It is commonly believed that our digital world has fragmented our culture into micro-niches. In the spheres of ideas, political views, and social ethics, it is said that groups who hold similar beliefs simply remain in cultural cantons where those ideas are reflected, reinforced, and amplified. Old, white Republicans watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh, while urban metrosexuals watch Jon Stewart and MSNBC. In this world, no one is forced to confront, or take into account, alternative ways of seeing the world.
It is suggested that one of the effects of this cybernetic reinforcement loop is that with this reflection and amplification, viewpoints become more extreme and rigid. I must be right, we believe, because everyone I speak to, or listen to, says so!
Though there is probably great truth in this view, I am observing an opposite phenomenon that is occurring as a result of the rise of social media.
The social media platform Facebook is extraordinary because it has made it possible for me to reconnect with virtually everyone I’ve had a relationship with in my life. I am now in contact with grade school friends I lost touch with decades ago. It has been surprising to discover how similar in sensibility and viewpoint most of us have turned out. But not everybody.
There are some “Facebook friends” whose views are vastly different than my own. Let me confess. As someone who lived through the 1960’s, I consider myself to be a member of the “radical passé.” If I had to put myself into such a category, I guess that would make me a liberal. Since I am just like everyone else in my cohort, I don’t see myself as a leftie. I just see myself as someone who is intelligent and correct. But I guess that’s not how everyone else would see me. Equivalently, I can’t help but see those I disagree with, not as right-wingers, but as ignorant, ill-informed, and/or psychologically wounded. They’re not bad, they’re simply misguided.
Whereas in day-to-day life we rarely encounter, or have to deal with, people whose views are radically different than ours, and manners prevent us from accentuating our differences when we do spend time with those with different takes on the world, this isn’t the case on Facebook. Sometimes my fellow Obama-loving 99%er Democrats and I find ourselves in intimate conversation with the most extreme anti-global warming, birther, Glenn Beck Republicans. Because this new space has brought unusual groupings of people together in unprecedented ways, this has created a new phenomenon of social-media culture-clash.
Though I believe that a lively public space where contrasting views can be aired is the lifeblood of democracy, from my observation the results of these social media conversations are always catastrophic.
I’ve recently had an experience on LinkedIn that brought this kind of thing into clear relief.
I am a psychotherapist and couples counselor. I had published a post on my blog about gay marriage. In the piece, I asserted, among other things, that gay marriage was good for one’s emotional wellbeing, could be a meaningful aspect of one’s self-actualization, and that the ability to choose who to love was an essential human right. I used evidence from the world’s philosophies, spiritual traditions, science, and my own experience and observations to back up this statement.
I am a member of several LinkedIn groups populated by individuals who share a common profession or interest. Curious about how other professionals in my field thought and felt about this issue, I began a conversation asking where they stood on gay marriage.
Within these groups, many individuals became engaged in these conversations. Interestingly, though the conversations went on in different forums with different participants, several went in a similar direction. They became fights between fundamentalist Christians and everyone else.
It was a shock for the group members to discover fundamentalists in their midst. Most mental health professionals have a similar, humanistic ethos that I share. The confrontation stoked passions, and harsh words were said on both sides.
Both constituencies in the debate ended up feeling similarly: misunderstood, shamed, frustrated, and angry. The experience of those who were pro-gay marriage was that they were being attacked and bullied. The anti-gay marriage religious fundamentalists had the experience that their viewpoints were being rejected, marginalized, and condemned.
No one moved from their position in any way. The argument was endless, and went nowhere.
As a relationship expert, it is my job to help people bridge the divides that separate us. If there is anyone in the world who is qualified to bring about some kind of harmony between people of differing views, it should be me. And yet, I have not found a way to bridge the gulf that I have seen come up in these social media platforms. And I have not seen anyone else, even in this cohort of mental health professionals that participated in the LinkedIn conversations, be able to find a way either.
The depth, extremity, and apparent insurmountability of this divide is both cause and reflection of a deep and pervasive societal problem that manifests in many of the most intractable and serious difficulties we face in our country today. The polarization in our culture has rendered our politics dysfunctional. We cannot find common solutions to common problems.
