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A Facebook posting of an audioless YouTube clip of Michelle Obama whispering something into President Obama’s ear during a 9/11 ceremony, the movement of her lips slight and completely indecipherable, with a caption insisting that her unknown and unknowable words were  a comment about the amount of ceremony surrounding the flag, eliciting on the Facebook thread the typical hateful comments about her being “the worst first-lady ever” and “not being a lady.” Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum disdainfully calling President Obama a snob for saying that he would like to see all children go on to higher education, whether college or trade school or technical training. The phenomenon I’ve dubbed “Sharianity”, in which any act of violence committed by any Muslim anywhere in the world is taken as proof that America is being overrun by Sharia law (huh?). The Basal Ganglia of humanity dominating comment boards and Facebook threads.

This is not a right-left issue. Yes, it’s true, the preponderance of the belligerence, especially on the substantive side (see The Basic Political Ideological Grid), comes from the Right, but there is more than enough (especially in the form of how it’s expressed) coming from the Left. And there are both reasonable people of goodwill to be found on the Right, and irrational and belligerent people to be found on the Left.

The real political divide is not between the right and the left, but rather between, on the one hand, people who strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, humble enough to know that they don’t know all of the answers, and committed to working together with all others willing to do so to confront the challenges of a complex and subtle world; and, on the other hand, people who surrender almost completely to their own irrationality and belligerence, attacking any pursuit of knowledge as “snobbery” and any attempt to implement knowledge as “elitism,” eager to vilify all members of all out-groups (e.g., Muslims, Hispanics, Gays, Non-Judeo-Christians and Non-Americans in general) and ostentatiously both wave the flags and crosses of the in-group while subjecting those who don’t to a soft-Inquisition into why they lack the virtue to do so.

But, while the substantive positions of the Right are saturated in this error, the expressed attitudes of many on the left are so as well. To paraphrase and adapt Shakespeare to the current context, “The Fault, Dear Brutus….” is not with those enemies over there, but with ourselves. If the Right turns hatred into planks in a platform, the Left too often turns into a habit of thought and speech directed reflexively against those on the Right. We have to attack the offending ideas more than the people foolish enough to embrace them. And we have to do so even when the offending idea is that those on the Left are pure and good while those on the Right are villains to be vanquished.

I am not shy in my criticisms of right-wing ideology (see, for instance, the essays linked to in the box labeled “Tea Party Political Fundamentalism and Responses To It” at Catalogue of Selected Posts). But I am no less inclined to let left-wing intransigence and belligerence get a free pass (see, for example, many of the essays linked to in the “Politics of Reason and Goodwill” box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). And, despite the incessant attempts to equate this criticism of belligerence to a Pollyanna call for perfect civility and cordiality, a spirit of compromise that assumes and requires that others are reasonable people of goodwill as well, that is not, in fact, what it is. Reason and goodwill do not require passivity, or surrender, or an unwillingness to confront irrationality and belligerence with implaccable resolve. There is a place for strong words and “offensive” analogies (see, e.g., Godwin’s Law, Revisited and Humanity v. Civility), even occasionally for actual violence (such as to prevent a genocide), but only as long as they are done not in service to hatred or anger, but rather in service to a genuine commitment to humanity.

People often aren’t sure how to tell the difference. Here are some guidelines: 1) Those who refuse olive-branches sincerely offered are acting in pettiness rather than in service to humanity; 2) Those who revel in their belligerence are acting in service to anger rather than in service to humanity; 3) Those who vilify individuals more than they critique ideas are acting in service to hatred rather than in service to humanity; 4) Those who are certain that they possess the one, definitive substantive truth that their political enemies just don’t get are acting in service to  hubris rather than in service to humanity; 5) Those who cling to their false certainties rather than commit to processes by which to refine them are acting in service to moral and intellectual laziness rather than in service to humanity.

We can do better. One step toward doing better is for each one of us who is so inclined, each one of us who wants to act more in service to humanity and less in service to pettiness, belligerence, hatred, hubris, and moral and intellectual laziness, to decide to strive to exercise the discipline involved, invest the effort involved, make the commitment involved, to walking the walk as well talking the talk (see The Power of “Walking the Walk”).

