Thursday, June 25, 2015

Letting Go of Utopia (in the Name of Utopia)


-Bill Burr, comedian

I was raised a fundamentalist, gun toting, regulation-fearing Republican. In middle school I wrote an essay about why abortion should be illegal. In high school I fully agreed with the sentiment that letting gays marry could mean a slippery slope to everyone raping their dogs and children. For the first two decades of my life, I didn’t drink alcohol or caffeine, have sex, wear tank tops or swear. I thought Bill Clinton was a bad president, not because of any of his policies, but because no good person would cheat on his wife, and no bad person could possibly run a country.

I grew up with Christians. There are a lot of Christians I know and love personally in this world. They are dedicated to a higher ideal and committed to selfless service and humility. They take care of each other with both organization and passion in the name of a cause higher than themselves. They truly want others to be happy, and naturally, they center that effort around that which makes them most happy, that which is most vital and beautiful to them--a vision of a world ruled by Christ himself, with the infinite compassion, love, unity, and peace that implies. It's easy to see evangelism in the light of arrogance, pride, and unwillingness to tolerate other viewpoints, but truth is relative to your position, and from within the faith, I've experienced that it comes from an honest desire to elevate the condition of others.

As an adult, my tribe is largely made up of people whose spirituality is not anchored to a ritualized set of beliefs. They are committed in various ways to selfless service and humility in the name of a better world; a cause higher than themselves. They hold themselves to an ideal of friendship and humanity that in many ways surpasses the network of do-gooders of my youth. They champion the cause of the underdog. They truly want others to be happy, and naturally, they center that effort around that which makes them most happy, that which is most vital and beautiful to them--a vision of a world free of hatred, a world where another’s suffering is always met with compassion, where another’s joy is always celebrated, regardless of personal differences. It's easy to see guilt as the heart of liberalism, but that's only one truth. In my experience it comes from an honest desire to elevate the condition of others.

Here's the thing: both groups are full of good-hearted, loving people who want everyone in the world to be better off, no matter what beliefs they hold. It's a bit more difficult to find people in either group who believe that their ideological opposites want a better world for them. In short, we're all terrified that the people who don't share our worldview want to make it impossible for us to live the way we want to. We've been taught to see our ideological opponents as actual enemies who pose an immediate threat to everything we hold dear.

Our entire political system is designed to fan the flames of this fear. Our two-party system, for all its checks and balances, does very little to curb a violent see-saw of policies, all-or-nothing bids for one worldview to prevail over another, when they're not of necessity oppositional in the first place. Our politicians get us focused exclusively on those areas we struggle the most to reconcile, until we completely lose sight of our common desires and indeed the very point of a collective government--for example, making cities cleaner, easier to get around in, and safer; subsidizing public projects and institutions that benefit everyone like research schools and libraries; taking measures to ensure that each human in this country can stand with dignity against a person or entity who holds the upper hand in terms of power and wealth. 

When our party is on top, do we bother to acknowledge those who can’t get on board with our vision? No, there's no time for that--we may only have four years to try and enact our vision! If they're afraid of what we want to do, let them be afraid. Their ideal world is, after all, far more terrifying than anything we could come up with. We could sit down and negotiate our differences; instead, we pick one another's arguments to pieces. We could assuage one another’s fears; instead, we gleefully threaten to make them a reality. 

How is it that with the vast majority on this planet claiming to seek out heaven, our world looks so much more like hell--razed by a vicious battle of demons who can no longer see one another’s humanity, egged on by our bloated egos which float above the scene like a flock of ineffectual angels?

Here are some universal (or near-universal) desires: The desire to remain unmolested and unfettered. The desire to be allowed to shape our own lives, follow our own paths. The desire sustain ourselves and those we care about through labor we can feel proud of, without having to beg or depend on the charity of another. The desire to be healthy, to have time to invest in human relationships. To be loved.

