Saturday, March 19, 2016

A More Perfect Union

This Mess We're In

You hear about opinions people in your party are supposed to have. Occasionally you come across someone who actually believes it. Some liberals think that you shouldn't have babies unless you can afford to take care of them--most liberals see that as cynical classism. Some conservatives think it's a good idea to make poor kids do janitor duty in their own elementary schools. Most conservatives recognize that if the senator really thought it would be so good for children to scrub toilets at their own school, he should start with his own children's schools.

Most of us are more compassionate, thoughtful, and willing to hear one another out than the people who represent us in the media and in office. Or at least, we started out that way. We used to take it for granted that our neighbors to our right and left care about this country as much as we do and desire largely similar outcomes for it even if we have differing views about how to get there. Don't we all want jobs that allow us to take care of ourselves and our families and preserve some level of dignity? Don't we all want a thriving middle class and a government that stays out of people's business unless explicitly invited?

In a functional society, we would spend the majority of our time coexisting peacefully in the vast territory of our common ground, and only venture into the tiny fraction of disputed territories when we're ready to engage with one another respectfully and thoughtfully, listen to and address one another's concerns, and refuse to consider solutions that leave even one person out in the cold. This is the only way good compromises can be reached.

But we never see this kind of discussion on tv. We only see entertainment-oriented ideological death matches. We've learned from this that compromise is impossible; that the only reason to enter disputed territory is to watch the other guy get pummeled, to crow when our guy gains a victory, to reassure ourselves that we are better, smarter, more right, more righteous. And so we have resigned ourselves, as a country, to the goals of our politicians: not to make life better for everyone, altogether; but to beat the other guy. To win.

Meanwhile, what's happening to our common ground? It's being systematically pillaged. All of the things we care about are being destroyed. We are all, together, getting worse, and worse, and worse off than we were before.

Bernie vs. Hilary. Trump vs. Cruz. Half of the country vs. the other half. If your guy wins, I'll move. If your gal wins, our country is going down the drain. If your guy wins, it proves the majority of the U.S. is depraved. If your guy wins, it proves most people are stupid. You really believe that? You're a sheep! No, you're a sheep! No, you people are sheep! No, you people are sheep!

Baaa! Baaa! Baaa!

What It All Boils Down To

Pundits tell us that being liberal means choosing an intelligent, grounded, socially conscious view of the world over a superstitious, proudly ignorant follower mentality. They tell us that being conservative means living a virtuous, disciplined life of service to others rather than succumbing to a lazy, amoral lifestyle based on taking pleasure at the expense of others.

Anyone with friends or family on both sides of the divide can see that it's not that simple. They know smart, grounded, socially conscious conservatives. They have liberal friends who believe in things without any scientific evidence, who say a lot of things they've never thought about for themselves, who are extremely proud of their ignorance of certain things. They know virtuous, disciplined liberals, leading a life of service to others. They know conservatives who spend most of their energy seeking to work as little as possible, dodge any moral consequences for their actions, and get as much as possible from others while giving as little as they can.

Neither set of traits, positive or negative, is exclusive to either party, but the pundits are very effective at working our biases about our own strengths and our biases about one another's weaknesses in such a way as to blind us to our commonalities (i.e. convincing us that liberals champion unions for substantially different reasons than conservatives champion stricter international trade laws; or that conservative reluctance to additionally tax or regulate businesses comes from a substantially different place than liberals' obsession with patronizing local operations and fighting big corporations; or that the conservative desire to allow private business owners to decide who to serve and why isn't remotely analogous to the liberal insistence that family planning is the business of families, their health providers, and their spiritual leaders).

It's not as simple as the Right Ones vs. the Wrong Ones, no matter who you are. On some level we all know this. But righteous wrath feels so...righteous. And whether or not we're making any headway, it feels good to take a stand for what we believe in and to strike out against that which we oppose. Confirmation bias ensures that we get more and more convinced of our superiority the more we hear about our side vs. their side. And the more partisan we get, the more tribal we get, the less we listen to one another, the more willing we are to think of one another as The Enemy Of All That Is Good instead of My Neighbor, With Whom I Disagree.

