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.
An Issue of Labeling
Labeling and calling names is empowering, it’s why we do it. If we can define the entirety of a person by a single biological fact, behavior, or idea then that person no longer has the power to step outside, in our eyes, of what we have proscribed for them. By this limitation we need never consider what role any of our actions may have had in their life or humbly submit ourselves to the realization that had our own lives been different we may be acting or voicing the opinions which we are currently condemning.
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.
© David Teachout
Nobody holds to a belief that they knowingly acknowledge is wrong or inaccurate. There is an emotional and identity-defining weight attached to each belief. For every incremental increase in resources (time, energy, money, relationships) spent on maintaining a belief, the greater the feeling of attachment and the less likely a person is ever to question the legitimacy of their claim. What area of life the belief connects to is incidental, what matters is the felt feeling of attached weight, the degree of importance a person places on it. This mounting pressure encourages us to bond together in groups, to spread the weight among the like-minded.
A mob is any group of people holding to a particular belief or set of beliefs, with the primary purpose being abject support of said belief with a demand for purity. This support may masquerade at times under the guise of rational inquiry, with questions often in the form of conspiracy building, but it is the purity standard that makes it into a mob-mentality. The belief cannot be questioned and stands as the means to differentiate the ‘true’ from the ‘false’ believers.
While for some the immediate example of a cult comes to mind, this behavior is not found only in religious groups, but is intrinsic to humanity. Political ideologies? Go to a rally and the lessening sense of individuation combined with an increase in emotional fervor will have you feeling larger than yourself. For that matter, many music concerts can encourage a similar feeling with rhythms of sound and body melting the barriers between self and other. In either situation, if you were to dare question what was going on, let there be no doubt you’d be met with varying degrees of anger and violence of one form or another.
A mob need not be a large group either. If you’ve ever met that couple utterly convinced of the rightness of their job venture or the sanctity of how they treat others despite chaos all around them, you know what abject support and purity looks like. Further, mobs are not constrained by physical proximity, as any social media messaging board or comment section can attest to.
“Individually and collectively, our very existence depends on our ability to reach accurate conclusions about the world around us.” (Schulz, 2010, p.4) Unfortunately accuracy is as much a question of individual perception as it is about representing fully the myriad connections of reality. We search for information that supports the beliefs we already hold (confirmation bias) or to add other beliefs that support an overall worldview (internal coherence). Contrary to some who think bias is an act one consciously engages in, it is instead an inevitable and universal behavior. The question is not whether one is engaging in bias, it is the depth of one’s awareness of doing so and desire/intent to mitigate it in some way.
A piece of information ‘makes sense’ or a new belief ‘holds together’ based on the emotional criteria of whether such aligns with a personal identity or felt sense of self. As stated previously, this weight can be overwhelming, particularly when faced with a broader reality of facts and people that either don’t fit the worldview or are in vocal disagreement. The mob is a rescue from the uncertainty brought up by contrary information, a balm to the anxiety induced by skeptical inquiry.
Skepticism has two paths of discovery. The first is universal and exists alongside bias, where instead of focusing attention only on that evidence which is supportive, it draws the mind’s eye to all that doesn’t. The second is an active pursuit, a willful conscious deliberation upon what doesn’t fit in one’s beliefs, joined with a humility based on the long litany of historical protestations of having found truth only to be later chagrined at falling short.
Universal Skepticism is a form of psychological scientific method, parsing out the outliers in experience and shifting one’s worldview to allow for growth and change. Willful Skepticism is far more rare and often, despite boasts to the contrary, little more powerful than the Universal. A significant factor in how far skepticism plows the field of beliefs is the depth of one’s identification with the mob.
Remember that the mob is characterized by abject support and purity. If one looks around and sees in their friends, acquaintances, online communities, etc., little to no questioning of fundamental beliefs, then the mob is likely to be called home. If those who disagree are slandered, name-called, inferred or directly declared as being deficient in reason and intelligence, then it is the mob that one is part of. If one believes that their group is set against by the forces of the world in an US vs Them battle for the future of a family, community or nation, it is the mob that is being held close.
The mob is a haven precisely because it is based on one of the greatest feelings in life: that of believing one is right. Skepticism, both Universal and Willful, is the exact opposite: believing that no single or set of beliefs is ever absent the potential for being inaccurate in whole or in part. The mob is not contrary to humanity any more than skeptical inquiry is, though most certainly they each strengthen different features and encourage different behavior. The kind of person and community grown will be determined by the resources placed in pursuit of one over the other.
