Communication is more than words being exchanged between two or more people. It’s also more than the non-verbal physical cues made famous by such shows as “Lie to Me.” When people engage in dialogue, they’re seeking to build a relationship of perspective with reality and, if reality doesn’t fit quite well enough, get the other person(s) to agree regardless. This is true whether the discussion has to do with broad, socially significant, political opinions or the varied intimacies of one’s emotional state.
The significance of binding perspective to reality cannot be overstated. Opinions aren’t just mental states, they’re the means through which we gather the disparate pieces of reality and bind them to create an experience. That we all like to be right begins to make sense here, given the potential weight carried by our thoughts. Combine these two points and the many forms of communication can be seen in a new light.
We can start with cultural practices.
Dialogue with Humanity
Contrary to the majority of felt experience, our thoughts are rarely unique creations. They’re far more likely to be derivatives from our social upbringing and cultural backgrounds, to promotions of something we recently read and likely didn’t critique long enough. The latter is especially fun in conversation if confronted by someone who does immediately know more than we do, as our shallow understanding is highlighted. Did I say fun? I meant embarrassing.
The reason for the non-careful assumption inherent of many of our opinions depends on how critical you want to be about our humanity. For those with a more negative view, it’s due to our inherent laziness as thinkers. A more reasonable take has to do with time-management. It’s simply easier to assume that the information we personally encounter is more likely true than not. Taking the time to critically analyze everything that crosses our mental space is not only impossible (since a great deal is unconsciously taken in), but it’s really poor resource-management. We’re far too busy living our lives to halt at every thought.
One of those ways we’re living is through culture. Consider cultural practices as mental shortcuts to meaning. Ever had a word that you used but didn’t know if it was the right one? Or hear one that you didn’t know the definition of? Sure you could look it up on you smart phone, but that takes time. Better if everything you hear has built-in definitions that you absorbed through experience. Enter cultural practices.
However, those built-in definitions and meaning can pose just as many problems as they solve. How aware is the person of their own history and what they’ve absorbed as normal behavior? How much self-ownership do they have concerning the meaning of any particular practice? Are they open to the practice having other meanings or purposes?
Remember, culture is a short-cut to meaning, a device for carrying entire narratives or stories tying together reality. If the weight of individual opinions is so heavy, and that’s just for a single person, imagine the exponential increase given to a story that has time/family attached to it.
Dialogue through Culture
To attempt addressing the very real difficulties, when considering a cultural practice, we can ask first what the purpose is. The person will provide a story. That story will give structure to the meaning the behavior has for them. It will be really easy now to immediately agree or disagree with the story, based on one’s own assumptions. Good conversation/dialogue is generative, it builds greater understanding. It isn’t warfare with two parties lobbing linguistic hand-grenades at each other.
Before engaging with the story, a full stop needs to happen. Use this space to reflect on:
1) identifying what shared Value the behavior is serving to support…
2) identifying whether that shared Value holds the same level of importance for each of you in the context you’re in.
To keep it simple, let’s take the practice of washing one’s hands. The primary Value to be supported is likely going to be Cleanliness, but is such always primary in awareness? If you’re rushing to the bathroom in the middle of a movie that you spent far too much money to see in a theatre, is Cleanliness going to be the top concern or is Time-Management and Pleasure? If someone saw you not wash your hands and immediately began chastising you, claiming you clearly didn’t care about Cleanliness, your response would likely be anger/frustration. Why? Not because you got called out for not caring about something you do in fact care about, but because the other person clearly doesn’t care about Time-Management and Pleasure! See the irony? The other person cares about those things too, it just wasn’t their priority in that moment, precisely because they aren’t you.
Starting with Value allows us to get behind the stories/narratives that so easily catch us up in the moment. At that point, another person’s behavior no longer stands on its own, instead being caught by our own construction of reality and judged accordingly. Importantly, this isn’t, at this level, about morality, nor does it remove issues of ethics. We’re simply looking at having good generative dialogue. Frankly, if a chief concern is to convince another person the error of their ways, no better place exists to start than with what you have in common and an appreciation for your shared humanity.