What Liberals Need to Understand

It's not stupid to believe in intelligent design. Contrary to popular belief, scientific evidence is not on the side of people who want to interpret everything as pure, random math. The more we understand the universe, the less probable we find it that matter just happened to organize itself this way. Random chaos, as far as we observe it, doesn’t properly allow for such a happenstance. It would be akin to just happening to stumble across the one chimpanzee out of the infinite who managed to accidentally jab out, not just a cohesive string of letters, but an entire Shakespearean play. It's no more statistically likely that we're just an elegant twist of chaos than that we're presided over by any one of the specific gods humans have believed in over the ages.

In other words, materialism is not the superior objective stance. A refusal to acknowledge any other world except the material one requires faith. Same as any other belief system.

What Conservatives Need to Understand

We each see events and incidents in our lives through a slightly different lens. When a pattern occurs, or some random, slightly unusual string of events leads us to the solution to a problem we’ve been struggling with, or has some kind of personal significance, some of us write it off as random coincidence. Some people see the external as a reflection of the internal, and interpret of the information they receive as some kind of lesson about their lives. By nature, the things that bring people to a belief in a higher power (intuition/spiritual impressions, personally significant signs or messages in the physical world, increased peace of mind or happiness as a result of spiritual alignment) do not translate well into the realm of common experience. If you believe in god, that's by design. A relationship with god is, by definition, intensely personal, a matter of the private sphere (rather than the public), and subject to verification only by each individual against their own experience.

In other words, the very nature of the holy denies anyone the right to claim a superior moral stance. The only evidence you can offer of your commitment to virtue is your actions towards others. Same as any other human, regardless of their personal beliefs.

What We All Need to Understand

Regardless of what we believe, each of us is dwelling inside of our own subjective world. Each of us finds our personal world more compelling, aligned with truth, comfortable, and/or survival-oriented than all others (when we start to find another world more compelling, we find ourselves drawn to enter it).

Some of us are comfortable entering other subjective worlds, trying them on for size (what do you believe, and why? What implications would that have for my behavior and worldview, if I believed the same? Does this feel true to me?)  and then returning to our own. Some of us feel safer remaining firmly in our own subjective world (I am steadfast in my beliefs. This is my truth. I would rather not expose myself to being confused and led astray by the half-truths of your worldview).

Regardless of which camp we fall into, we can't expect the opposite camp to either completely change their ways, or to accommodate us all of the time. I may be willing to enter your worldview in order to understand your actions or have a good conversation with you. That doesn't mean I'm willing to live in it permanently, just to suit you, and it doesn't mean that I secretly know that you're right and I'm wrong.

Conversely, just because I'm comfortable entering your territory, it doesn't mean that I should demand that you be willing to enter mine. I already know that you're not comfortable with that. It's not fair of me to expect it.

This can be a problem, though. When we all remain in our subjective worlds, we can talk to one another as much as we want but nobody listens. Even knowing that the standards of our own worldview aren’t an appropriate measure for the actions and beliefs of others, when we converse about values from our separate camps, we tend to spend the majority of our time asserting and defending our own value system, rather than trying to understand and negotiate one another’s value systems.

The Third Space

There is a need for a third space, a neutral space where everyone’s personal values, priorities, and beliefs are off the table argument-wise, and the only thing being discussed is how we can accomplish the things we’re setting out to accomplish without ignoring or violating things that are important to one another.

Our entire system of governance right now is based on an increasingly vitriolic feud. (Feudalism might be a good name for it.) My party vs. yours. My value system vs yours. Intense allegiance, not to the common cause, not to a more perfect union, but to our own personal causes. So that when our leaders get into office, instead of collaborating to serve us, they dig trenches and settle in to obstruct one another. Does this seem like a rational or efficient way of getting absolutely anything done?

Well, it is effective at one thing. It’s been very effective at distracting us from all of the terrible things that have been going on behind our backs: the privatization of prisons and militarization of police, the migration of American jobs overseas, the gradual concentration of all the wealth we’ve collectively earned through our record productivity into the hands of very few, the so-called “spreading of democracy” around the world by supporting military coups which replace democratically elected leaders with dictators more willing to allow the U.S. cheap access to their country’s resources at the expense of their own populace, and the dangerous enemies now rising up against us as a result of these bad policies.

We have two choices. We can keep pointing fingers at one another, blaming each other's values, political philosophies, and blind trust in leadership for how bad things keep getting. Or we can recognize that we're all obstructing a functional democracy through our very antagonism, and turn our efforts on an individual level towards peace and understanding. Resist the urge to demonize. Resist the urge to mock and belittle and denigrate. Stop playing into the hands of the people who benefit from our enmity.

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