Following world news has become virtually synonymous with being reminded of events and ideas that divide us. But ironically, the divisions depicted by media headlines are invariably based on situations and characteristics that everyone shares. All of us, to a greater or lesser extent, espouse specific ideas and behaviors in order to organize and bring a sense of meaning into our lives. And all of us do this through the physical characteristics and cultural dispositions we inherit, as well as our individual talents and experiences.
Given the universal experiential basis for everything we do, why do we tend to focus mainly on protecting and fortifying our differences (in terms of race, nationality, age, gender, sexual orientation, intelligence, ideology, socio/economic circumstance, or “whatever”) rather than on understanding our lives as part of an incredibly stimulating and beautiful diversity. Surely, we limit the scope of our inherent potential when we consider the individual, subjective aspects of our lives apart from their natural places in the fundamental context of our togetherness, our shared intersubjectivity.
In his influential book, I and Thou (1937), existential philosopher Martin Buber reminds us of something that common sense also tells us: “we live our lives inscrutably included within the streaming mutuality of the universe.” If this is so— if our world is fundamentally sustained through interdependent relationships—why do divisiveness and turmoil often appear to be the norm, rather than a sense of common purpose and cooperation?
Responding to this question brings to mind parallel situations we all face at critical points along our developmental paths. I am thinking about those situations where we encounter conditions that force us to make a choice between acting independently or interdependently, that is, primarily for our own benefit, or in ways that keep us in tune with the aspirations of and needs of those around us. Just as every parent knows how important it is to guide their children toward behaviors that keep family life functioning in mutually supportive ways, we need to act in a similar way when, as adults, we can understand ourselves as members of a universal family.
Today, it is clear that humanity is at a critical point in its developmental trajectory. The incredible speed and intensity of recent advancements in our technological prowess have given us an unprecedented, mind-boggling capacity to influence events. So, we need to learn how to integrate our new abilities in life-enhancing ways, just as children and adolescents need to learn how to integrate their burgeoning physical and mental powers in ways that nurture participation in their surrounding environments. But it is important to remember that this kind of learning is not primarily about adopting different ways of “doing things.” It is about espousing new ways of “being” who we are as individuals living among other individuals. We can always “do something” for an individualistic motive, and hide the fact. But when we cannot be empowered by our basic intersubjectivity and do something for an exclusively individualistic reason.
An obvious choice we face at this point in our developmental lives (both individually and collectively) is between adopting ideas and behaviors that favor independent or interdependent interests. And obviously, as the divisiveness and turmoil depicted in news headlines indicate, we are overwhelmingly inclined towards independently minded, self-serving pursuits—towards me-first or us-first activities rather than the “I and Thou” lifestyles that nurture our interdependence.
So, a crucial question arises: What is more basic, the inevitable disunity and chaos of pursuing independent, self-serving agendas, or the drive towards unity and order as empowered by the pursuit of together-oriented, interdependent interests? Let us imagine what our individual lives would be like, and what our world would be like—and what our news headlines would be like—if our energies were primarily focused on fostering togetherness, on drawing attention to our basic interdependence. And let us remember that our need to engage with others is something we cannot escape, no matter what our circumstances are, or how greatly we or our world changes. So, separateness is not fundamental, but togetherness is.
“Humility must be central to the reconstruction of the notion of the common good,
without which no ‘we’ society can prosper.”
commenting on Michael Sandel’s recent book, The Tyranny of Merit (2020).
I read Martin Kettle’s essay in “The Guardian” (Nov. 26, 2020) with a sense of deep appreciation and a sigh of relief. Humility is such a powerful, life-enhancing virtue, yet it seldom receives the widespread front-and-center attention it deserves. Without humility, how can we truly nurture our personal and collective well-being? Humility puts our individuality in proper perspective; it shows us that, given our fundamental interdependence—our inescapable involvement with the wholeness of life—there is always more to learn about ourselves and our world. And it sets the stage for the emergence of what the great theologian, Paul Tillich, called “the courage to be,” which convinces us that we are indeed capable of taking on the challenges of exploring new fields of experience. Humility tells us that we belong to a world that is always we-oriented, whether we recognize this fact or not, and courage allows us to trust the kind of selflessness that this implies.
