So let's imagine that I tell you, "Joe is a conservative, and Bob is a liberal."
What did I just tell you? And what do you think I meant by it?
I would say it really depends on your perspective.
Imagine that I walk into a room in which two people are sitting, and tell them "Joe is a conservative and Bob is a liberal."
I think it is entirely possible that first person might very clearly hear me say, "Joe is a heartless ignorant racist son of a bitch who doesn't care if the world goes to hell, or how many people suffer and die as long as he can have his guns and his tax break, while Bob is a very reasonable guy who understands that we need to look at things rationally and responsibly in order to solve very complex issues."
It is just as likely to me, I think, that the second person might just as clearly hear, "Joe is a principled guy who understands how the world works and is willing to stand up for reality in a degraded and equivocating world, while Bob is a hate-filled idiot who is willing to ignore the most simple facts in favor of his pre-programmed narrative, and more than willing to sell out his own family to Nazis if it will help him to make himself feel superior to others."
Joe is part of the problem. He's destroying the country, on purpose, and he's doing it selfishly. Bob is part of the solution, a ray of hope in a dark world.
No wait. You've got it exactly right, except you need to reverse those names, buddy.
Now imagine you are one of those two people. Imagine that you understand yourself as a conservative. Imagine that you understand me to be a liberal.
I say to you "Joe is a conservative. Bob is a liberal."
You now understand Joe to be a good fellow, and Bob pathetic at best. You also understand that I am saying the opposite about both guys, and you respond to that meaning, using your own meaning. I respond in kind.
We haven't even started the conversation, and yet somehow already we aren't having the same conversation. Parallel lines do not meet.
What I am trying to do is explain precisely why I do not find "liberal" and "conservative" to be very useful labels. When they are used, I try to become more precise. Let's first get to what you mean by "conservative" and "liberal." The national dialogue has already gotten so unraveled. I propose we try to trace the thread back to the source. What are our underlying assumptions and definitions? What assumptions inform our differing conclusions?
This usually comes off as either mockery or willful obtuseness. This informs me that I am not very artful at asking these questions yet. It also suggests to me that refusing to accept the received definitions of various words that we have used to neatly categorize reality is not usual, or comfortable.
Two weeks ago, I referred to these assumptions as an operating system. Today, let's talk about it as a lens through which we watch the world. A cracked lens, splintered, prismatic.
What are the subterranean divergences that manifest themselves in these desperate arguments regarding the temporary and the trivial?
I have an idea. But bear with me and be patient; my glasses are broken. I can only see part of the picture.
Bear with me. I'm going to be pretty obvious for a second. Just let me work through this until I have caught up to the rest of you.
Sometimes, a person kills another person on purpose. I don't think anybody is disagreeing with me yet. Sometimes, a person kills another person on purpose.
But before that, a person decides to do it. "I will kill this person." Then they do it.
But sometime before that, a person thinks, "Somebody ought to kill that person." Then they think "I will do it." Then they do it.
But before that, that person thinks, "The world would be better if that person was not in it." Then they think, "Somebody ought to kill that person." Then they think, "I will do it." Then they do it.
But before that?
Before that comes contempt.
(I didn't think of this way of stating it, by the way; the pastor of the church I belong to to which I belong did, years and years ago.)
Before the act, and the decision, and the thought that somebody should make that decision, and the notion that it the world would be better if the act were to happen, before all of that, comes contempt. And we're swimming in a vast sea of contempt, all of us. And we're drinking it and feeding it.
Contempt waters murder's garden.
Contempt is a constant gardener.
As I've said, I've tried to work out the underlying assumptions behind all our rhetoric. The roots of our tree of contention, if you'll allow another tortured metaphor. The following represents the best that I can perceive and communicate my perspective on this:
There appears to be a way of perceiving the world that states that the world is a competition between different types of people, and that the differences that divide one type from another is more important than any similarity. This, I think, is the root underlying assumption of contempt.
The actual difference being used to divide between people is sort of immaterial down at this level, but whatever difference is chosen, they all are ways of seeing the world that use as their prism a key difference, and competition of some set of resources that are seen as finite.
Racism isn't fear and hatred for other races, you know. Racism is simply a way of looking at the world, which states that the differences of race are more important than human similarities, and that the races are in competition as a result. This is why it's entirely possible to be friendly, or even consider oneself friends with, somebody of a different race, and still be entirely racist. Racial hatred and racial fear and mistrust can come of racism, of course. It probably eventually will. But if you think that those things ARE racism, then you have confused the symptom with the disease, doctor.
We can use any other Ism we please, really. Sexism. Feminism. Islamism. Christianism. Capitalism. Socialism. Fascism. Libertarianism. Caucasian-ism (I know, I know, it's generally called White Pride but let me keep the parallelism). Afrocentrism.
The Isms. They are all the same way of seeing the world, and they all sing the same song: Our differences define us, and there is competition between these differences.
Fundamentalists that want to kill each other are much closer to one another than to almost anybody else, philosophically speaking.