Does the clothing make the person or the person make the clothing? While this question is typically related to dresses and women, the inquiry knows no gender. At the heart of the question is a consideration of the relationship between the created and the creator, between form and function. Clothing is not simply about covering the body, it functions dependent upon the intent of the person and the social context in which it is worn.
Follow along for a moment and we’ll get to the broader issue. In Western countries we notably wear black to funerals, brighter colors to weddings. The associations cannot be overstated, with one acknowledging an ending and the other a celebration of a type of birth or beginning. We have expectations of what to be worn at job interviews, on romantic dates, to music concerts depending on the genre. Importantly for the latter, location matters as well. Rock music played in an open stadium brings a certain dress-code, whereas the same music played in a concert hall by an orchestra will inspire a different response.
If anyone is shrugging at the significance of the impact of clothing choice, simply consider the days of High School and the social shame accompanying not wearing the ‘cool’ clothes, potential violence occurring if wearing shoes that are considered ‘must-have,’ and the time and mental anxiety accompanying what to wear for school pictures and first dances. For that matter, clothing stores have created an entire sales season out of ‘Back to School’ clothes shopping. Expand this a bit and consider wearing pastels or flowery-shirts to a funeral or ragged clothes and sandals to a job interview. Perhaps doing so was to make a statement, though it is precisely because the action is so contrary to expectations that the ‘statement’ will have any power (perhaps not great consequences though).
Culture Has Intrinsic Value
Clothing is simply one aspect of culture. Included in culture are a host of other issues that would not exist were there no human beings around to build and embody them in practice; religion, governmental systems, family structures, and social expectations at various levels. An initial focus on clothing helps us consider culture more broadly by 1) noting its intimate relationship to our humanity and 2) the impossibility of removing Value.
Any reflection on being human, collectively or individually, will inevitably involve memories associated with cultural practices. It is fair to say that to be conscious is to engage socially and one cannot engage socially without doing so through culture. Little wonder that the practices of culture have so much Value, they’re the means through which we initially inter-relate with one another.
Those building blocks for human relationships, the behavioral expectations and standards for interpersonal experience, are intimately tied to Values, even as they themselves are not such. Christianity is not a Value, nor is washing one’s hands after using the bathroom, wearing black at a funeral or democracy. What those practices support are Values; Spirituality, Cleanliness, Solidarity and Social Cohesion, respectively. We appreciate those Values and seek to support them because doing so is to align ourselves with one of the most basic of human needs: providing meaning/purpose.
Culture Has No Intrinsic Meaning
It’s impossible not to give some rationale for our behavior. When someone shrugs or declares “I don’t know,” the frustration felt is in no small part due to the bone-deep belief that a reason exists which must be found. Having a rationale for events is synonymous with ‘finding an answer’ or ‘solution.’ There’s a finality to it, despite, or even sometimes because of, the perceived ridiculousness of the story being told. The more absurd, the more the story is providing an answer regardless, i.e. the person is ‘crazy,’ ‘insane,’ ‘stupid’ or ‘evil.’ Such simple judgments pack the same punch as an involved story, they provide structure to the person’s experience.
What should be immediately apparent is the wide variation in our stories about behavior. Cultural practices are no exception. Religion may be the easiest example here, with group after group fighting, verbally and physically, over what is the ‘TRUE’ version of their particular mythology. Notice the Value doesn’t change, the need for Order/Spirituality remains constant. What the fight is over is the particular meaning to give to it. Does it drive behavior? Does it serve as a crutch? Does it provide a legitimate ground for morality?