Schulz, Kathryn (2010-05-25). Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Overwrought declarations concerning the security of a nation’s people is the bread and butter of modern politics. Every potential leader of the self-proclaimed free world attempts to outdo another with over-confident pronouncements of their ability to defeat the enemy and keep us all safe. Just who “the enemy” remains to be, years and decades down the road of military engagements, is left to the practice of reinforcing memories of great emotional power. The notion of having nuanced, layered, dialogue about the variables involved in warfare and the attempt at destroying ideas with bombs is never broached. In fact, the closest we get to a conversation of this type is an almost adolescent obsession with labels.
Regardless of this lack of acknowledging the complications involved with international ideological warfare, rest assured that each potential leader will offer their variation of, quoting Obama: “Let’s kill the people who are trying to kill us.” However, the how of a war’s delivery is at least as important as exploring the why of its start and continuation. The why helps us identify the worldview and values we bring to what should be the last resort of inter-personal behavior. The how determines whether once committed we don’t lose sight of the better angels of our nature.
No form more perfectly embodies the way America does warfare than the focus on air power and drones.
1. Depersonalized Technology
From the latest gadget coming out of Silicon Valley to the ability to reach the upper reaches of our stratosphere with almost casual indifference, the power of technology is a social obsession even as it so quickly becomes banal.
“To the United States, a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain. At the receiving end, it feels like war. Americans have got to understand that. If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly—I don’t think we do, but there’s always the danger that you will—then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that’s what they can respond with.” — Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal in an interview with Foreign Affairs.
There is a curious and frightening aspect of human psychology that only the personal is deemed worthy of exploration, because only the personal has any emotional power attached to it. What technology provides for us is a means of distancing our potential emotional connections. We need never question what use it is being put to beyond our immediate surroundings.
“In fact, 12,000 or so strikes after Washington’s air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq began in August 2014, we now know that intelligence estimates of its success had to be deliberately exaggerated by the military to support a conclusion that bombing and missile strikes were effective ways to do in the Islamic State.” (Tom Dispatch)
Unfortunately, our immediate environment is constrained by the extent of the questioning we bring to any situation. We have then a causal loop of insularity, with technology removing us from considerations of consequence, which then limits our ability to see beyond our own neighborhoods, our own borders.
“Even as air power keeps the U.S. military in the game, even as it shows results (terror leaders killed, weapons destroyed, oil shipments interdicted, and so on), even as it thrills politicians in Washington, that magical victory over the latest terror outfits remains elusive. That is, in part, because air power by definition never occupies ground. It can’t dig in. It can’t swim like Mao Zedong’s proverbial fish in the sea of “the people.” It can’t sustain persuasive force. Its force is always staccato and episodic.” (Tom Dispatch)
This lack of consequentialist thinking removes us from consideration of our goals. It should be shocking to hear of 12,000 drone strikes in a war that has gone on for 15 years. There are teenagers who have never known a time in America’s history where war was not a constant. Yet questions are rarely raised.
2. Lack of Questions Leads to Moral Ambiguity
U.S. Policy Standards for Use of Force:
“Lethal force will not be proposed or pursued as punishment or as a substitute for prosecuting a terrorist suspect in a civilian court or a military commission. Lethal force will be used only to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons, and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively.”
Solutions to ethical questions about the use of force are not easy and they are certainly not simple. What is equally not simple are the consequences of the continued use of force.
From Foreign Policy
: “However, whenever human rights groups produce credible reports about non-American civilians who are unintentionally killed, U.S. officials and spokespersons refuse to provide any information at all, and instead refer back to official policy statements — which themselves appear to contradict how the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations is supposed to be practiced.”
When the form of force being used is fundamentally about providing increasing distance between the users and the place of effect, then it becomes even more imperative that we actively engage in seeking to explore those consequences. Unfortunately, as noted above, what is deemed not personal is rarely explored. Worse, what is not personal to the user may in fact be deeply personal to those suffering the effects.
From The New York Times
: “The proliferating mistakes have given drones a sinister reputation in Pakistan and Yemen and have provoked a powerful anti-American backlash in the Muslim world.”
“Are our enemies any less resolutely human than we are? Like us, they’re not permanently swayed by bombing. They vow vengeance when friends, family members, associates of every sort are targeted. When American “smart” bombs obliterate wedding parties and other gatherings overseas, do we think the friends and loved ones of the dead shrug and say, “That’s war”? Here’s a hint: we didn’t.” (Tom Dispatch
The users of technology are not different than those who have to deal with the effects. The lack of face-to-face delivery offers a physical distance that allows for moral ambiguity to grow and cognitive dissonance to not be dealt with. There are articles upon articles about online bullying and how the modern internet age of removing face-to-face interaction contributes to a lack of empathy and therefore a rise in behavior otherwise considered abhorrent and not acted upon. This process is no different in other forms of technology use, yet the consequences within warfare are generational in scope.
