19 August 2009: Big issues not black and white

Big issues not black and white

Recently, I was told by a Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity disciple that she sees the world in very clear terms: “Fact is fact and BS is BS,” she declared.

So when I flipped her axiom on its head and said you’re on your way to insight when you begin to understand that oftentimes “Fact is BS, and BS is fact,” initially she looked puzzled. For how can black be white, up be down, or good be evil?

That manner of thinking holds everything must have an opposite: Grays are non-existent, position relative only to another point of reference, and a good act, performed with ulterior motives, loses its virtue—think of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness.

Reducing complex ideas to linear polarity, like George W. Bush’s “you’re either for us or against us” proclamation, or simple syllogisms—I love chocolate, Hershey kisses are chocolate, therefore, I love Hershey kisses—can be tricky and fraught with danger.

The individual is faced with a conundrum when confronted with the ethical or moral dilemma of doing the right thing for the wrong reason or the wrong thing for the right reason. If good is pure, then a right outcome must be driven by right intention, another way of saying one always does the right thing for the right reason.

Recall the conflict with which Jeremiah Johnson is faced in the film of the same title when he is persuaded to lead a band of soldiers to find a wagon train stranded by a snow storm. The episode draws on the real event of the Donner Party in 1846 that was forced to resort to cannibalism to survive in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

In order to get to them quickly, the rescue party needs to cross, thus desecrate, the Crow Indian sacred burial ground. Johnson knows that is an ultimate taboo and is potentially risking the lives of his wife and son left behind at their cabin.

After being harangued by the preacher that those are “Christian men and women down there,” Johnson reluctantly moves forward.

In revenge the Indians slaughter his wife and son.

Did Johnson do the right thing for the right reason or the wrong thing for the right reason? Or did he do the wrong thing for the wrong reason by violating his hosts’ sacred ground and putting the welfare of strangers that had made the dumb decision to cross the mountains in the snow season above that of his family?

As I wrote last week, Henry David Thoreau urges us to “simplify, simplify,” and there is much to be said for it.

Many yearn to return to a “more simple time” and live the “simple life.”

The fact of a simpler past is, of course, BS. There never was a Garden of Eden. Life in every epoch has had and still does have its unique challenges and dangers. To reduce the world to a simple construct is comforting, but reality has a way of getting into the way of delusions. In the vernacular, reality can bite.

While living the simple life, Thoreau was a most complex thinker, and that is the context in which his words encouraging us to live simply must be understood: our daily life should be simplified, not our thinking.

We like to believe we come to our own conclusions based upon our life experiences, studies, and observations, so it’s hard to admit that our thinking is often, if not usually or always, conditioned, influenced, or shaped by outside forces.

Some things can be reduced to a simple conclusion. For example, according to the Religious Tolerance website, the percentage of Americans self-identifying as Christians dropped from 86 percent in 1990 to 77 percent in 2001, which is still a sizeable number. It is estimated that about 3.4 percent of Americans identify as Muslims.

At the same time, 97 percent of Iraqis self-identify as Muslims with only three percent Christian or other, and in Afghanistan, the population is close to if not 100 percent Muslim.

One conclusion that can be drawn: Religious affiliation is not based primarily upon extensive study, investigation, and soul-searching, but on what one’s parents believe. It’s that simple.

Other issues resist simple analysis. The underlying forces at play in the recent imbroglio between the Cambridge, MA police officer and the African American Harvard professor are far more complex. Racial relationships and racism in America cannot be reduced to a 30-second sound bite.

Most issues—from health care to development atop Floyd Hill—deserve far more scrutiny from an educated and thoughtful citizenry than simplistic nostrums that ostensibly encapsulate the essence of the debate.

In the final analysis, the fact is either-or solutions and conclusions are for the most part BS, and that is as easy as it gets to get.

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