This inscrutable difficulty, of finding harmony between irreconcilable parts, is important for individuals as well. We therapists have come to understand, as Freud revealed, that we are a house divided against ourselves. We are each made up of conflicting parts, and psychological pathology can in one way be defined as when these parts, or what we call “ego states,” live in disharmony.
Obviously, every relationship is dependent on different people finding a way to live together harmoniously. Our divorce rate and low marriage rate tells us how miserably we are doing with that project in the sphere of our personal relationships. So figuring out a way to bridge the unbridgeable gulf of extreme difference is important on every level; for individuals, relationships, families, and societies as a whole.
The problem, in each domain, emerges from a central fact about “mind.” Mind is dual. If we can think of a “this,” we automatically think of a “that.” As Tevye, the main character in the play “Fiddler on the Roof,” put it, “On one hand . . .but on the other hand. . .”
There is an underlying duality that informed the LinkedIn argument. This argument has been going on in every advanced culture since people have been able to think. On one side, there are those who believe that we are essentially good. On the other, are those that believe we are essentially bad.
The stream of thought that believes in our essential goodness flows from a deep philosophical tradition that extends back, in the West, to at least the time of the great Greek philosopher, Socrates. It traveled through the great, Greek democratic experiment that inspires our own. It emerged again in the European Renaissance. We find it in the development of the scientific method. It is central to the Enlightenment which led to the formation of America by the founders. It has also shown up in civilizations as far flung as the Chinese, with the philosophy of Confucius. This is the great flow of humanism. It suggests that we have been endowed by the creator with a mind that can think and reason, and we are meant to use this powerful organ to continuously develop our souls, to come to know the truth, and to live by this truth, in our quest for goodness, harmony, peace, love, and happiness. The democracy we love flows from this belief. It is based on the notion that the most successful society is built on the potential of an enlightened citizenry. If each person can be educated and have a cultivated soul, they can, together, make the best decisions for how their society should be run. It is not the vote that makes democracy, but the educated, empowered citizens, working together for the common good.
Once we open our mind to this path, we make certain inevitable discoveries. Though we know the truth exists, when through our reasoning powers we come to know the limitations of our dualistic mind, we know that we do not know “the truth.” We are imperfect, but our task is to heal and improve ourselves, our relationships, and the world. We are essentially good, but are distanced from our best selves. We all have infinite potential, and our task is to move toward, in our short span of vital life, the realization of this potential. Equivalently, we know that our culture and politics are imperfect, but our job is advance toward a “more perfect union.”
The humanist is not guided by a law or doctrine laid down by an authority, but by an overriding concept, or idea. Such are the guiding principles of our country. The ideas of justice, fairness, and equality, for example, supersede any particular definition as represented in a particular rule at any particular time. To illustrate this idea, let’s use the word democracy, itself. Our country was not formed with an ideal democracy perfectly realized. We had slaves, and women could not vote. Our task, as a humanist society, is to always move closer to the ideal. That is why, through an understanding of the ideals of democracy, we expanded the right to vote to women and ended slavery, even though this was not included by the framers of our constitution.
For those of us who think like this, change is good. Through the advance of understanding through dialogue, we have been able to expand the notion of human rights to include groups that have been disenfranchised. This openness to a deeper understanding of human rights informs the arguments today about the rights of gay people to get married.
On the other side of the divide are fundamentalists of any stripe, usually religious, but sometimes political. The origins of their way of thinking may be even older than the humanist strain. These folks believe that there is a truth that can be known, and it is revealed in some text, usually a religious one, as the word of God, and by the authorities who represent this God. Whereas humanists discover an ever unfolding truth through dialogue, fundamentalists believe the truth was revealed once and for all. They are certain of this truth, and believe that we only live in harmony with God’s law when we live in obedience to that revealed word. The purpose of discourse, as far as the fundamentalist is concerned, is not for our own growth and development, but for the conversion of the other. This view is rational to the fundamentalist. It goes like this. The truth is revealed in the word of God. That is what makes it true, whether it appears to be true, or whether it makes sense to you or me. It doesn’t have to make sense; the order of God is higher than what we can understand.
