I try to minimize my involvement in political debate in this blog, because I see philosophy as being prior to a political ideology, and more important to focus on. But I did want to briefly share a few ideas today that have been on my mind, loosely related to politics.
“For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil,” says Thoreau, “there is one striking at the root.” From my perspective, the West has made progress in many ways, including a strong condemnation of racism, sexism, violence, and is guided by the presummed intrinsic worth of each human life. This is unprecendented in the known history of humanity; never before have we sought to include everyone in our moral circle. But I wonder if we’ve gotten off track in recent decades, focusing on the symptoms of a sickness–the ‘leaves of evil’ as Thoreau calls them–and not the root from which they stem.
That is, despite the obvious social progress, what I see in many who claim to speak up for the oppressed and downtrodden is itself a kind of vindictive, nasty attitude towards others who share different values–and this isn’t isolated to one political ideology; it’s ubiquitous in our culture. The reactions to a viral video made during a Covington Catholic High School incident involving high school students and a Native American elder are a case in point (you can read a bit about it here).
The details of the incident, what the students were standing for, whether or not they actually were guilty of disrespecting Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder, I confess that I know little about, nor care to investigate. We should put this in perspective: these were high school students–children. And it’s very clear that the short clip that was being circulated around and commented on by the mainstream news was out of context. Longer videos surfaced, which put the incident in a different light. You certainly can’t say that the high school students were ganging up on Phillips, or sought confrontation with him. And it’s impossible to ascertain exactly what was going on in terms of their motivations.
They may have been disrespectful, or the whole thing could be a comedy of errors as some are saying. But in the end, that’s not the point. But–and here’s the significance–these high school students were met with actual death threats, actual threats of violence. Several high level celebrities called for violence against the boy in the video. …this boy is 16 years old. Is this how we protect our young? Is this how we teach our children to be inclusive and to not hate others? …by calling for violence and punishment, virtual pariah-hood?
The point is that our society has become so fractured politically that nothing is taken in good faith, every percieved slight is considered an unforgivable sin, and instead of allowing for political disagreement, we view any deviations from our point of view to be, well, evil.
Let’s not forget that human values and attitudes are largely formed by upbringing and by experience. We are a tribal animal; we gravitate towards tribes, and our belief tends to conform to that of the tribe whether its rationally based or not. Most of us form conclusions first, justifications second.
The point of the Western, Humanist agenda, which certainly includes things like anti-racism, anti-sexism, and really any kind of demographic discrimination, is rooted in the idea that human beings have an intrinsic worth. Now, I happen to believe that this philosophical view lacks a clear foundation without reference to a transcendental set of values, but that’s a tributary of thought that I can’t explore in this post. It will suffice to say that I more or less take the position of the American philosopher Richard Rorty, who calls an “ironist” one who, essentially, acknowledges the ultimate foundationlessness of the Humanist viewpoint, and yet nevertheless upholds it as a central value and strives to fulfill it’s agenda–Universal Human Suffrage, tolerance, equality before the law, and the common respect of all individuals by virtue of their humanity.
I feel like this blog post could easily get rant-y, and so I’ll keep it short: what we need to do, in my view, is to inject a little forgiveness into our discourse. I reject that there exists such a thing as a metaphysical evil, and I certainly reject that an individual can be regarded as ‘evil.’ We make mistakes, big mistakes, sometimes mistakes that require action for the safety of others. But in the end, we must be willing to see our staunchest ideological foe as worthy of our respect.
Martin Luther King, Jr., said it best: “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”
What we want is to regard the entire human race as one Tribe, one people. That starts by seeing those who regard themselves as different from you as possessing a common human nature.
Yes, even the fascists–of both parties.
Yes, even the racists. The religious fundamentalists. The despoilers of the environment. The one percent.
I will never cease saying it: Love is the only thing that has intrinsic value. And though I am not prepared with some logical argument at the ready, I neverless say, as Rorty’s “ironist” does, that I simply hold Univeral Love as a value. The oppressor is also the oppressed, as both Jesus and the Buddha knew. What we do to others we do to ourselves, and however difficult it may be to accept, both are equally deserving of Love and inclusion in the human Tribe.
Namaste. Please share if you found this to be of value.