When people of one group identify another as not being ‘TRUE,’ note that quite often the reasoning given is that the other simply doesn’t ‘understand’ properly. This focus on understanding as indicating legitimacy points us immediately back to the Value, but, and here’s the key, the Value as defined through the person criticizing. Cultural practices have no singular meaning because the story of their development for each person is as unique as each person’s genetic, familial and life histories. What’s often happening in debates of what is ‘TRUE’ religion (or any other cultural practice) are one’s own stories taking absolute ownership of a shared Value.
Cultural practices have no singular absolute meaning. They are derivatives of the human need to make meaning, not separate aspects of existence that people take on. To think of cultural practices as having inherent meaning is to divorce them from the humanity that gave them birth. Which is precisely where we all can contribute to a great deal of suffering.
Primacy of the Human
When considering a cultural practice, we can ask first what the purpose is for the person acting it out. They will provide a story that structures the meaning the behavior has for them. Before engaging with the story, a full stop needs to happen. This is to allow reflection on 1) identifying what shared Value the behavior is serving to support and 2) direct attention to how varied the other person’s personal history is from one’s own.
Identifying the shared Value can allow for an appreciation for why the person may deeply hold to the practice. Order, Social Cohesion, Family, and Cleanliness are nothing to easily dismiss, nor likely should they be. Once it is acknowledged how much weight the building of a story through a lifetime can bring to a Value, the strength of meaning/purpose becomes readily apparent.
We don’t have to agree with a particular practice, nor do we have to agree with the rationale given in support of it. However, if healthy dialogue is going to happen then we must first acknowledge that differences exist in those stories precisely because of the shared quality of being human.
Considering culture, we simply cannot lose sight of the human as a primary concern. To divorce or separate culture from the human being is to constrain humanity to a singular vision of what ‘should be.’ Such a divorce will drive the ‘war of ideas,’ a potentially fruitful dialogue exploring human expression, to simply ‘war.’
Musings about morality typically involve the assumption of a particular social/individual story. This narrative cuts out pieces of a broader reality to provide support for itself and perpetuate its assumed truth. This is where labels come in, a form of cognitive short-hand that hides a great deal of questions and the answers to them which are only at times fully explored by someone.
Are we primarily individualistic or social? Does morality require relationships to function properly? Which Values are the most important and who gets to decide?
Whether conservative or liberal, alt-right or progressive, the answers to these and other questions rarely reach the level of dialogue and reflective inquiry. Actively engaging in differing perspectives helps flesh out our own ideas even as doing so will showcase where we have room to grow and change.
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Being lost is not seeing the paths all around because of looking for the ‘right’ one. We encourage freedom of imagination in our kids because we want them to not get locked into bad habits. We entreat each other to think outside the box when confronted with adversity and seemingly insurmountable struggles. Corporations hire coaches and gurus to help make the stagnant, movable again. Our very existence as a species is due to the variations possible within the seeming limitations of genetics. Life changes, expands and manifests in new ways precisely because it is not caught in a singular way of being.
As in life, so then in each and every human being. Living is ever-expansive because our potential is not limited by any single identity or story of who we are. Being trapped, stagnant, and confined is what occurs when we get locked into a narrow way of visioning who we are and therefore what we are capable of achieving. This is true of ourselves and, given the interconnectedness of relational reality, of those we look upon.
A Restricted Vision
Sin, within the framework of conservative fundamentalist religious traditions, is a way of framing humanity within a restricted vision. It is a declaration that the wholeness of humanity is found within a story of depraved, immoral and inherently self-serving boundaries. It removes intent and will, replacing it with an assumed knowledge of what lies beneath or at the core of a person. Behavior ceases to be a window into the multiplicity of human rationale, of the varied reasons, thoughts and stories of justification, and becomes an empty expanse unworthy of exploration. Why did the person do what they did? Well, we can look at what they say, but really it’s this thing called sin, the insurmountable evil at the heart of humanity.