To the fundamentalist, we are sinners, that is, we are intrinsically bad. Our goal is to improve ourselves by living ever closer to God’s revealed word. To the extent that we stray from this word we are condemned to an eternal punishment.
Though fundamentalists benefit from the tolerance of an open society where they can live in safety and peace, they suffer that such a society will make decisions based on principles other than the revealed word of God as they understand it. In this way, they believe the entire country falls into sin, and damnation. For them to live in such a culture without protest is to accept living in a fallen society and to go against their most deeply held beliefs.
The fundamentalists who were arguing on LinkedIn don’t believe that change is good. Evolving thought does not mean that we can become enlightened and understand things in a new way. For example, changing one’s mind from believing homosexuality is bad to believing it is good is not an indication of the development of human consciousness. Rather it is a moving away from the revealed word of God, and toward sin.
What humanists see as the unconscious use of doctrine to justify prejudice and bigotry, fundamentalists see as using clear evidence to prove the truth and validity of a position.
The humanists found the use of Biblical quotes by the religious zealots to validate the view that homosexuals are an abomination offensive, and worthy of censure. They went so far as to report these remarks as unacceptable to be posted. For the fundamentalists, they were simply provoking, with pleasure, the devil in our midst.
We can see from the above that the views of these two groups, embedded in a basic polarity of mind, are incommensurate.
If, however, we believe, as I do, that the polarization of our society is contributing to its dysfunction, and if I, as a humanist, believe in human advancement and growth, and that we have the power to solve our own problems, and, if I believe that we therapist humanists are singularly qualified to find a solution to this problem of disharmony, then what are we to do about such a difficult aporia (unsolvable riddle)?
In order to find the answer let’s begin with the dictum of one of the world’s great humanists, Confucius. He said we can learn from everyone – either what to do, or what not to do. So first, let’s ask, what can we humanists learn from the fundamentalist?
In contrast to fundamentalist belief, if we hold true to the humanist philosophy that we are capable of growing toward the true and good through our own powers of intellect, feeling, will, imagination, creativity, and love, then our first obligation must be to continuously work on ourselves.
We do this, not as a solitary act, but by immersing ourselves in culture, and coming to understand, to the extent that we can, what others have discovered about how to live the best life. We do this by continuous study, listening to those around us, and living an examined life.
Equally, rather than attempting to change other’s thinking, we must accept that change begins with ourselves. The serenity prayer tells us to change what we can, accept what we cannot change, and pray for the wisdom to know the difference. Knowing what we can and cannot change doesn’t take that much wisdom, actually. It isn’t really that hard to figure out. What we can change is our self; what we can’t change is anybody else.
Another way of saying this is that our first job with fundamentalists is to avoid “couple trap #1.” Couple trap #1 goes like this: I will if you will, but you won’t so I won’t. In this model, no one changes. The only remedy for this is: I will work on myself and change whether you do or do not. It’s kind of like Jesus’ dictum to turn the other cheek.
If we believe that fundamentalists are closed-minded, then we need to do all we can do to avoid this ourselves. We must communicate, among any and all willing to participate, by using an active listening, dialogical method, where our aim is to understand and grow, rather than to win and convert. Our aim is to do all that we can to foster authentic communication with those we come into contact with. Our work is to understand the other person’s point of view even though they may be making no attempt to understand ours.
Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing, or purchasing another’s point of view. It just means seeing things as the other person does. So for example, in this case, I might say to the fundamentalist, “What you say makes sense to me because if I believed that the authorities who taught me were the representatives of God, and that the words they said were infallible, and the message that they were giving to me was that God says that homosexuality is a choice and an abomination, and that central to being a good Christian is never questioning the word of God, then of course I would believe and assert, in the face of any counter-argument, and any apparent harm others say I am doing, that homosexuality is a sin, and in no way should be sanctioned.”
That doesn’t mean I agree, but it helps me to understand that as far as this person is concerned, at least, they are not coming from a place of evil; they are asserting a good as they see it.
