Something that came up in discussion last night.
Rights ought to be simple to explain, fundamental to living as a human among other humans, and applicable equally to all persons. They ought to describe the things you don't have to seek permission to do and the things one may never do to another.
And neither of the major parties gives a damn about them if you look at their actions rather than their rhetoric.
The simple kinds of rights: life, liberty, property aren't sexy. No one talks about them much. They don't slice people into voting blocs that take to the streets. They are a subtle sort of thing you only notice when they are absent.
A rare event in American elections occurs whenever you choose to vote for a candidate because that candidate most closely represents your values. The "pro" vote. Most of the time we get convinced that defeating a candidate is more important than who gets into office.
But consider who benefits by getting people to think that every election balances the nation on a knife's edge. Consider who gains when you put principle aside, time after time, to deal with each threat of disaster. And, looking back from a point years in the future, consider what would we give to have voted our values all along.
We can choose the game we are playing. And if we do, we can honestly tell ourselves, "this is not a problem I will struggle with. I'm playing the long game. I'm voting 'pro'."
I want to talk today about what "Islam" means. I am not a muslim and I am a complete outsider. I see danger in some ideas associated with Islam and beauty in some of the ideas. I see people saying Islam is peace. And I see mobs and violence associated with it. And so I think it's long overdue to ask whether we are all referring to the same thing when we refer to "Islam".
From what I can see, Islam means peace to most Muslims I know. And to some Muslims, it means violence visited upon other people for various different reasons: some political, some moral, always opportunistic, and always justified by some grandiose vision (a story). And the latter part is a bit sticky since the spectacle and tragedy creates a more vivid impression in the mind than the many Muslim neighbors we know and work with.
Let's Talk About Sects, Baby
Let me tell you about a trick of the human mind. It is a tendency for non-Muslims to think about Islam as one enormous monolith with complete homogeneity of belief and action. But Muslims are 1.6 Billion+ in number. And the idea of one great Islam doesn't withstand scrutiny.
Every religious or philosophical movement has within it a manifold of sects. People just can't seem to agree on things. Take any belief system and you can break it down to subgroups based on the disagreements.
To provide specific examples, I have collected here an accounting of the major religions I could think of and their sub-sects scraped from Wikipedia:
- Chrisitanity: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical,...
- Judaism: Rabinnic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Humanistic,...
- Hinduism: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Smartism,...
- Buddhism: Therevada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Zen,...
And as for Islam? Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Salafi, Wahhabi,...
There are no incidents of complete uniform belief within any belief system. Humans are messy, sloppy creatures subject to entropy. Our brains are meat-machines driven by huge variations in chemistry. Fuzzy logic? check. Non-logical leaps? check. Context-dropping? check. Mistakes of thinking? check. Hormone-driven teenagers? check.
You know why clear thinking is beautiful when you hear it? Because it is rare. Reason is slow and requires discipline and it is always impressive to hear an idea that is simple and clear and true.
Aside: Beware of Mob Think
There is a sort of situation worth mentioning where uniformity does arise... where an idea can become so loud that it drowns out other ideas. When human beings are in a mob driven by fear and anger whipped into a frenzy, we have shown ourselves to be capable of frighteningly uniform non-thinking. The Rwandan genocide comes to mind. Nazi Germany comes to mind.
People are capable of their ugliest actions when they blindly react rather than stepping back and thinking about things rationally, and acting accordingly. And, in the case of Rwanda and Nazi Germany, both resulted in the creation of cultures that slaughtered unimaginable numbers.
Labels Fail Us
Back to the main point. The labels: Islam. Muslim.
There is a visual that Sam Harris mentioned in his chat with Neil Tyson about what a Christian imagines when they find out that a person can be painted with the term "Atheist":
they think they know a lot about you based on your admission that you are an atheist... It's almost like you're in a debate with someone and they draw the police crime scene outline of a dead body on the sidewalk and you just walk up and lie down in it... that you just conform perfectly to their expectations of how clueless you must be of their context.
Don't we do this with "Islam"... just a little? We imagine Islam as one thing. We imagine Muslims as one people who conform perfectly to some expectation.
The labels fail Muslims and the labels fail non-Muslims alike. The labels expose non-Muslims to the mistake of thinking in "Us vs. Them" terms with Muslims as the other. And the labels expose Muslims to taking a defensive posture where "We are under attack" by an unjust world who will not accept them. The labels expose Muslims to having their fear and frustrations manipulated.
But these are just stories and they are divisive ones. These are the ones that deliver us into the hands of Neo-fascists. And we don't want those hands anywhere near us so it's time to abandon these stories, which divide us.
Beyond Us Vs. Them
We need some new narratives to give us hope and something to strive for.
Instead of Us vs. Them... What if we just thought of this whole mess as a bunch of people with a bunch of mixed-up ideas and some of them are poison?
Rather than considering Islam as one set of ideas interpretable only one way, we can remember that ideas are subject to fashion trends. They are subject to trending upward or downward at any given point in time.
