We’re all zombies. We all lurch and stagger around blindly, bumping into things and striking terror into the hearts of those we come into contact with.
Today’s topic is political discourse. I take it as axiomatic that the world we live in is too complex for anyone to really understand. We don’t know what’s going on, so we commit awful blunders of one sort or another. Those who wield power not infrequently commit awfuller blunders than the rest of us, but that’s only because they have more power. We’re all zombies. I’m a zombie. You’re a zombie.
If you think you’re not a zombie, that only proves that you are a zombie. Get used to it.
Faced with the fact that the world is a messy and dangerous place, zombies (that is, you and me) have a choice to make. We can be completely paralyzed and driven insane by seeing how it all is, or we can adopt an emotional and intellectual stance, a modus vivendi, that lets us get through the day while cherishing the illusion that we have some rational and appropriate idea of what’s going on.
When attempting to have a discussion about current events with someone whose point of view differs from your own, it’s important to remember that the person you’re talking to is just another zombie. The person you’re talking to has, perhaps, read extensively about current events — perhaps more extensively than you. They have quite likely listened to the views put forth by commentators in the media, and those commentators may be motivated entirely by public-spiritedness and a desire to make the world a better place, or they may have covert personal agendas that cause them to spew outrageous nonsense. The person you’re talking to may be aware of facts that you’re not aware of, and vice-versa. They may have been told, and believe, that certain things are facts when those things are actually lies — as may you. They may have strong emotions based on personal experiences, and they may have interpreted those experiences insightfully, or they may have misinterpreted them very badly.
When attempting to have a discussion about current events, it’s useful to ask the following questions, both of yourself and of the person you’re talking to:
- Are you able to set aside your emotions and discuss a topic in a dispassionate, rational manner, or are your emotions running the show?
- Are you open to hearing new facts, or to fresh evidence that contradicts what you believe to be facts? Or will you reject new evidence because it makes you uncomfortable to contemplate the possibility that you might be wrong?
- If you’re repeating points of view that you have learned from commentators in the media, have you investigated those commentators to learn what their hidden agendas might be?
- What principles do you take to be sacrosanct and unquestionable? Are you able to understand that you will always live in a world where other people hold entirely different principles to be sacrosanct and unquestionable?
- Do your principles, whatever they may be, give you a way to live peacefully with people who have different principles, or are you compelled either to convert them or to fight with them?
- Are you trying to blame one particular group (politicians, for instance, or immigrants) for the difficulties that you see in the world?
- Are you thinking in black-and-white, good-vs.-evil terms, or are you able to see that the world contains infinite shades of gray?
- Are you actually in personal distress at this moment, or have your emotions been aroused by commentators who are attempting to distress you in order to goad you to action?
- Are you aware of the law of unintended consequences, or are you clinging to the pathetic delusion that if the principles you personally favor were put into practice, the world would be a fine and wonderful place?
- Is it more important for you to discover the truth, or is it more important for you to win the argument (if necessary by shouting down the opposition)?
- Do you habitually indulge in sweeping generalizations and emotion-driven hyperbole (such as referring to those who disagree with you as zombies)? When was the last time you dragged Hitler into the discussion as a way of characterizing those who disagree with you?
If you’re unable or unwilling to go through those questions and answer them honestly, with a little soul-searching and humility, then it would be pointless for me to try to have any sort of serious discussion with you. You may as well hang with people who agree with you and people who don’t talk politics, because otherwise you’ll find yourself in great distress.
I hold only one principle as sacrosanct: We’re all in this together. There is no “them” — it’s all us. As the Kingston Trio sang 50 years or so ago, in a very cynical folk song, “What nature doesn’t do to us will be done by our fellow man.” Most of the ills from which we suffer are things that we do to one another.
That being the case, the Hippocratic Oath is a useful touchstone: “First, do no harm.” (Jesus put it a little differently, but the Golden Rule amounts to the same thing.)
The trouble is, some of us have really nasty agendas. Some of us are wallowing in hatred and fear, and strike out against others whom we hate or are frightened of. Some of us are simply greedy and stupid, and either don’t see the harm we’re doing, or don’t care. Some of us, while not stupid, are readily taken in by appealing slogans because it’s easier than thinking for ourselves.
Some of us are unable to detach ourselves from some sort of ironclad doctrine, and can only interpret the entire world — how it is and how it ought to be changed — in terms of that doctrine. Many religious believers (Christian, Muslim, or Jew, it makes no difference) are in this category.
So are most conservatives, from what I’ve seen. One of the significant differences between conservatives and progressives is that conservatives tend (not always, but quite often) to operate from what they conceive of as Correct Principles — for instance, that less government is better — even when the principles they’re espousing have only the most tenuous connection with reality and, if followed, are likely to lead to terrible suffering. This is the great strength of the conservative movement, in fact — that it’s fueled by what amounts to religious fervor. Conservatives tend (again, not always, but by and large) to steer clear of evidence that would contradict their views.
The weakness of the progressive political movement, especially in the United States, is that liberals and progressives tend (again, with some exceptions) to be willing to see and grapple with complexity. They’re willing to propose solutions that they understand will not be perfect, but that are worth trying because they may lead to improvements.
As a result, the liberals tend not to have ideas that can be presented in a forceful manner. They get shouted down by the conservatives, who are happy to be forceful even when (as is generally the case) they’re dead wrong.
There are other differences. Liberals tend to be compassionate, while conservatives tend to be filled with hatred for those who are not like them. (It’s not the liberals who are busy discriminating against homosexuals.) Liberals tend to favor policies that would help the poor, while conservatives tend to favor policies that will help the rich. Liberals tend to believe in education; conservatives much prefer ignorance — and if you think that’s an outrageous assertion, don’t forget: It’s not liberals who oppose the teaching of evolution in the public schools. That’s a conservative position. It’s not liberals who want to keep teenagers ignorant about safer sex and birth control — it’s conservatives. Pathetic, isn’t it?
I try always to be open to new ideas. The conservatives may, in certain areas, be absolutely right, and I might be wrong. But I would need to investigate and think about the specifics before I would change my views. I wonder how many of my conservative friends could say the same thing about liberals or liberal ideas. Probably not many of them. Their minds are made up.
That’s the nature of zealotry, which begins with a Z. So does “zombie.”