Thursday, May 31, 2007

Intolerance is a Catalyst for Social Decline

Many oppressed members of our society believe they cannot have friends in mainstream America; even if we could all agree on who mainstream America represents. Gays and lesbians, AIDS victims; immigrant rights groups, sufferers of racial profiling, child custody casualties; terminally ill patients who want a medically aided end of life; privacy protection advocates, tobacco users, feminists and anti-feminists; Intellectuals, Pagans, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and Masons—these and hundreds of other such groups have tended historically to be the victims of cultural stereotyping. And even when the victimized groups get fed up and become motivated enough to push for a political/religious agenda to right such biased labeling, their mission more often than not becomes only a defensive act. However well intended, they will seldom win over their peers by playing defense. They just can’t score enough points against those who oppose them.

The problem is that almost all so-called mainline groups who oppose what they term the societal fringe--the outsiders—also, in fact, make these same groups out to be victims. But it is a different kind of victimizing. The moral do-gooders are experts at creating us vs. them strategies.

To me, the perplexing thing about this is that while these self-appointed moral legislators seem increasingly to gain public attention as our nation becomes more culturally diverse, many of us still aren’t sure how we personally come down on many of the above named groups. We may share similar biases toward one or more of them, but when it gets down to forcing all of us to agree with some of us in regard to turning attitudes into more restrictive laws, the real majority of mainstream Americans don’t care much about being on board with our do-gooder friends. When the issue gets down to our own personal level, no one of us wants to be told by others how to live our life. We can feel empathy toward those oppressed in our society. We are fundamentally opposed to overt discrimination because it represents a restriction to our own basic freedoms.

Further, a lot of us weary quickly of frontal attacks which attempt to turn one societal group against another. We have enough problems of our own to be paying much attention to who’s bashing who in our greater society. And in America, when things seem to get too rigidly defined, we tend to ultimately draw the line by referring back to our founding roots; that we are a country erected on principles of equality and toleration.

The greater question may be why we put up with so much intolerance in the first place.

It’s not so much that we don’t comprehend the fallacy of intolerance. It is just that many of us appear not to care. Perhaps we see all this name calling and political correctness stuff as a mere inconvenience because it hasn’t yet taken away all our rights. The problem with being tolerant is that we end up tolerating too much intolerance. Through our own longing for privacy and seclusion, we, as the real silent majority, often end up allowing other extremist groups calling themselves the majority to manipulate the field of battle. By the time our own civil and personal rights become eroded to the point that we ourselves say; ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!, we’re already playing a game of media and political catch-up with those whose opinions have taken on the collective voice of a movement.

I can rally around a great cause as well as the next guy so long as I can clearly see that society will be improved and no one will be hurt because of it. But I am also painfully aware the more common characteristic of movements is that they generally tend to restrict, rather than expand human choice. And when movements catch the attention of the media, lawmakers and public authorities, the result can too easily be the overturning of individual and societal protections—those same protections guaranteed us by a constitution that permits us to be truly free.

Perhaps the issue would not be so important if we didn’t know so much about the characteristics of intolerance. Fortunately, we have the benefit of having observed it throughout much of the world’s history. We know that it is almost always driven by hatred or fear. And it often thrives on apathy. There is an inherently stubborn tendency in humans not to openly admit to ignorance and lack of understanding which is the seed from which intolerance grows.

To a mindset that wraps how it thinks around platitudes which feel politically correct, it becomes far too easy to simply turn an opinion into truth, and then abolish or censor all other points of view. The saner option of working on the transformative nature of learning and growing through education, knowledge and experience; of balancing faith with reason, of independent thought and analysis; just seems too rigorous a process.

So the impassioned voices of a few grab the public spotlight and influence the morally upright and ethically unwary that they represent the mainstream. All we have to do is endorse or follow the ideas of the gifted few and everything will be kept morally good and equal with the status quo (conveniently forgetting there is no such thing as the status quo).

When Americans buy into such babbling, it is the same as taking the next step toward social tyranny. We can be sure the masterminds responsible for influencing public opinion around a cause know that using political or religious strategy in creating follower-ship, if popularized, will have the effect of restricting or eliminating another’s equal right of opinion on the same social, political or religious issue. Their goal is to ultimately make the opposing position disappear. And it is easy for us casual observers to forget that such techniques violate the foundational criteria for a free society—that we must keep diversity of opinions in full view if we wish to enjoy our own freedom of conscience and expression.