The problem of sin is not simply that it’s a false idea, but that it separates us from looking at our potential. Our varied lives of layered thought and emotion become lies and obfuscations hiding us from our ‘true selves.’ This process of singular-visioning inexorably leads to shame and doubt, shame of who we are and doubt about our capacity for change and growth. Unfortunately this process is not limited to the notion of sin, it occurs any time we select a rationale for our behavior, separate it from the interactional and reciprocal reality of our relational lives, and make it the unalterable core of who we are.
How often have any of us faced failure and in the midst of defeat, callously declared “I’m just a loser” or “this is just who I am” or “I’m only ever going to be this way”? We may not be thinking of sin, but we are most certainly embarking on a similar path of limitation. Similarly, when we break someone else’s behavior down to a singular reason, we are artificially limiting our understanding of their humanity.
By selecting merely one potential rationale for our decision-making, we have cut ourselves off from the complexity that is our story-making, the formation of our identities. Instead of the multiple interconnected layers of a full life, we are crushed beneath the weight of simplicity and the desire to forge a clear direction forward. This process is not concerned with health, well-being or truth; it is a means of razing the trees to the ground to save the perceived forest.
Every one of us makes decisions based on a variety of factors, explicit and implicit, historical and future-projected, conscious and unconscious. Further, none of us are immune to prejudice, bias, appeal to authority and the myriad of other emotive-logical cognitive failings. To be called out for one stone out of place and have the whole of our identity-structures or personal narratives defined by it is to place the need for righteous judgment above and beyond that of humanistic understanding.
The determination of right and wrong does not occur starting from the assumed superiority of a singular position. This is where culture wars and the relationship fights we later feel ashamed for having gotten into, begin from. An understanding of ourselves and others begins where morality does, within the relational network that is our humanity. Individual actions can still be judged, but they need not overshadow the whole of that person, nor should they become the main or only lens through which we see ourselves and one another.We do not walk the path of understanding those around us if we begin and end with what we disagree with. Separation only furthers itself, it does not rejoin what was sundered.
Growth along the scale of human progress is a waltz between what we believe ourselves capable of being and the depth and quality of the relationships we live our lives through, it is not a sprint to a pre-determined goal. Dwelling in the space of potential means identifying the infliction of pain and move to reduce it by stretching the bounds of our empathy through touching the strands that bind us together.
America’s most powerful social product may very well be that of the politicized identity. Pick a label, shove the entirety of a person into it, then use this narrow caricature to condemn, belittle, dismiss, celebrate and worship, depending on whether you like or don’t like said label. Any attempt at bringing up dialogue, suggesting that a person is more than any singular act or name, is met with varying degrees of disgust and declarations of not being a true ‘x.’ What that ‘x’ is inevitably centers upon the easiest and quickest way to differentiate that person as other, as different. Don’t agree with me? Well, it must mean you’re not a true Christian, Atheist, Liberal, Conservative, Democrat, Republican, Jew, Muslim, etc. The result of this slicing up of our humanity is a bloody floor littered with the ruins of potential conversations, personal growth and democracy.
Disagreement is inevitable, vilification is not. For every person who has an opinion that is inaccurate, that very same person has one that is/was true. Every person who has lied, cheated, or said something foul, that very same person has likely loved, cherished and said something supportive. We are amazingly capable of calling out our own moral failures as blips on the channel of our right-ness. Yet we dismiss the other person’s moral failings as intrinsic and unchanging qualities of their programming. Our humanity, the shared reality of what it is to be a human being, provides us the space to be both liar and saint, villain and hero, often within the same episode of our lives. The focus on one over another is not a sign of progress, it is promoting the myth of self-righteous authoritarianism.
What each of us cares about is not so different than anyone else. Our Values are universal, the behavior we use to manifest them is most certainly not. How a person gets from a Value to a Behavior is through their perspective/worldview. Simplistic labeling moves us right past what we have in common as human beings and places the entirety of our emphasis on a single sliver of behavior among the vast panoply of human life.