The Responsibility of War
“The utilization of force should carry with it the fullest attempt at matching projected action with internal value. If the action ceases to reflect or even begins to tarnish the value it seeks to support, then force and violence become less a tool of last resort and more a hammer seeking nails wherever they may be found. This connection is why it is incumbent upon the population and their representatives to do the utmost diligence in deciding when to use force. We have tasked our soldiers not merely with the protection of our national interests, but to do so at the cost of their lives and pieces of their humanity.” (Reflecting on the Armed Forces: The Other 1%)
“For a democracy committed to being a great military power, its leaders professing to believe that war can serve transcendent purposes, the allocation of responsibility for war qualifies as a matter of profound importance.” (Bacevich, 2013)
When we are no longer aware of or find ourselves much concerned with how our government conducts itself in the utilization of deadly force, this should serve as a scarlet flag waving upon our conscience. Yes, warfare seems to remain a necessary tool in the continued evolution of our fledgling civilization. No, warfare should not be dealt with heads held low and minds shut-down to consequence. We are not tasked as citizens of this world to merely ponder the importance of our singular lives, but to reach out and drive back the shadows of our own self-deceit.
© David Teachout
Bacevich, Andrew J. (2013-09-10). Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (American Empire Project) (p. 41). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
Contrary opinions are difficult to face. We see the world a particular way, utilize this perspective to provide justification for our actions and rarely tell our stories with anyone but ourselves being front and center. Contrary opinions are like having walked a seemingly comfortable marathon only to find out that there was something in a shoe giving you a blister. Thinking back you swear you hadn’t felt anything, reality has to be the way you remember, yet here it is, the now painful reminder that your world, your perspective, is only part of a wider one.
That wider world is pluralistic, it is filled with contrary, at times viciously expressed, and insipid opinions. These are all based on an interconnection of personal and familial background, cultural influences, ideological frameworks and even biological constraints. Within a representative democracy, there are two ways to deal with the surplus of perspectives, by active engagement through generative dialogue or by removing one’s opinion from the need to interact with others.
Generative dialogue assumes that two or more people are dealing with the same reality, though quite obviously the perspective of it is different. The goal is a broader understanding of the worldview held and the assumptions that each brings for justification. This is not about staking positions and seeing whether one side or the other can be moved. Rather, this concerns identifying what is similar and on that basis determine whether common ground can be expanded upon. This is not about claiming a particular value as belonging only to one group. Rather, this is about understanding we as fellow human beings share values and put them into action differently based on worldview.
The idea of a marketplace of ideas is what generative dialogue supports. It is concerned with the flowing of disparate opinions because no single view can ever encapsulate the whole of a pluralistic society, nor determine the one and only way of conducting one’s life. This is the foundation of democracy, where the ability for people to hold disparate perspectives is woven into the need for people to see that the world belongs to us all, not just one or a select few.
“When a person is within a society based on democratic rationalism, particularly when having accepted a role of leadership, it is morally incumbent upon them to act to uphold the pillars of that society’s worldview.”
For democracy to work, that duality of viewing the world yet knowing one view never captures all of it, must be brought into the active sphere of generative dialogue. If at any time the choice is made to remove an opinion from public discourse, then it is no longer democracy at work, but the ideological groundwork for some form of despotism.
So it is that we are brought to the issue of employers, through insurance plans, covering contraceptives and the religious objection some have. The current plan has organizations who have a religious objection fill out a form declaring such, for the purpose of then identifying where federal programs need to step in to provide service. From an article on NPR about the situation:
Sister Constance Veit says she doesn’t object to signing the required form or a letter. “The religious burden is what that signifies, and the fact that the government would, you know, be inserting services that we object to into our plan, and it would still carry our name,” she says.
Note that it isn’t the form or letter that is at question, but “what that signifies.” The “what” is subtle. She doesn’t object to a letter, simply to the fact that it’s brought up at all. Essentially, how dare the public government remind her and her organization that they dwell in a pluralistic world, one where her particular theological opinion is subject to questioning.
A key feature of faith-based theological opinions is that they reside outside of public scrutiny. It’s not that there is no evidence the person can use to back their claims, it’s that such evidence cannot either be seen by those outside of the religious circle, or understood properly outside of that same circle.
