We can do better. We, the people, can do better. One important step toward doing better is to ask ourselves “how,” and then commit ourselves to implementing it. There are several components to the answer to this question, but I would suggest that one crucial component is letting go of our false certainties, just as I once let go of a fallen tree I was clinging to in the rapids of The Current River in Missouri.
I was on a canoe trip with three college buddies, about 33 years ago. We were drifting down a lazy stretch of the river, holding our two canoes together, sharing a little something now used for medicinal purposes in Colorado. As we floated around a bend in the river, we hit the rapids and, at the same time, saw a tree fallen from the left bank, obstructing about two thirds of the width of the river. Jack and Andy, in the canoe on the right, were able to skirt the tree, but Ed and I, on the left, had to angle more sharply across the current, and were pushed sideways up against the fallen tree. We watched helplessly as our canoe filled with water and disappeared beneath us.
The next thing we knew, we were clinging to the tree on the other side, soaking wet, bumped and bruised by being sucked under the tree, desperately struggling against the torrential current trying to sweep us away. Neither of us could pull ourself up onto the tree trunk against that overwhelming force, and panic began to set in. Until Ed stood up. And the river was mid-thigh deep. So I stood up as well.
Mid-thigh deep rapids are not easy to stand in. The torrent still threatened to sweep us away. But we were able to stand our ground, to wade over to the small island downstream where Jack and Andy had recovered our canoe, to build a fire and warm up and dry off, and then to get back into our canoes and navigate our way downstream.
That tree trunk represents for me false certainty, the false certainty we were clinging to to avoid being swept away by a river we did not really understand. The river bed that we finally realized we can stand on, that is solid and unmoving, are the core values that never change, that are always there and on which you can always depend as the solid foundation on which to pause and reassess. People sometimes mistake the silt stirred up from those values, but carried by the current, for the river bed itself, and try to stand on it. But there is no footing on that silt. You have to plant your feet beneath it, on the core values themselves, the ones that lie even beneath the words we use to describe them, beneath ambiguity. I will refer to them as “reason” and “universal goodwill,” though these words, too, are mere approximations.
The river we are all on together is not The Current River of Missouri, but rather the forever forking river of human history. It does not flow to a single destination, but rather to an almost unlimited array of possible futures determined by the choices we make, the forks we take. Some forks rejoin others, and permit lost opportunities to be regained. Some foreclose certain other possibilities, perhaps forever. The river bed is not always comprised of reason and goodwill, but all too frequently of looser gravel, of less reliable values, sometimes even of muck so deep that there is nothing to stand on, only something to sink into. Our choices are consequential, sometimes momentous. We need to continue to improve our ability to make them wisely.
The river we are on is strewn with fallen trees, with obstacles that do not flow with the current but rather stand against it. These obstacles are our false certainties, our blind ideologies, fresh and alive until they fall across the stream and become something we crash against and cling to rather than admire and use for momentary guidance. Great ideas, like once noble trees lining the banks, becoming rotting trunks that we mistakenly believe mark a point that is as far as we need to go. But those who cling to them will only end up watching history pass them by, and will eventually rush to catch up or languish, because there is no life to be had clinging to a single spot, real or imagined, terrified of the river that we all must continue to navigate.
There is debris floating on the river, ideas we can hold onto and that still help us float downstream. But we must be careful to be ready to let them go when the time comes, to follow the branches of the river with the most solid of river beds, most strongly founded on reason and goodwill. Neither alone is quite enough: Goodwill without reason leads to good intentions poorly executed, which can be as harmful to humanity as malicious intentions rationally executed (i.e., “reason” without goodwill). The two must always be combined: We fare well neither atop the loose gravel of goodwill irrationally expressed, nor atop the thick muck of malice, regardless of how well or poorly executed it may be.
(This is a good place to pause, and make an important distinction between functional and substantive rationality. Functional rationality refers to pursuing a goal in a manner which most effectively achieves it, while substantive rationality refers to selecting goals which are most rational to achieve. There is a bit of a conceptual hierarchy to it, involving more proximate and more ultimate goals, and thus intermediate goals whose substantive rationality depends on how well they serve the ultimate goals beyond them. But it is important to understand that our knowledge of human irrationality, that humans do not make decisions and form opinions primarily through reason, and that recourse to rational arguments are not the best means of persuasion, refers only to functional rationality, to the fact that understanding and working with irrational congitive realities is necessary to functional rationality. It does not refer to substantive rationality, to the challenge facing each and every one of us to pursue those goals which best serve our collective welfare. We may have to appeal to cognitive frames and narratives to convince people to come on board, but we must exercise great discipline while doing so to ensure that we are inviting them aboard a sound vessel bound for a desirable destination.)
For some simple issues, goodwill is nearly enough on its own. Many civil rights issues fall into this category, such as legalizing civil unions and gay marriage. But many issues, particularly economic issues, involve complex dynamical systems, feedback loops, and numerous counterintuitive consequences to particular actions and policies. On such issues, it is critical that people let go of their ideological certainties, and agree instead to try to become part of a process which favors the best analyses, most in service to universal goodwill. There are real challenges to establishing such processes, but they are not insurmountable challenges. They are the kinds of challenges that we are most fundamentally called upon to confront affirmatively and effectively.
I have made some initial efforts in outlining how to pursue this vision, how to concretize a commitment to reason and goodwill, even in an irrational world laden with zealously defended competing interests (see, e.g., A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, and How to make a kinder and more reasonable world). I have elaborated on several of the components (see, e.g., Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives and Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)). I have identified and analyzed several of the challenges involved, several of the underlying concepts and dynamics, including The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, Ideology v. Methodology, Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems, The Variable Malleability of Reality, and a whole series of essays on “The evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems” (see second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). I am also in the processes of having a page developed dedicated to this project at http://sharedpurpose.net/.
I’m asking people to join me in this effort to reach down to the most fundamental level of our shared existence, to base a movement not merely on the imperfect certainties floating on the surface of our historical stream, but on the rock-solid riverbed beneath. We can build a long-term and powerfully attractive movement based on Reason and Goodwill themselves, not expecting people to be anything other than what we are, but learning how to work with that in the ways which yield the most positive outcomes. It’s time to let our imaginations and our far-sightedness shape for us a methodology, a process, a movement whose purpose is not to triumph on this issue or that, or to win an electoral majority for this party or that, but rather to cultivate the minds and hearts and hands of all of us in ways which favor wiser and more compassionate thought and action, and wiser and more compassionate public policies. Until we consciously undertake that challenge, we have not even truly begun to realize our potential as a people.