Social change starts within each one of us, in the battle to be committed enough to do more than gratify our own emotional need to smite the enemy, in the struggle to be, not perfect, but sincerely committed to making this a better world, a commitment which requires each and every one of us to strive to make ourselves better individuals. Reason and goodwill, sincerely felt and sincerely advocated, are powerful forces, difficult to deny, easy to gravitate toward. All we need do is commit to them more diligently, make them our guiding forces, and act accordingly.

I’ve been developing A Proposal: The Politics of Kindness in recent weeks, as well as communicating with others from across the political spectrum on matters of policy, ideology, and personal style, and the sheer lunacy and pettiness of popular discourse raises the question of whether reason and goodwill are powerful enough forces to cut through it, or whether those who are advocates for reason and goodwill have simply failed to present it in a transparent and compelling enough manner.

Here’s what should be completely non-controversial: We should govern ourselves by using sound reason applied to reliable information in service to all legitimate values and goals, including the protection and augmentation of individual liberty, the recognition of mutual interdependence, and a commitment to kindness and compassion. And yet, it is controversial, the simplicity of it buried beneath various idolatries and ideological rationalizations.

One former supporter wrote me and said that my use of jargon turns him off, and that I would attract more people to my ideas by avoiding it. I wrote back thanking him, telling him that I thought that he was absolutely right, that I would work on it, but that my writing style is really just my writing style, and it probably wasn’t going to change dramatically, in part due to my own lack of skill and my own unwillingness to invest the amount of time and energy necessary. I asked him to “bear with me.” He replied that I had chosen not to take his suggestion, but rather to rationalize continuing to do what he suggested I stop doing, so he wasn’t going to bear with me. I responded: “Fair enough. Different people have different ways of thinking, speaking, writing, and behaving. Some of those differences shouldn’t be tolerated, and some should. It’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves where we draw that line. No hard feelings.”

How much should it matter to any of us if another person’s writing style is annoying? Should it matter any more than if another has a tic, or a stutter, or a physical defect? How much does it matter whether the offending trait is seen as more or less an artifact of volition, or amenable to voluntary modification? Should gay rights really hinge on the argument over whether it is a life-style choice, or an inherent characteristic?

The defects of some ideologies (not just some conservative ones) have more to do with attitude than with substance. They are characterized by intolerance, absolutism, and other attributes that are inherently centrifugal in nature, tearing people apart rather than binding us together. Progressives should not see themselves as being in a battle against external foes called “conservatives,” but rather against both internal and external foes called “intolerance, irrationality, ignorance, anger, hostility, cruelty” and so on.

It’s time for all reasonable people of goodwill to dedicate ourselves to The Politics of Kindness. Yes, well-reasoned and well-informed kindness; well-communicated kindness; kindness that seeks the kindest outcomes and not just the kindest intentions; kindness that is disciplined and channeled and cautious in its certainties; kindness that is courageous and assertive and even at times combative in its advocacy; but, ultimately, kindness.

We exhaust ourselves in futile opposition to irrelevancies, and fortify ourselves within shallow but passionately held dogmas. What if we simply all tried to do better? Or, more realistically, what if those of us who read this message, or receive it from some other source, or independently think of it, consider the possibility of doing better? What if all those who care about participating productively in the creation of our future dedicate themselves to doing better? And what if all those so inclined began to more consistently and frequently encourage others to do better as well, in the kindest and most endearing of ways?

I’ve learned a lot from my seven-year-old daughter. One of the things I’ve learned is that love is far more powerful than anger. And, in the same vein, tolerance is far more powerful than intolerance. Kindness is far more powerful than hatred or indifference. Reason is far more powerful than irrationality, and knowledge is far more powerful than ignorance. And yet, these more powerful forces seem forever on the defensive. Anger, intolerance, hatred, mutual indifference, irrationality, and ignorance are forever on the march, while love, tolerance, kindness, reason, and knowledge seem forever (or at least too frequently) in retreat. It’s not because the latter set is weaker, but rather because those of us who would be its advocates are weaker in our commitment to it, which demands more of its adherents than do hatred, intolerance, anger, indifference, irrationality, and ignorance.