The religious objection to contraception begins with an ideology that is not, therefore, part of the world and ends with adherents being removed from that world’s considerations of belonging within a democratically-structured public. In other words, the religious organizations seeking to deny medical care to women, are declaring that while they exist within a community, they are not subject to any questions from that community or are required to provide any answers that are publicly accessible. Their position is declared to be sacrosanct, set apart.
This isn’t about religious freedom, this is about religious ideology and the actions associated with it no longer being subject to concerns from the public with which they interact. This is about being apart from the world, not a part of it. This is about taking advantage of the freedoms afforded by a democracy ruled by law without having to be subject to the public of which that democracy is made and the laws set up to protect.
© David Teachout
For an excellent overview of the Zubik v Burwell case, read here
Political season is well and truly in full swing these days. One can barely find a cute picture of a panda online without bumping into a near-overwhelming number of memes (supportive and derogatory), quotes (false, out of context and sometimes true), and speeches (fervently pro and anti) about various candidates and the positions they likely take. Along for the ride is the “no true scotsman” logical fallacy, being thrown around with great poetic license as if it was the claymore from Braveheart.
This form of personal dismissal in the shape of a logical fallacy is the attempt to hold as sacred, inclusion in a group. As ideologies are the creation of people for the regulation of behavior and maintaining social cohesion, so then any time an ideology exists that is connected to a particular group, there will be variations. Were this a struggle for growth, for helping determine the finer qualities of what it means to follow a particular philosophy or worldview within a multi-faceted world, there’d be much room for praise. Unfortunately, there is often little growth occurring, there is only the quest for managing power through group purity. Rather than engaging with the world and disparate opinions, there is instead the furtherance of the adversarial Us vs Them mentality, and the systematic creation of an increasingly large “Other.”
All identities are limiting, they have to be, as they determine what is and is not bound within a particular scope of selective engagement. We have our physical identities at the biological level so we know what is and is not our bodies. We have family identities so we know who is and is not family, often leading to variations in what is and is not acceptable behavior. We have social and national identities so we know what is and is not aligned with broader interests, often resulting in naming particular behavior as good when if it were done by another would be considered terrible.
Knowing who we are is intimately connected with the group identities we engage in, but by their very nature as mental constructs for limitation, too much focus on one or or another group identity can diminish the exploration of our lives. As Bronowski puts it:
“In our relations with people, and even with animals, we understand their actions and motives because we have at some time shared them, so that we know them from the inside. We know what anger is, we learn an accent or the value of friendship, by directly entering into the experience. And by identifying ourselves with the experience of others, we enlarge our knowledge of ourselves as human beings: we gain self-knowledge.” (Bronowski)
Group identity can be greatly beneficial, regardless of its ideological roots. However, it becomes oppressive when it ceases to engage with new experiences and ways of interpreting even the most sacred of ideological tenets. This oppression lays the groundwork for fundamentalism, a process of exclusion that is not limited to religious movements.
Just the other day, a comment was noted that identified a person’s action as “not being a true liberal.” The current struggle within the Republican party is often characterized as a struggle for the heart of conservatism, as if such has only ever meant one thing. The politics of today is polarized precisely because people have been replaced by ideological purity. Political action is being taken by fewer and fewer people precisely because there is no longer any room for dissent. Instead of seeing how one’s worldview interacts with new information, shelter is found in building up the barriers of our personal bubbles. Instead of scratching at the walls of our echo-chambers to see where growth can occur, any and all cracks are immediately filled in by removing what is deemed contrary.
We cannot build a government for the people and by the people if we do not actively engage in generative dialogue. Generative because it is about generating new ideas from within the old, generative because it sees nuance where adversarial debate sees only steadfast positions. This is not an easy road to pursue, but the result of not doing so will only be walls and barriers, of limiting the totality of human experience to an increasingly smaller set of thoughts and behavior deemed “pure.”
“If we actively engage with an ever-widening array of our potential expressions, we have that much more with which to interact and respond to others and changing circumstances. The reverse is also true, as our reactions to others are keyed to the identities or labels they’re placed under, so how we react to others is contingent upon how varied our view of them is. The political opponent is also a spouse, worker, lover, hobbyist, etc. An expansion of perspective helps everyone.”
© David Teachout
Featured Image: Don’t Belong Here by Alena Beljakova
Bronowski, Jacob (2010-06-30). The Identity of Man (Great Minds Series) (p. 83). Prometheus Books – A. Kindle Edition.
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.
© David Teachout
Fromm, Erich (2010-08-03). On Disobedience: ‘Why Freedom Means Saying “No” to Power (Harperperennial Modern Thought) (pp. 26-27). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.