Next, we must all work to find as much common ground as possible with those we disagree with. Some time ago, I was at a meeting with a woman who advocated sexual abstinance for teenagers. I am pro-sex, and believe that a policy of abstinence is worse than ineffective. Yet, when we had a conversation, we found much that we could agree on. She said that her main message was to teach teens to respect their own bodies, and develop enough self-respect to make smart choices. I could go along with that. Again, she might have shown no interest in finding common ground with me, but my aim was to find it with her.
Even though a hot-button issue like gay marriage may pose what appears to be an unbridgeable divide between us doesn’t mean that we can’t find consensus on a host of other issues. We must be cautious against demonizing others, as we don’t want to be demonized ourselves.
Fundamentalist’s unshakable certainty that they have a corner on the truth points to the next thing we need to do, if we believe that a humanist approach is a better way of ordering human affairs. We must continuously examine our own assumptions. It is important to have the humility to know that we can always be wrong. We must be careful not to choose and believe evidence simply because it supports our way of seeing things. We must always be open to changing our minds when the facts prove that the way we have been seeing things are not right. We must find a proper balance between skepticism and open-mindedness.
What we see with the fundamentalists is how easy it is to fall into doctrinal thinking. On this LinkedIn forum, I saw how fundamentalists used arguments that I use myself to assert an opposite viewpoint. For example, I believe there is a moral order to the universe. I have used this argument to support the good of gay love. The fundamentalist will use the same argument that there is a moral order of the universe to assert that no matter what we think, homosexuality goes against the universal moral order!
We must always be on guard for poor thinking. We must begin with the humble assumption that we do not know the full truth, and that we must work continuously to improve and deepen our understanding. Our job is not, at first, to convince others that we are right, but to be able to find what we can learn from others.
We must always be on guard against falling into the belief that we are incapable of error. It is clear to me that the assertion that religious authorities are infallible as the representatives of God, utilizing the Bible as the only text of truth, has been proved wrong again and again. Along with Copernicus and Galileo, should we mention the witch hunts and the Spanish Inquisition? At the same time, our enlightenment faith in the improvability of humankind was shaken with the cataclysmic upheavals of the two World Wars. We all have far to travel toward the truth.
Though we can vehemently disagree with the fundamentalist view, this does not me that we should reject any individual, any religion, and certainly not the spiritual impulse.
In fact, there is a place where the spiritual view and the humanistic one come together. As the brilliant thinker and writer Karen Armstrong argues, the central tenet of all the great spiritual traditions is not doctrinarism, but rather, mystery. The great mystic, Gregory of Issa stated that true wisdom, and a closeness to God, begins with the recognition of the unknowable nature of things. This is identical to the philosophy of Socrates, who proved through his philosophical method that the only thing we can know is that we don’t know, and that which informs humanist open-mindedness. Fundamentalism, Armstrong asserts, is an aberration of religious development, far from its tap root. That tap root, she tells us, is compassion. Despite what the fundamentalist says, the shaming that comes from condemnation, whether of heretic, Jew, Gypsy, Muslim, witch, or homosexual, is the polar opposite of compassion and the essence of the religious impulse.
Though we can do all we can do to find a way to communicate with those we disagree with, and to find a way to resolve our differences, and though our job is to do whatever we can to promote better communication and connection with everyone, it is not always possible to bridge these gaps. When the person on the other side is unwilling, there is little one can do.
If there is no way to bridge that divide, what do we do? Do we retreat into our respective media bubbles, and live there happily oblivious to the other side? Do we live in an increasingly polarized society where less and less actually gets accomplished and we become overwhelmed by larger and larger intractable problems? I don’t think so.
The answer to this question is embedded in the democratic idea. We find it in the word, majority.
Though in our collective experiment we want to protect the rights of the minority, the greatest power is given to the will of the majority of the people. This was created by design. This majority-rule structure was intended to motivate groups with differing views to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Those with the best ones, appealing to an enlightened, educated electorate, would win the day by getting most people to agree with them.
If we believe that the humanist view is the better one, let it face the light of day against the fundamentalist view, and see who wins in the court of public approval.
