over time into the hands of a few, or its tendency to corrupt, we will never learn to truly respect those we don't understand, we will never learn to truly listen to those we don't agree with. And when I factor in the large number of people who do not know, let alone love, respect, or trust the basic goodness or intelligence of a single member of an opposing worldview, the case really seems hopeless.

But it's not. At least, I don't think it is. We're constantly coming up with new civilizing mechanisms to help us govern ourselves fairly, equally, and with as much freedom as possible. There's a mechanism already in our collective consciousness, but maybe not foregrounded enough, which might help us find that elusive common ground, keep us in balance and peace, and save us from oppression and war. And it's all to do with humility and dialogue.

Conviction is synonymous, essentially, with enthusiasm. If I'm very, very convinced of something, it means I don't know it. Conviction is not enough of a support on which to base an argument, and I certainly shouldn't base my actions solely on conviction. My personal belief that I'm unquestionably, definitely right means nothing to you--and when I act as though it should mean something all on its own, it becomes problematic.

We all have convictions that guide us--convictions themselves aren't the problem. The problem is when we assume they exempt us from negotiating or compromising with others. This assumption is dangerous to our personal integrity, dangerous to the social fabric, dangerous to the people who agree with us and oppose us alike. This attitude is the main source of violence--violence only occurs when one or more parties are unwilling to negotiate. Intentions matter very little in this world. What matters is the way we treat others. In terms of world peace, in terms of harmony, intentions make absolutely zero difference. What I'm trying to say here is the ends never justify the means. They NEVER do.

You know Jon Stewart's "Stupid or Evil?" segment on the Daily Show? Whenever we're adopting the position that we don't have to answer to others, we're being either stupid or evil, belligerent or tyrannical. Pride is indeed the root of all evil, pride which leads us to believe the integrity of our agenda justifies pushing forward with blind belligerence, or intentionally deceiving or coercing others, tyrannizing others, to achieve it. No party, belief system, or individual is safe from this. We're ALL capable of falling into these thought patterns. Here are some examples of each:


Sometimes we recognize that those who oppose us feel just as strongly as we do, we recognize they are equally invested in the issue and have valid points, and we realize that our means will potentially harm and/or oppress them (or a third party). But we don't care. We think that the ends justify the means because:

1. We are filled with conviction that our cause is worthwhile
2. We have so effectively dehumanized our opposition that we don't care if they feel pain, or maybe even want to make them feel pain

This, people, is evil. Knowingly oppressing others or causing them pain in order to achieve, or in the process of achieving our ends, is tyrannical.


Sometimes we are so convinced that we are right, we refuse to account for evidence that our actions will harm and/or oppress others. We refuse to believe or accept that there are other ways of looking at the situation, and we won't negotiate or compromise. This is blind belligerence. We are essentially removing ourselves one step from evil by saying "The ends justify (it if I spend all of my energy defending rather than examining) the means." We do this because:

1. We have lapsed into solipsism, and don't truly understand that those who disagree with us have strong opinions and feel pain too (we all slip into this sometimes, especially when we avoid talking to people who believe differently than us for long periods of time, and only associate with those who share our beliefs--easy to do, since it's more pleasant, or at least less exhausting, to be around people who mostly agree with us rather than challenge everything we say)
2. We think the strength of our conviction and/or the purity of our intentions exonerates us if we're wrong (it doesn't--hence the axiom "the road to hell is paved with good intentions")

There's one more that's somewhere between the two categories. Not quite belligerent, not quite openly tyrannical:

We think that because of our superior knowledge, we have a kind of noblesse oblige to cause others pain in order to guide them away from greater pain, much as parents often guide their children by restricting and physically punishing them. When this attitude is directed at fellow adults, whose experiences, environments, and personalities have led them to other worldviews, it's little more than arrogance dressed as kindness. It's patronizing and, yes, tyrannical.

Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed elaborates on some of these ideas much better than I could. He describes how dialogue, compromise, and re-humanization can help us avoid the revolution cycle (oppressed rise up against oppressor/oppressed conquer oppressor/oppressed become new oppressors). Freire argues that the answer to harmony between humans is not a one-size-fits-all ideology (although this would be great, and you might even think you have it already. I know I do!), because that still leaves you with the formidable problem of getting everyone to agree with and/or submit to it...which brings us back to our game show, "Tyranny or Blind Belligerence"?

The answer to world peace is balance, negotiation, humility, and communication. I don't care if you're Tea Party, Occupy, Democrat, Republican, Christian, atheist, Muslim, rich, poor, we're all in this. We're all guilty of it. We need to stop aiming for total dominance and truly aim for solutions influenced by all of our needs.

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