Some of these Isms come from a place of power and are applied to the powerless, and these will quite naturally and easily create inequality. Some of these come from the position of powerlessness and are applied against power, and if equality is your bag, these may be useful for a time -- perhaps a long time -- as they create space for equality. If equality is not really your thing, than these will seem pretty bad. But even if equality is your thing, eventually an Ism will reveal itself for what it is: a fundamentally divisive way of looking at the world.
The most extraordinary things sprout from this. Do you know that in the United States, the law itself used to think it was perfectly OK to buy and sell and use a human being like livestock? You probably did know that. There was this idea, see, that our differences were more important than our similarities.
It's a pretty standard and understandable way of looking at the world, really. I mean, think about it. Whether you are a fern or a jellyfish or a woodpecker or a red-assed baboon, natural selection is pretty much a big competition that is all about spreading YOUR genes. Not somebody else's. YOURS. May the best man win? Nonsense. The best man WILL win. Period. It's coded into nature itself. Why wouldn't we be subject to that, when literally everything else that we observe is? Why wouldn't we be trying to win? Why wouldn't we be competing to pas on our genes. Our genes. Not somebody else's. And why end at genes? Why wouldn't our ideas be subject to that? Isn't Ism-ism the only sane way of looking at the world?
Our differences are more important than our similarities, says the Ism-ist.
Those people, says the Ism-ist. They're really creating quite a problem.
Those people, says the Ism-ist. It would be better if they didn't exist.
Those people. Somebody should kill them. They have it coming.
Those people. I will kill them.
Welcome to Earth.
So there is another way of looking at the world, right? If Ism-ism is one prism, there must be another prism, right?
Sure there is. There is an idea that perhaps there is more than competition as defined by our differences. There is an idea that our similarities are more important than our differences. To be clear, this is not a worldview that states that there are not differences between people, or even that those differences might not be significant. It's simply that they aren't more important than our similarities. Let's call this worldview the Whole prism.
Here's the good news about the Whole prism, if it happens to have captured your imagination. It appears to be winning. We've mentioned that years ago, as our country came into being, it was considered perfectly lawful to buy and sell human beings like cattle. It's not like that anymore, not in parts of the world that are considered civilized. It was considered perfectly appropriate to engage in talk or imagery that was openly contemptuous of other races. Now the pickaninny cookie jar with the fat lips and the shiny black face and the pie eyes sits in grandma's kitchen, as embarrassing as a fart during Sunday dinner. It won't be passed down through the generations. We used to think that wives were property. We used to think that lynch mobs were the way to go. We used to think that a good fag was a dead fag.
Imagine what we might think, tomorrow, about what we think today.
By "we" I mean humans, by the way.
Oh no. You aren't trying to make a case for your side right now, are you? You're not nodding your head, or shaking it. Anticipating I'm about to make one side the Ism-ist side. I'm about to make the other side enlightened. MY side, to be precise. This is the point where I tell you that MY side is the enlightened one, and the other side is composed of a bunch of divisive Ism-ists.
The thing is, there is a paradox to the Whole prism.
"There are two types of people: People who divide people into groups, and people who don't. I am one of the latter."
You can't say this without contradicting yourself.
The first thing you must say if you hope to use the Whole prism is this:
I am an Ism-ist.
I am an Ism-ist. I've been captured by the idea of the Whole prism, and I try to shape my world view through it as best I can, and I support those causes and people who I feel best reflect the ideal of it, but I am an Ism-ist all the way. I divide people up into groups all the time. I see the world as a competition. I try to win. I want to beat you. I have never slid all the way down the Ism-ist slide to the act of killing a person, but I am amazed at just how far down that slide I can get. I am an Ism-ist. We all are.
Can we all proceed together with a bit more mercy for one another's stupid ideas, now?
The question now becomes, "If nobody really lives by the Whole prism worldview, how could it be winning?"
I submit to you that Ism-ism is how we actually live.
But the Whole prism is how we dream.
It moves slowly, tortuously, through our shared history. Sometimes it shuffles agonizingly backward. But the trend is toward an eventual emergence. To me it is very much like the cosmic birth of some new order.
If you are subscribe to a Christian tradition (as I do), you might think of this as the movement of the Holy Spirit.
This idea is radical. It contradicts nature itself. There is no competition. Differences are not as important as similarities.
If you are of the scientific mindset (as I am), you might think of this as humanities next evolutionary leap. A leap beyond natural selection, perhaps. Or perhaps an evolution of ideas. Our evolution points to it, I imagine at a horizon a thousand years away. It's moving that way. And if it is moving that way, then it stand to reason (my reason, anyway) that it is the best idea.
Ism-ism is the way it is. It's a very realistic way of looking at the world. But it slides toward death. Perhaps natural selection has realized (Unlock Achievement: Anthropomorphize Natural Selection) that Ism-ism is no longer a winner for us as a species.
Think of the stories that inspire you, the people that inspire you. Which mindset seems to have captured them?
I hope it is safe to say that today, we all have a dream.