Here are ideas I would love to see trend upward:
- Non-Muslims reflect and realize that Muslims are our neighbors and friends and co-workers. Most of them want to live their lives and raise their families. We act accordingly. We love our neighbors.
- The world notices that Muslims have their versions of Goebbels and Hitler. And the world will need to put these tyrants down in exactly the same way: total war ending in unconditional surrender. This is the only way to defeat evil that has decided to wage war: Force met with overwhelming force.
- Muslims embrace freedom of speech and dissent by all, especially other Muslims, and Non-Muslims unilaterally choose to stop disrespecting Muhammad because it's nearly always a gimmicky cheap shot that is not doing anybody any good.
- Muslims come out in support of liberal values. We will support and encourage these people because they have right on their side. Further, we work to encourage the conservatives among Muslims to respect the rights of all human beings alike (male, female, gay, straight), just as we do with non-Muslim conservatives. Live and let live becomes the universal norm.
- "Islam means peace" becomes a statement of intention... a movement and a mantra owned by Muslims: they are defiant, vocal, and visible movement of the majority.
- Secularism: All people of all religions work to keep their religions separate from the state. There are no state religions. Just respect and protection of rights for all beliefs and creeds.
The only way we can do this is to see the bigger "Us". We, as humans, need to see Universal principles describing fundamental rights. In other words: the conditions under which we are able to live with one another.
We don't need to be innovators who must define fundamental rights for the first time. We have the shoulders of giants to stand on. But as I said, ideas are subject to fashion and we do have to keep these ideas trending upward. It's constant upkeep... yes. There is no magic bullet to make humans respect rights for all time.
But it's good work if you can get it. And as always... Discipline Equals Freedom.
Extremism is rarely the thing we need.
Absolutes let us off the hook, because they demand not to be negotiated. But absolutes usually bump into special cases that are truly hard to ignore…
-Seth Godin, At the edges, it all falls apart
I generally consider myself an absolutist with a set of fundamental priciples that are not to be violated. But this claim is subject to verification.
I certainly think the list of absolutes we hold should be short and subject to modification based on the incorporation of new data.
Whatever we believe, we have to admit that there are times when absolutes serve us well, and there are times when we are blindsided by unexpected implications. They always seem to face the special case challenges that Godin talks about above.
Maybe they are contextually helpful but not categorically so.
An absolute right to life?
You end up with the abortion debate. You end up with debate on the morality of the death penalty. Do animals have rights?
If rights are derived, as Ayn Rand suggests, from the requirement to exercise one’s reason in order to determine how to act to sustain one's existence… does a mentally crippled human being have exactly the same right to life in the same context?
Do two people battling over water rights where one is dumping waste and the other is drawing water to drink have an obvious solution answered by an absolute right? First come first served?
There are more questions than answers. And more pragmatic answers than principled ones. And in some contexts, the pragmatic answers may be measurably more just or generous.
An absolute right to free speech?
Consider Edward Snowden. Consider the caricature of yelling “fire” in a crowded room with tiny exits guarded by Nazis with submachineguns.
An absolute right to privacy?
An innocent person is suspected to have information pertaining to a missing-person-slash-murder investigation. Do the police have a right to the data on his/her electronic devices?
What I Notice That Absolutes Actually Do
What I notice about absolutes is that they help us to notice a situation where grave injustice may occur. The desire to impose an absolute indicates an area of grave importance.
Absolutes reduce cognitive load. A person thinking in principles can keep fewer "things" in mind at a time when trying to make a decision.
We use absolutes to communicate and express what is important with a lot of poetic license. The tendency is to hear what is said and to suspend disbelief. This occurs in any echo-chamber.
We also use absolutes to avoid communicating in the raw detail of a topic. Moral grandstanding is good example of this. Think about how impossible it is to have an honest conversation that doesn't get dragged fully into the weeds on any of these topics: Racism, Sexism, Islamism, pay inequality, affordable medical care, immigration, or Abortion.
In light of this, I suspect that we might do well to rewire ourselves so that when we find that the thing we most want to say is an absolute principle therefore a change in policy that we remember that great care is needed… the best and clearest thinking you can muster will be needed in order to be able to engage in honest conversation and/or decision-making.
Absolutes and Policy
In my observation, most human beings do a pretty poor job of thinking through the long-term implications of applying broad principles. Some of us can do this well in certain contexts but with small contextual changes, we start showing gaps in our logic.
Human beings get bogged down when multiple principles interact in a dynamic system.
And human beings are especially bad at predicting behavior in such a system while they are driven by their own panic in response to what seems like a crisis.
Conclusion: We are wise to avoid making broad changes in policy while in a panicked response. Let’s just wait until we are calm to review the situation and decide how to respond.
…The good middles, the difficult compromises that matter, that’s where we can build things that have long lasting impact.
We need a compass and a place to go. But the road to that place is rarely straight and never absolute.
-Seth Godin, At the edges, it all falls apart