As Kettle suggests, we need humility today, in both our individual and collective lives, perhaps as never before, because we face an unprecedented “turbocharged renewal of individualism, inequality, and hyperpartisanship” in the public sphere. Of course, there have been times when humility was generally accepted as an asset in public life, and no doubt there are always some individuals in the public sphere who exemplify it as a virtue. However, at the present time, “the toxic polarization of our politics” around the globe is an all-too-clear indication that there is a far greater pull towards self-serving individualism, along with the divisiveness, inequality, and suffering it produces, than towards a public-service oriented humility, and the acceptance, cooperation, and social harmony it engenders. Given this polarization, what greater issue could there be than the need for governments to turn their efforts toward ways of bringing people together? Surely, there are ways to make the divisions among us permeable, so that all members of our societies can be genuine participants in the activities that determine how they are governed.
Of course, it will take time to learn how to resist the self-serving allurements of a “me-first or us-first” political orientation in favor of the more encompassing benefits of a “we-oriented” political landscape. Kettle suggests that this learning process can begin by prioritizing “listening and then talking to others” with a mind energized by the virtue of humility—a mind that is willing to “find things we can all agree about” like fairness, patriotism, helping one another, and agreeing about facts. But as implied by this last item, if our interactions with one another are to bear good fruit—the fruit of enhancing the common good—what we discuss needs to be based on mutual trust, which is in turn based on a commitment to truthfulness. And unfortunately, truthfulness (as reflected on in an earlier blog) is one of the most ravaged casualties of our current obsession with individualism. So, as Kettle observes, “we need to build herd immunity to untruth, and to glib easy answers too, and all those who purvey them, in whatever form.” In other words, we need the strength of humility—with its unswerving focus on a unity-building acceptance of things as they are—as an antidote to what divides us.
“Humility of heart is a great treasure because it keeps us honest,
cutting away self-deception, falsehood, and inauthenticity. It forces
us to be real, even when it is uncomfortable. It rescues us from superficiality
and compels us to always be true to ourselves and to others.”
From: The Mystic Heart (1999/2001)
“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to others.”
From: Become What You Are (1995/2003)
Dialogue is always possible, because having a relationship with anyone or anything is always possible. No matter how intensely we experience differences and divisions between ourselves and others, nothing is more fundamental or significant than the fact that we share our reality with all the people, events, objects, and environments we encounter in our everyday lives.
We all belong to a variety of communities and societies, which in turn belong to a universal, all-encompassing family, an indisputable and indestructible wholeness. And given the interdependency implied by belonging to a universal family, we are always capable of interacting in some way with whatever comes our way, provided we keep our minds and hearts open to our fundamental togetherness.
Keeping ourselves attuned to our togetherness can be thought of as the foundation of our moral lives, because it is what allows us to determine what is right and good with respect to keeping our relationships as life-enhancing as possible. The current widespread erosion of truthfulness as a human value is clearly one of the most challenging moral dilemmas we face today. How can we respond to any situation in ways we believe are right and good if we cannot trust the information we receive about it?
As many scholars and social commentators have observed, modern technologies are redefining the ways we think and feel about our relationships, or more precisely, about being an individual living in the midst of other individuals. Nowadays, a person is more likely to be understood as an independent (autonomous) individual, rather than an interdependent participant in the events of everyday life. And being in a relationship is more likely to be understood in terms of being part of a specific group, rather than in terms of interacting with all aspects of our lives as we experience them. Sadly, this movement towards individualism in both our interpersonal and intersocietal relationships relies on maintaining divisions among us, sometimes very antagonistic ones.
It is not difficult to see divisiveness at work, both in our immediate environments and around the globe. It is an obvious characteristic of international relations, race relations, interfaith relations, extreme political partisanship, extreme economic disparities, and in many issues related to our psychological well-being, such as the pressure to maintain a certain public image or to succeed at all costs. And it is not difficult to see the devastating consequences of such divisiveness: lifestyles that destroy many aspects of planetary life, and the continued use of confrontation and violence (both physical and psychological) at all levels of societal life. In addition, there are many divisive psychological and moral issues associated with a largely unmitigated acceptance of technological innovations. For instance: a widespread indifference to the drastic changes in the way we gather information and think and feel about things, and the monumental challenges we face when dealing with the emergence of unprecedented biotechnologies and artificial intelligence.