Those who want reason and kindness to prevail in the political sphere have to work harder in promoting it within ourselves, within our families and communities, within our thoughts and our actions. We will continue to lose to weaker forces more easily served unless and until we do.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The bulk of my posts aggregate to inform A Proposal for a social movement, one which combines devising the best policy analyses in service to humanity with the best and most innovative and cognitively sophisticated messaging in order to attract an ever-widening range of the public to the agenda of Reason and Goodwill. The element that may be most novel and most powerful, however, is not this combination of the essentially familiar ingredients of policy analysis and messaging, but rather the one that can be a game changer, the one that may prove to be an irresistible force: Organizing not to change government or implement particular public policies so much as to create a simultaneously personal and social commitment to one another, by actually “walking the walk” of goodwill,  of mutual interdependence  and support, associating with “the progressive agenda” the attraction of a lived commitment to other people’s welfare.

As I wrote in The Ultimate Political Challenge, a single Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. captures the imagination and, in time, wins over the hardened hearts of much of the opposition. They both knew the power of their goodwill, of their personal commitment to it, and acted with the discipline to turn that goodwill into a social force. These two “political entrepreneurs” mobilized their “charismatic authority” in service to specific issues within a Progressive world view (Indian Independence and African American Civil Rights, respectively). What we lack today are similarly compelling political entrepreneurs, mobilizing similarly dedicated charismatic authority. And the step that hasn’t yet been taken is to mobilize those forces not to address a single issue, but to address the underlying issue of being a people dedicated to reason and empathy.

Today, there are many progressives angrily striving to implement progressive policies, but too often doing so with little or no internalized, personalized, and dedicated goodwill toward fellow human beings. It is just another blind ideology in their hands, not a commitment, not something they’re willing to sacrifice for. I challenge each and every one of them –AND MYSELF– not just to talk the talk, but also to walk the walk, to be, to some small degree, a tribute to those who were willing to give their lives to humanity, by giving some portion of our own. I challenge us all to strive to be “political entrepreneurs,” to strive to invoke our own “charismatic authority,” to demonstrate that individual initiative does not have to be mobilized only in service to the accumulation of individual wealth. I challenge us all to do good by being good, and by being good, vastly increasing our credibility as advocates for public policies aligned with that spirit.

The Tea Partiers, and other extreme individualists, who have managed to rationalize an indifference to the suffering of others and a denial of the responsibilities to others that come with the blessings of good fortune, are able to dismiss Progressives as people who want to spend other people’s money against their will, because, in fact, that’s all they see. But what if they saw instead the people who organize to mentor neighborhood kids, to help out those who are facing a crisis, to counsel and assist people in need, to be what they preach we as a society should be, and only in conjunction with that lived commitment, only as an auxiliary to it, are struggling to create a government that facilitates what they are already doing every day, in every way, as a natural part of our shared existence? Can you imagine the force of such a social movement?

All reasonable people of goodwill, who want to promote reason and goodwill, need to do so on the ground, in daily life, independently of government, if they want the advance of reason and goodwill to prevail. Those who can’t summon enough commitment to model for others what reason and goodwill look and feel like need to recognize that they are no better than those they oppose, no more than a bunch of people trying to impose their will on others without being willing to live up to the demands they themselves have made. No wonder the Progressive Movement is making so little headway! Who can trust armchair altruists, who talk a good game but live lives no more noble or generous than those they condemn?

I passionately want for us to become a kinder and gentler nation, a nation of people lifting one another up, a nation aspiring to realize the potential of the human spirit. There is one clear path to that end: For all of those who want the same to commit themselves to its realization, by becoming the kinds of irresistible beacons to reason and goodwill that Gandhi and King were, that each of us can be, even if to some smaller extent. By as many of us as possible striving to do so, we will give the Progressive brand a reputation for sincere goodwill that ever fewer will be able to deny. And the future will increasingly belong to what is best and most admirable in human beings.

This is what a commitment to Progressive policies demands of us: A commitment to personal progress in service to social progress, to being as individuals what we are advocating that we become as a society. Striving to rise to that challenge is the greatest gift we could give to our children, to their children, and to ourselves.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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