The fact is we live in a politically and socially diverse world. It is much too late in our own cultural evolution to hope to find much ground for common expression. There is so much diversity in America in our time that we really can seldom be in total agreement with each other; let alone among groups and divisions within groups. We must surely know by now that one characteristic of sustained growth in any population born of diversity is that factionalism and a sense of otherness will exist. As cultural diversity in each generation expands, each generation’s sense of history tends to focus more on ethnicity than nationalism. The result will always be a loss in commonality of perception and purpose. This is why public discourse is so important to social stability.

This is why it is equally important that we also embrace equality. It may seem much easier to oppose diversity. It is easy to see and fear it as a disintegration of society. But we must not forget that a single point of view will seldom aid in re-creating a united purpose. We don’t help America by stifling other opinions, lifestyles, groups, and behaviors which we perceive (or at least can effectively argue) to fall outside the mainstream opinion; i.e., our own opinion.

All of this is really just “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.” We must remember that the highest price to be paid for freedom is to allow others to be free. This means they can practice their religion even if we find their practices wrong and repugnant. This means that we allow the free and full exploration of an idea, even if we think it wrong and dangerous. It means that we permit people to live their own lifestyles, even if they shock ours. The point is that principles should always prevail over sentiment.

Any time one group of people declares war on another, morality is lost. A free society is not about always winning. Rather, it is about understanding the real enemies of human freedom and dignity. And tyranny would seem to me to be an obvious enemy. An oppressor riding over the oppressed is a powerful image, and one can see the wrongness of it at once.

It would behoove us to recognize that tyranny is not always historical. It occurs in the here and now. It takes place whenever any person or group says: “What I want is more important than what you want. My desires are more important than yours. I matter more than you matter. My views are more right than yours. Do things my way, or else.” And when such attitude is backed with force or power, oppression is added to tyranny.

A minority can tyrannize a majority; a majority can tyrannize a minority; a single man can tyrannize a nation; a man or woman can tyrannize a family; a teacher can tyrannize a classroom; an employer can tyrannize an employee; a religious faction can tyrannize a sect; a sect can tyrannize a religion; a political or social movement can tyrannize a society; a nation can tyrannize a state.

The point of this rambling is that no man, no interest group, no state, no religion, no nation, has the right to insist that it knows the Truth and that all others are wrong. Yes, we all have the personal right to pick our interests, our religion, our lifestyle, our passions, our advocacies. But we do not have the right to assert: “I have the truth, the only truth, and if you dare to disagree with me, I have the right to condemn, oppress or harm you until you come around to my way of thinking.”

Every religion and philosophy known to man has its equivalent of “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Yet, we sit in judgment of our fellow humans every day; and resent it when others judge us. It is not easy to be a just man, to constantly review our own actions and carefully make the better choice. But it is the path we should take. A wrong done to another is an injury done to our own nature, an offence against our own soul, a disfiguring of the image of God--the Beautiful and the Good.

We must learn to have a respect for religion. It exists, and has a place in society. Many of our own people are devoutly religious. But religious groups should not be permitted to actively promote a political message as they do now; at least not without also being classified as Political Action Committees or lobbying organizations, and their current activities proscribed by tax and other organizational regulations.

We must grow beyond our political correctness, fundamental beliefs, and old leftist ideologies because, in the end, all are doctrinaire and become dysfunctional in a diverse culture.

Intolerance may ultimately burn itself out because a human’s capacity to love is too great for any form of fascism. But it does so only at great cost to society. We must always view it a social illness that cannot sustain a civil society. Our contemporary challenge is in finding a cure.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Democracy May Not Work in a Digitally Connected World

Democracy has not been an easy idea in history, even in its beginnings with the Greek city-states. Plato didn’t like it for fear that it would give power to those who are the least intellectually capable of governing. He needed only to remind us of the judgment against Socrates, the wisest man of Athens, condemned to death by a so-called peer democracy.

Aristotle did not believe in equality any more than Plato, and thought no better of democracy, considering it equal only to tyranny and oligarchy. The only consolation he offered was that when the worst democracy was corrupt, it is better than the best democracy when it is corrupt. The Romans didn’t much like democracy either, fearing direct participation by the people in the affairs of state would produce a society devoid of excellence. In fact, democracy was not sanctioned as a western ideal until the 17th century enlightenment period. And even the enlightenment philosophers weren’t too keen on it.

Thomas Hobbes was convinced democracy could only lead to anarchy. He believed power in governance should be absolute. Even John Locke, who championed the voice of the people in societal improvement, argued vehemently that society could only advance through some kind of social contract. The great enlightenment encyclopeodist, Diderot, favored a constitutional monarchy. Voltaire thought an enlightened monarchy would be best.

The issue of the rightness of democracy was wholly unsettled even with the founding of America. The word is not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Jefferson and Hamilton saw America as a republic. John Adams considered democracy “ignoble and an unjust form of government.”