In the face of our many challenges with respect to healing the divisiveness of contemporary life, it is tempting to think immediately in terms of what we can do to help create a more together-oriented world. However, I think a more fundamental approach to these challenges is to ask: What kind of person do I need to be in order to contribute in the best possible way to the well-being of myself and our world? When we focus on being a unity-oriented person—a genuine participant in whatever we do—we are preparing ourselves to be responsive in any kind of situation. Whereas, if we focus on doing certain kinds of activities, we may actually bring into a situation something that interferes with our ability to be as responsive as possible.
So, yes, some form of dialogue is always possible, because it is always possible to be engaged in a relationship of some kind. But it is not possible to anticipate what is best in terms of participating in a dialogue, because each one is a unique experience.
“The question truly at stake is not what is being talked about, but who is doing the talking.”
From: Philosophy as a Way of Life (1995)
Experience teaches that words alone do not always reflect a speaker’s motivation for using them. In both the public sphere and interpersonal contexts, words are often used to camouflage the actual thoughts, feelings, or dispositions of speakers and writers. Fortunately, we are innately capable of detecting clues about the authenticity or sincerity of words because our language skills are as much about perceptive listening and discernment as they are about a competent use and understanding of words.
At the present time, it is hard to underestimate the importance of keeping our language skills as well-honed as possible. Because we live at a time when what we consume in the public sphere (through written or spoken words) is riddled with misleading information or outright deception, it is up to each of us, as responsible participants in public life, to pay attention not only to words, but to what we believe they actually signify. And although we can never be absolutely sure of the actual intent of a speaker or writer, we can be absolutely committed to understanding them as honestly and perceptively as possible. A fairly recent example of my own efforts in this regard came last November (Nov.7, 2020), when I listened to then President-elect Joseph Biden’s victory recognition speech.
At a time when fragmented relationships wreak havoc at all levels of societal life, it was heartening to hear a political leader begin a victory speech by saying that he “seeks not to divide, but to unify” and to have a sense that the words were sincere! For me, there were many clues in this speech that indicated the speaker was genuinely committed to working towards healing the divisiveness—the brokenness—of contemporary American life. For instance: I believe that personal authenticity (genuineness) is a matter of “being someone” rather than simply “doing something.” So, I was glad to hear President-elect Biden describe his wife as an educator for whom “teaching isn’t just what she does—it’s who she is.” Statements like this suggest that the speaker understands that the power of words and actions come, not from the mere act of saying or doing something, but from a real-life correspondence between them and who someone is as a person.
Surely, personal integrity as well as life-enhancing relationships are grounded in real-life authenticity. And how can anything be authentic (actual / true) without embracing the inherent mutuality of everyone and everything. President-elect Biden reinforced this message of inclusivity in his speech by leaving no doubt that he was addressing all Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, ideology, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, demographic circumstances, or anything else. In keeping with the wisdom of all our major religious/spiritual traditions, he reminded us that “we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy.” Moreover, he spoke in what appeared to me to be a measured though obviously excited manner, focusing as much on feelings as on thoughts and ideas, all of which left me with a sense of someone who is both capable and trustworthy—someone with a sense of the wholeness of life. And if ever there was a time for a political leader with a sensitivity to the wholeness of life, and the empathic intelligence it implies, it is now.
“We lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
It is hard to think of a philosophical topic that is more revered and challenging than the nature of freedom. And it is equally difficult to think of a social issue that is more consequential than understanding what constitutes freedom of expression. So, it’s not surprising to read about a vigorous reaction to Cambridge University’s recent amendment of its “Free Speech Statement” (in “The Guardian” Dec. 18, 2020). In this article, two concerned academics, Priyamvada Gopal and Gavan Titley, maintain that a recent policy change at Cambridge University will likely result in a limiting rather than expansion of free speech. By banning protests against speakers who promulgate “discriminatory, hateful or discredited viewpoints,” they claim that the university has moved toward a position that treats all ideas as equally worthy of discussion, as in a so-called “marketplace of ideas.” The implicit danger of this policy is that it makes it easier for free speech debates to become platforms for “retrograde ideas that do not really merit debate” in a progressive academic setting.