Beginning with what we have in common is not about dismissing the very real harm done through bigotry, hate and fear. What it does is remove the automatic association between what we care about and our behavior. Doing so recognizes that all of us act on our interests and for the promotion of what we care about, while also allowing for disagreement on the means. This keeps open the potential for change, for even the subtlest of shifts in worldview, because if two or more people care about the same thing and show it differently, then there is undoubtedly more ways of doing so, ways that are less destructive and more communal. A focus on what we do not have in common leads only to continued separation and various forms of open warfare.
Our shared humanity does not call us to agree about everything or to ignore pain and suffering. What it does is remind us that we are still connected to one another despite our disagreements and that one person’s pain and suffering can exist even as another’s does as well. Our growth as individuals and as a species will be based not on who is ‘true’ to a label, but upon whether we’re able to break free of the constraints such names make upon our behavior.
During this period of political theatre and argumentation derived from the most basic of emotional responses rather than from the heights of intellectual discourse, I’m reminded of just how scary free thinking is to those in power. Let us have debates, let us ponder the peculiarities of the human condition and delve into the hitherto mysteries of existence and the cosmos in which we are a part of and apart from. However, we should do so from a position of humble acceptance of our own rational faculties and the constant reassessment that follows from a scientific/humanist point of view. This means understanding not just our own position, our own frame of reference, but also that of our opponent’s.
The variation in journeys is precisely what gets lost in current debates, both political and religious. We declare our ideas sacrosanct or correct, dismiss anyone else as primitive or wrong, and ignore the vast differences in life experience and the consequences such will have on what ideas develop, how they are considered and whether they’re thought of as acceptable to pursue. We forget or ignore our journeys from the wrong to the slightly less wrong. There is no set of experiences that does not limit perspective, no set of ideas that is incapable of being challenged and/or changed. Free thinking is not a trip into relativism, it is a deliberate journey into the humility brought by recognizing we’re all human.
In Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916), he (Bertrand Russell) wrote: Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth—more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man. But if thought is to become the possession of many, not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back—fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be. (Fromm, Erich)
We rest on the shoulders of those who have come before us. They are the engineers, the scientists, the blue-collar workers, the everyday masses of civilization. They made our roads so that wagons and then automobiles could open up vistas of land for human exploration. They laid down rail tracks for travel, commerce and in so doing made the world that much closer together. They created our planes, designed our phones and created the network that makes it all work together, flattening the world so that mountains were no longer impassable and a person on one side of an entire planet could see and hear someone on the opposite, giving us the power of the gods of antiquity. None of this was built by any one person, founded upon any one idea. We come into this world screaming our existence to those around us, boldly crying out “see me!” and by that act declare a truth lost in a world of individualism hell-bent on insularity, that we are none of us an island.
“Should the working man think freely about property? Then what will become of us, the rich? Should young men and young women think freely about sex? Then what will become of morality? Should soldiers think freely about war? Then what will become of military discipline? Away with thought! Back into the shades of prejudice, lest property, morals, and war should be endangered! Better men should be stupid, slothful, and oppressive than that their thoughts should be free. For if their thoughts were free they might not think as we do. And at all costs this disaster must be averted.” So the opponents of thought argue in the unconscious depths of their souls. And so they act in their churches, their schools, and their universities.” Fromm, Erich
In the union of our shared humanity we will come across ideas and experiences that shake us, even knock us back, make us question deeply held notions of ourselves and the world in which we live. The march of rational inquiry provides no safe harbor to the familiar, or the structures of authority both terrestrial and spiritual, that we seek to reside in. But we need not despair or quiver in uncertainty, for we do indeed stand on the shoulders of all who have come before and can reach out at all times to find commonality even amongst those we find objectionable.
There is no greater or more terrible power than thoughtful, skeptical inquiry, nor any greater threat to civilization than its denial. It humbles the self-righteous, raises the common to the extraordinary and at all times reminds us that our relation to the universe and our fellow human beings is a product of our powerful and varied imagination.