In the overlap of the Venn diagram of our utopias is ample space for world far better than this one, a world in which we could all live joyously and at peace with our neighbors. It's theoretically quite a simple matter to meet on common ground and build this world together. Instead, we attack each other relentlessly over the handful of beliefs we can’t understand or agree with. Day after day, we battle back and forth as though we're bravely making progress towards an endgame of utopia. How exactly are these tactics going to get us there? After all, a battle victory depends on the elimination or forceful suppression of, rather than the willing cooperation of the opponent. For all our fiery rhetoric, how many of us would actually rejoice to see our theoretical enemies (read: real life friends and family) stripped of their rights and freedoms? How could a world where any substantial percentage of the population is unable to live in the manner of their own choosing be considered utopian? 

With the tide of popular opinion finally beginning to turn against the well-codified, puritanical public morality we've all long been subject to, like it or not, there is new space for a more democratic and open forum. The imperative to engage in intense ideological battles on a personal level is lessening. It's time to reflect on our tactics and our goals.

I really enjoy the way Bill Burr, a Colbert-like comedian whose affiliations are not immediately apparent, subtly dismantles the rhetoric of enmity. Pointing out that the previous generation, the "racist grandpas" and such, grew up in a very different world, where very different behaviors were taken for granted, he points out that we don't give these people any credit for the progress they have made, for the distance they've come from where they started. He gently mocks the urge to demonize one another, creating a space for people to be who they are, and grow at their own rate, a space we rarely give each other or ourselves in our world of "you should have been already." He embodies both ignorance and the desire to attack ignorance, the holders of certain viewpoints and the need to lay waste to those viewpoints, ultimately validating and exonerating us all, whatever stage of learning, growth, awareness, understanding, ignorance, enlightenment, selfishness, or generosity we happen to be at. “You exist, there are reasons why are the way you are, you are human, you are trying,” he says.

This, to me, seems the only clear path to any sort of heaven on Earth. Moving away from the mean-spirited, fear-driven polarization of people with different views on life, morality, and community. Moving towards discussions designed to connect and build rather than divide and destroy. Finding reasons to forgive and make space for others instead of maligning and banishing them. Discovering which visions we share as one and making them come true.


  1. I like this, not least because it made me think, and I find a springboard to hours of conversation and debate in every paragraph. "For those who see arrogance as the heart of evangelism, that’s simply not the case. It comes from an honest desire to elevate the condition of others." Oh, we're going to have some fun with this one. :)

    But for now, and for openers: after reading this and having a day to think about it - surely distorting it in the process - one of several things that's still resonating is your unique framing of the destructive nature of (what I call) mindsets. I think of them like rigid walls of certainty formed around our most compelling ideas, beliefs and causes by fear, narcissism, and the need to belong. They're polarizing and divisive by nature.

    I think the fear that drives people trapped in mindsets to militancy, hatred and even violence is not so much of what will happen if "the other" wins the day - it's an unconscious fear that the construct or story into which we’ve entwined our identities is untrue, distorted or incomplete, and will collapse under scrutiny; and that we'll unravel with it.

    Coyote always looks down, realizes there's no ground beneath his feet and flashes us a look of terror and despair before he falls. Sort of funny in the cartoon world, but in our world it seems people will do just about anything to keep that moment of terror and despair at bay, to the extent of beheading other human beings on camera.

    Maybe you can blast away at intractable mindsets without any desire to hurt or malign the people falsely separated by them because you've lived as a believer in two camps. You not only know and love people still walled off on both sides, but you see and acknowledge the love and the desire for a healed world in their hearts. It's a valuable perspective, and through it - and because it matters enough for you to evangelize it - maybe you're the change you want to see in the world.

    Reading your posts, I imagine you as the living heart of the Venn diagram you describe - one of the authentic mediators whose voices thaw frozen minds and challenge us "to do better". So please say more. I’m heartened to know people like you are stepping up to show us the way - or shove us - out of the Kali Yuga.

    1. Thank you for your extremely insightful response. I love your metaphor and the perspective it adds--the ego as Wile E. Coyote, ever pursuing and attempting to consume the unflappable Buddha nature (Road Runner). And I agree that the source of our deepest fear is not annihilation by the Other but the insubstantiality of the ground beneath our feet.

      I desire to be a bridge. I know I still have many of my own constructs to overcome before that can become a reality.

  2. "I know I still have many of my own constructs to overcome..." Ha! So does the Dalai Lama. You are a bridge right now.