I share the author’s concerns that obviously flawed or blatantly false ideas—such as those that promote racial and sexual discrimination, or ideologies with little or no moral or intellectual merit—reflect regressive, divisive mindsets, and that facilitating their promulgation is counterproductive in terms of advancing public debates that are non-discriminatory and intellectually creative. Because of their non-inclusive and heavily biased nature, such ideas are generally disseminated in ways that are manipulative, or even coercive. And when manipulation and coercion occur, freedom of expression is clearly limited. As Gopal and Titley remind us, to be genuinely supportive of freedom of expression, we need to “be alert to the damage being wrought by vested interests who seek to engineer specific ideological outcomes.”
Our need to be on the lookout for ideas and activities that compromise our ability to express ourselves freely is, I believe, extremely compelling. Modern communication technologies have made it all too easy to induce conditioned patterns of thinking and feeling in targeted populations as a way of furthering specific ideological or commercially-motivated agendas. And
the more we accept “being conditioned” as a commonplace, relatively benign reality of everyday life, the less likely it is that we will recognize or be bothered by the manipulative conditioning at work in ideas and behaviors that are intellectually regressive, emotionally restrictive, and socially divisive.
Of course, some types of conditioned behaviors are needed for understanding, establishing, and maintaining orderly coexistence with others, at all levels of societal life. But to the extent that they become the driving force for personal, cultural, or societal life, they become dogmatic and dictatorial rather than authoritative and life enhancing, and thereby limit freedom of expression.
As someone who embraces a philosophy of wholeness, my understanding of freedom is indistinguishable from what it means to be fully alive, to be fully in tune with, or at one with, everything that happens, the infinitely varied unity unfolding day by day, moment by moment. In the light of this understanding, we express our freedom to the extent that we act as genuine participants in all the events of our lives. And genuine participation, which occurs in the here-and-now of an immediate experience, is hampered or even blocked by unreasonably coercive policies and conditioned patterns of behavior that operate without due consideration of their underlying purposes. To participate in anything as freely as possible, we need to believe that whatever we are involved with is part of who we are, which implies that we are prepared to respond to situations in ways that express our fundamental interdependence. Naturally, if we are forbidden to protest ideas and behaviors we believe are not compatible our interdependence, our freedom of expression (though not our basic, existential freedom) is curtailed.
Voltaire’s famous maxim, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” does not imply a willingness to facilitate the promulgation of ideas one believes to be false or damaging to the public good in some way. But it does imply an awareness of the fundamental context for freedom of expression: our unity with everyone and everything. We honor our existential freedom when we honor our natural interdependence, but we do not honor it by making it easier for people to propagate ideas and behaviors that impede our understanding of this basic fact of existence.
Common sense tells us that “things are not always what they appear to be.” And I think we need to bear this in mind when we are tempted “to tolerate” obviously divisive ideas and activities in the name of free speech. Genuine freedom, like genuine love, is not about tolerating anything: it is about moving beyond tolerating into embracing what is deepest within us, our togetherness. And honoring our togetherness surely implies responding appropriately to situations that draw us away from it, which is also what a commitment to freedom of expression implies. Such commitment, I believe, is also the foundation of our ability to be of genuine service to both ourselves and our world.
“The truth that sets us free—the truth that keeps us in touch with the ultimate
reality to which we belong—is the truth of interdependent living: the truth of
being of service.”
From: P. D. Crawford, Born into Unity (2018), p. 114.