The point of all this rambling is that it would seem the concept of democracy is fraught with ethical, political, economic and social questions which are difficult to answer. And in considering just such questions, we may be faced with an even larger issue in our own time.

To be sure, our present definition of democracy is different than that of our Greek, Roman, Renaissance, and Enlightenment thinkers. The founders of America were men of vast learning and refined intellect. They lived in a somewhat elitist culture and mindset. A widespread public reverence for greatness facilitated a process of governance in which it was expected the very best of our nation’s citizens would rule in our behalf. We must remember that in America’s beginnings, citizens did not directly vote for the president, vice-president, or members of the Senate.

Back then, it was generally acknowledged that the two forms of government most favorable for falsehood and deceit were despotism and democracy. The great 19th century Mason and philosopher, Albert Pike, wrote of despotism; “the concern was that men would be made treacherous through fear.” Pike added, “under democracy, the fear was men would become treacherous as a means of attaining popularity and office, or from their greed for wealth.” Our founding fathers were firm in their conviction that when office and wealth become the gods of the people; when the most unworthy and unfit most aspire to the former; when fraud becomes the highway to the latter, the result will be nothing less than chaos.

Unfortunately, our American experience seems too often to show that when our public offices are open to all, merit, integrity, dignity and honor are rarely attained.

Of course, it must be recognized our concept of democracy today has an entirely different meaning than the historical context I have just reviewed. We just assume our fellow citizens will abide by the laws and policies of those agencies of government whose activities control our community life. We feel sure in our protection that our consent to be governed will be protected by our constitution and by our freedom of thought and speech. The philosophy of our current democracy is that people are to be respected as an absolute end in themselves, and must not be used as a means to some political purpose or external end.

Hello! We may have a problem! There is something missing in this relatively new model of the will of the governed. It doesn’t work. It hasn’t for a long time. And the reason it doesn’t work is that we have changed the ways in which we communicate with each other. The key to how well our government works is based on how we communicate. Good government in the context of democracy can only be assured when people actively participate in its success. Democracy can never work when the majority of the people who are supposed to make it successful by their participation choose to be apathetic toward it. John Stuart Mill perhaps said it best: “Let a person have nothing to do for his country, and he will not care for it.” He argued that active participation of the governed in the process of being governed is an essential component of a democratic system.

Myself, along with a lot of my fellow Americans, are not caring enough these days. Even Tocqueville understood that indifference is the death of democracy. There is a direct relationship between objective involvement and the degree of public good rendered to all. There is a relationship between the kind of government that works best and the means of communication available in it.

The problem is that we don’t all have the same education, we do not live in the same homes with our parents and grandparents, we do not stay in the same place, we do not have the same feelings and attitudes. We do not share the same traditions, or enjoy the same fortune. Indeed, we hardly know each other.

There is no longer a movement of ideas. There is only information.

In the past centuries, we could depend on the printed word to supply us with ideas and knowledge. Since we only had one means of inter-community communication, what we read in newspapers, magazines, and journals created for us a national conversation. Our world was filled with essays on almost every subject of interest, and the same printed word was available everywhere. The influence of the printed word was powerful because it was the only means of communication. For the first hundred fifty years of our democracy, there was no television, no radio, no internet, no movies, no ipods, no CD’s. The public business was channeled into and expressed through print. It was the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse.

The result was that Americans didn’t converse. They discussed. And their conversations were more like dissertations. Whenever people went to hear a political speech, a sermon, or a lecture, they expected an oration no different from what they were reading every week in print. People thought and conversed as if they were writing, rather than talking, to each other.

The bottom line is that those who framed our democracy knew nothing about instantaneous information, interactive media, info-commercials, television political campaigns, and all the dressings of our post-modern culture.

Instead, they invented our democracy on the assumption that there would always be wide public discourse. And a majority of the people would pay attention. Community debates would be based more on critical thinking skills, historical perspective, and a knowledge that meaning demands to be understood; rather than on immediate information, irrelevant feedback, and quick fix attitudes. To engage language means to follow a line of thought, which, in turn, requires considerable powers of classifying, inference making and reason. It means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions and to connect one generalization to another.

A democratic process is never enriched without language with content, individuality with intellect, and narrative with balanced meaning. If we wish to revive the essence and rewards inherent to a democracy, we cannot be satisfied with a world limited to quick and easy access to information. Rather, we will need to engage ourselves in the slower, linear, reflective forms characteristic of the good old printed word. This was the recipe for good democracy.

If we can’t get back to this level of communication, then we may as well take another look at a constitutional monarchy.