Posts Tagged ‘Pragmatism’

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A pernicious impediment

In Opinion,Politics on March 8, 2013 by Birdmischief Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

George Carlin once said, “Inside every cynical person, there is a broken-hearted idealist.” He may or may not have said it first, but it’s his voice I always hear when I think of it. It reached into me, grabbed me, turned me inside out and left me gazing at the truth of it, and at the life I had never known was such a wreckage of thought error. I have been working to sort it out ever since. I doubt that the work will ever end, and I should be concerned if I think it has or should.

I believe that idealism has a vital place in any endeavor. Without idealism, we have no heart or soul. Without those things, we can’t create anything of value.

I don’t believe in unconditional love. I don’t think it is now or ever has been possible. There are always conditions on love, some of them more important than others. I genuinely like people and gravitate naturally towards agape. I think it’s a valuable way of cultivating tolerance, understanding and cooperation, all of which we’ll need to solve the climate crisis and our problems around governance and resources. But being taught that we must love our parents, children or life partners unconditionally is coercive and induces feelings of failure, shame and entrapment within families.

We also wind up with skewed perceptions within the greater society. Unconditional love mutates easily to unconditional loyalty, which then morphs into unconditional obedience to God, Country, Ruler, Employer. This transcends political and religious ideologies. Nobody is immune to the thought error of purism. In fact, I have yet to meet or hear of a person who doesn’t practice it in some way. I practice it, even as I rail against it. My favorite aphorism: “Purism never works.” See what I did there?

Purism has a place. It’s very useful in pursuing and maintaining clean-room technology and best practices in the food industries. It would be hard to find anyone other than a salmonella or klebsiella bacterium who would object to things like insisting that chefs and waiters wash their hands properly after using the toilet. But purism eats itself and all its participants after a certain point. It is a pernicious impediment in discussions of politics, leadership and policy. Even pragmatism can be fatally corrupted by it. As benign as it may seem on its face, purist pragmatism can lead to the very worst of acts and systems. Just think, “It’s not personal, it’s business” as another small business is forced to close or another home is taken by a bank that’s already ‘too big to fail’. Look at the grandmother or cancer-stricken kid we help throw under the bus if we ‘go along to get along’.

Unlike economics, purism does trickle down. It’s used as a tool to crush aspiration in at least 99% of the world’s population. Like creativity, it is hardwired into all of us. Unlike creativity, which is under commercial attack (a whole ‘nother post), purism is cultivated for and made freely available to us to use against each other so that we can’t unite, can’t be effective, can’t protect ourselves and – above all – can’t throw the bums out.

As we move towards the “Block” button or type our next salvo against someone with whom we are disagreeing, it is worth considering just how much we are losing by doing that. Humans need to disagree with each other, because nobody knows everything. If we all fell into lock-step, we would become shriveled and impoverished quite quickly, in mind and spirit if not immediately in body. We would lose all ability to innovate and to solve problems. Right now, we are faced with monumental issues of environmental physics and resource distribution. If we don’t find a way to listen to, learn from and expand because of different voices and opinions instead of blocking and bullying those who try to talk to us, we lose.

Historically, battles have been won by armies made of people who disagree hugely with each other, often to the point of violence. But the armies who won have typically had the greater determination to pull together and win the battle. They have not always been the bigger of two opposing forces. In the Battle of Agincourt, the English won by superior archery and great strategy, despite being outnumbered at least two to one. That wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t put aside their differences and kept slogging through extreme exhaustion and sickness that killed off half of them before they got to the battlefield.

“Can’t we all just get along?” is a pithy question, one I’m glad to see quoted so often. But I don’t think that Rodney King meant, “Can’t we all love each other without reservation?” ‘Getting along’ is at least as much about agreeing to disagree as it is about achieving a common goal. In King’s case, it meant, “Can’t we stop beating the crap out of each other?” We on the political Left are notorious for doing exactly that. If we stop eating each other, maybe we can stifle our purism’s inexorable maw and allow our shared idealism the role it deserves.

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