In public remarks from late November, 2020, President Barack Obama used the catchy phrase “truth decay” to draw attention to the corrosion of truthfulness as the moral backbone of public discourse. If, as Obama observed, issues, facts, and policies “don’t matter as much as identity and wanting to beat the other guy,” how can we disseminate accurate information in support of meaningful discussions about matters of common concern? Obviously, we can’t. When gamesmanship and the pursuit of self-interest take priority over accepting reality as it comes to us through honest observation, logic, or common-sense, there is no foundation for either correct understanding or genuine dialogue.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, in today’s information-saturated environments, dis-information is an epidemic. Current technological wizardry is so adept at capturing and molding public attention that, with apparent ease, it can instill enough confusion and uncertainty in the public sphere to produce a widespread state of uncertainty, where virtually any idea (even those that are patently false, dangerously divisive, or even ridiculous) can be made to appear plausible. And when public figures or organizations are willing to exploit this manipulative power to further their individualistic interests (rather than the common good), they are indeed acting as information-viruses within the public sphere.
Of course, dishonesty and manipulation in the pursuit of self-interest are aspects of human nature that make regular appearances at various stages of our development, both as individuals and societies. But surely, our tendency to put ourselves first—to do whatever we can to exert ourselves as independent individuals—is only part of a lifelong learning process that ultimately teaches us that we exist primarily as interdependent individuals with unique attributes that belong to the whole of reality. Consider, for instance, how children often test the limits of what they can “get away with” as a way of learning how to belong to their families, that is, as a way of realizing the fundamental significance of sustaining good family relationships. And consider how the transition from adolescence into adulthood (or from any stage of life to another) is most beneficial when it is accompanied by a sense of “fitting in,” of recognizing the value of being a viable and valuable contributor within one’s social milieu. Clearly, at many times throughout our lives (as both individuals and societies) we need to reinforce our awareness of our natural interdependence—an awareness that began in our mothers’ wombs and will end when we finally and fully embrace the inevitability of dying.
As seen in the context of our overall development, the pursuit of exclusive self-interest can be understood as a way of reinforcing what is not fundamental about our existence. In this sense, the widespread fragmentation of societal life and the prospect of planetary devastation we face today can be understood as the tragic consequences of having ignored the basic fact of our interdependence. Given this situation, we urgently need to bolster our ability to communicate in ways that nurture our togetherness by resisting the “truth decay” currently infecting us.
As I reflect on our need to resist the erosion of trust and truthfulness in the public sphere, I imagine that many, if not most of us would think immediately about what we can do about this situation, individually and collectively. However, my philosophical orientation leads me to believe that the kind of resistance needed is not primarily a matter of doing something; it is matter of being someone. Of course, concrete actions need to be taken, but unless they flow from a way-of-being that embraces the fundamental reality of our interdependence, their efficacy will be short-lived at best, and perhaps even harmful in the long run if they result in a kind of non-reflective complacency. If we are genuinely in tune with the interdependence of everyone and everything, I think we can be confident that whatever we do will be aimed toward a universal common good, which implies resisting the “truth decay” running rampant today in ways that suit our individual abilities and circumstances.
As I see it, our main task today (as individuals and societies) is to live in ways that continually remind us of our basic interdependence. And what a difficult it is, given the many temptations to put ourselves first that permeate our cultural environments, and given the potency of modern communication technologies that allow us to do this with relative ease. Moreover, the internet provides us with a novel and incredibly vast operating field within which to exercise our technological prowess—one in which we can assert our individual identities in unprecedented ways. This situation reminds me that we are at a major developmental turning point in terms of expanding our capacity to perceive and understand ourselves and our world, similar to others in our evolutionary past, such as: the emergence of the written word, after a long period of mainly oral communication; the beginnings of our capacity for human language; even that momentous age when our remote ancestors first began to explore our world by walking on two feet.
In the light of our evolutionary history, it is not surprising that the tremendous growth spurt we are experiencing today (in terms of being able to explore ourselves and our world) comes with major challenges, in particular, those related to living in socially responsible ways. To meet these challenges most creatively, we need to be in tune with what is most fundamental about our lives by embracing our interdependence wholeheartedly. A genuine embrace is by nature an expression of good will and togetherness. So, it stands to reason that the more we live as together-minded individuals, the more we will create spaces in which “truth decay” has no place among us apart from reminding us about what to resist.
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Living in the middle of things involves a willingness