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Tuesday, November 18, 2003

When confronted with a concrete ideology that claims to have all the answers, we need courage, intelligence, and imagination to be equally firm in saying: “I don’t know.”

Our culture is moving dangerously toward a black and white trend of thinking. We see it in the rise of fundamentalist religion; our increasingly divisive politics; our intensified moral and cultural wars.

Television fans the flames. The “Crossfire” mentality has become the norm: Pit two opponents claiming diametrically opposite positions against each other, make sure each side is sufficiently opinionated and dogmatic to guarantee neither will give an inch, and let them have at it like vicious pit bulls. The purpose of the exercise is not to find common ground, arrive at a consensus, or discover the truth. The purpose is to win a spectator sport.

This destructive charade disguised as communication has permeated our culture. It is becoming increasingly difficult to discuss meaningful issues with those with whom we disagree, without degenerating into a shouting match. Part of this is because the stakes are high and emotions are intense. But another component is: we are losing the art of discussion, which requires listening and responding with mutual respect. We are mimicking “Crossfire.”

Contributing to this atmosphere is a president who proclaims, “You’re with us or you’re against us.” (“Divide and conquer” is the motto of tyrants.) His words and actions consistently eliminate middle ground. He habitually begins his proclamations with: “There is no doubt in my mind...”

Beware the ruler who has no doubt in his mind.

We are infested with religious zealots who have lots of answers and little truth. The beliefs they espouse are so far from the love and charity their religion teaches, it boggles the mind. Their literal, black and white interpretation of scripture leaves no room for the multitudes who find shades of gray. They seem oblivious to thousands of years of seekers, thinkers, and prophets who have arrived at widely divergent and respected interpretations of the meaning of life.

This year, the blather about red states vs. blue states has become a lazy media cliche. However, I believe the struggle for our country’s soul is not between red and blue but between black & white vs. full spectrum; faith based vs. fact based; concrete vs. nuance.

Speaking of nuance, many of us are hung over and depressed by an election in which the black & white faction cynically and masterfully used John Kerry’s strengths against him. Faced with a candidate who was dramatically more intelligent, articulate, and experienced than their own, they reduced his “nuanced” world view to a mantra that every reporter and skeptic would mindlessly parrot: “Flip-flopper.” Kerry paid a heavy price for being a man of substance who was able to see the complexities of an issue.

It’s difficult to live with ambiguity. In threatening times, people want concrete answers. I’m convinced that many of President Clinton’s detractors despise him with a pathological obsession not because he’s a liar--george w. bush is a far bigger and more transparent liar; not because of his sexual affairs--they seem tame compared to the daily TV diet most people ingest; but because he is a master of ambiguity. His subtlety drives black & white thinkers up a wall!

We, who have more questions than answers (read: open-minded), have a real problem on our hands. It is difficult to have a rational discussion, let alone sway public opinion in the face of fanatics who have no doubt in their minds. But our challenge is to change the tone and the agenda.

We can start by requesting that our black & white friends cut out the name-calling. Like with an abusive spouse, the insults become so habitual we learn to ignore them. More subtley, we can ask people to eliminate all labels i.e., conservative, liberal, etc. from their vocabulary. Any word that can end with “ism” or “ist” should be off limits. It’s amazing how, when stripped of their short-hand stereotypes, people are forced to think.

We must not allow ourselves to become as entrenched as the other side. We can model good behavior by listening well and conceding when they have a point. But we must also be firm and insist on reciprocation. The black & whites are very good at staying on message, because they only have one message to stay on. But we must succeed at staying on the following message:

For every living being, there is a separate reality. There are threads that tie all those versions of reality together. It is for each one of us to know our own reality and to find the ties that bind us.

There is no absolute truth. And that’s the absolute truth.

Paul Chasman
November 19, 2004



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