In order to win the argument against the fundamentalists, first, we must use our powers of thought, feeling, creativity, and love to become the best people we can be. Second, we must do all that we can, in the political marketplace, to promote and sell the humanistic ideal to as many people as possible, so that we become the majority. The way to deal with a malevolent segment of society is not to destroy it, which is impossible anyway, but to marginalize it, to prove to the majority that such ideas are wrong, and bad.
We don’t have to censor or eliminate the other side — we just need to come up with a more effective and appealing viewpoint. There will always be fundamentalists. We simply need to make their ideas unpopular.
How do we sell our ideas in the public marketplace?
At the same time that we cultivate critical thinking, at some point, knowing that our knowledge and understanding is imperfect, we still have to take a side. We cannot fall into the weakness of immobility simply because we are humble and admit to doubt.
Fundamentalists have the power of clarity and certainty. They can be effective in a world that profits certitude, irrespective of the merits of an argument. To counter this, we humanists need to learn how to make better, more compelling, more emotionally impactful arguments. But we need to have the integrity of making those better arguments on the basis of the best logic and facts.
We should always be open to changing, and evolving our positions, but we must have the courage of our convictions. We must do so by becoming as educated as we can, base our arguments on the soundest evidence and best reasons, and by becoming empowered to articulate and communicate those convictions in as convincing a way as possible.
We have allowed, for far too long, by falling into cynicism, and indulging in distraction, to surrender the public sphere to too many voices of intolerance, negativity, and deceitful manipulation. We must find the best means of not only arguing against such voices, but of bringing our own voices to a place of influence in the public sphere.
One important step must be to reclaim the mantle of humanism and liberalism. We have allowed these words to have become insults, and to become a source of shame when they are noble words that are central to the American project. We must promote these ideas as American ideas, and good ideas for everyone. We must prove that, unlike the assertion of the fundamentalists, our founders were not fundamentalists, but rather enlightenment humanists. Jefferson created a Bible where every reference to God was removed!
We need to learn, embrace, and utilize the power of collective action. Despite the fragmentation of our post-modern world, there is no substitute for the power of numbers. We have seen what collective action has been capable of in the some of the world’s most oppressive dictatorships. The old dictum that the only power than can counter money and entrenched power is numbers needs to be reclaimed.
We live in a dangerous world. The dangers we face in our society in no small measure emerge from the coming together of fundamentalism with the concentration of power in the hands of the wealthiest among us. What this can lead to is the dominance of a Christian Fundamentalist Oligarchy.
Such a fundamentalist oligarchy will be characterized by its social intolerance and economic oppression. We must fight these forces with intelligence, passion, strength, imagination, and love. We must join together, and form new alliances that can achieve with a majority what we cannot do alone.
For each of us, this begins with having the courage to speak our truth, based on our best understanding.
Though we value good thinking, we also believe in the intrinsic importance of our emotions and imagination. We need to cultivate all aspects of our being. This includes our bodies. Where fundamentalists see the body as a dangerous maelstrom of sinful appetites, we see the body as the temple of the soul. We see sexuality as something that has the potential of expressing the divine. We need to take care of our bodies, cultivate successful relationships, and have great, loving sex. The better we take care of ourselves, and the more fulfilled we are, the better able we will be to counter the forces of narrow-mindedness, bigotry, and oppression. The happier we are, the more people will want to follow this path.
Certainly we will not attain this goal in one lifetime, but we have, can, and will make progress toward this goal. The conversations on LinkedIn in this sense, is heartening. The fundamentalist voices inspired the many voices of humanist compassion and courage to speak out against the destructive narrow-mindedness, bigotry, hatred and ignorance they perceived.
Though this is has been an ongoing struggle for millennia, it is one that needs to be reengaged in every generation. We must cultivate the whole of our children to think, feel, have courage, to imagine, to be creative, and to love. In this way they can become those enlightened citizen who will be able to fight the forces of narrowness, backwardness, prejudice, and cant as the struggle will continue beyond us.
We will not see the end of this noble adventure, but what greater purpose can we find?
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