Tolerance & Compassion, Vorlons & Shadows

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In the fall of last year, I made a promise to myself to be more tolerant of, and to espouse less anger toward people who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

As many of us are, I was completely swept up in the current of mocking and sometimes even outright rage toward people who hold different values than I do. It’s so easy to repost a Tweet or Facebook post from others that shows little tolerance for opposing parties, even if the message we’re sharing might be more extreme than we ourselves feel. This contributes to an extremely volatile, self-perpetuating cycle that surrounds us all in an atmosphere of perceived hatred, divisiveness and animosity. We’re in a state of continual escalation, and it’s not going to end well for us if we don’t rein ourselves in.

Reposting that extremely witty yet snarky anti-Republican essay will surely garner a few chuckles, but it also feeds the hostility machine. Believe me, I appreciate sarcasm and brilliantly revealing abject stupidity … I mean, misguided public officials for what they are using the razor of intellect. I also realize how bandying that stuff around without any kind of buffering comments leads to a heightened level of perceived animosity that results in tragedy like this (Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords shot in the head in Arizona earlier this afternoon.)

[This shooting occurred as I was writing this post, and I’m going to interject something related. Sarah Palin had an ad that shows gun sights on the various districts where Democrats voted for health reform:

This is not helping things any. Of course any normal person isn’t going to see that and think, “Hey, she wants me to go shoot these people.” Nor do I see this as a problem with gun control. But ads like this just serve to escalate the insanity. They are overtly hostile.

Too many politicians, generally but not exclusively on the right, use bellicose language and imagery to discuss political, philosophical points. “We’re gunning for them,” “we’ll take them out,” “we’re taking aim at…”

Already in the comments of some news articles covering the shooting are comments such as, “it was probably some LIBERAL scumbag who didn’t like her support for the second amendment.” My first response? Are you shitting me?! How often is it someone from the left who engages in violence with a firearm? I mean, honestly. And the irony here is too much: A liberal shot her because she supported gun rights? I think I might explode.

To be fair, both sides of the aisle have used bullseyes, targets and language tinged with (if not entirely composed of) violent imagery. It’s time for everyone to stop. Just stop.

You jackasses with the hostile ads – KNOCK IT OFF. Seriously. Do you not see where this leads?

Now back to the regularly-scheduled blog post.]

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t share good, snarky stuff; far from it. However, it seems like a lot of people I know just blindly repost something because it casts their political opposites in a poor light. There’s a difference between posting the video of Bill O’Reilly saying the tides can’t be explained by science and posting an image that’s basically saying, “HEY, YOU GUYS ARE A BUNCH OF STUPIDHEADS, HAW HAW HAW!”

Too, there is the flood of Crap Science. It seems many of us have forgotten how to read an article purporting to showcase the results of a study. Take this one, for example; I can’t tell you how many people I know actually thought this was real, at least for awhile: Stare at boobs for longer life: Study

Anyone who has ever written a research paper can spot the flaws in this immediately and chuckle. Yet some of the people who would recognize that article as a joke will read an article reporting on an anti-Democrat “study” that’s equally absurd and pass it along to others in support of his or her viewpoint. It’s easy to put stock in something that reinforces things we already believe in.

Debating personal beliefs is something I occasionally enjoy with individuals, and I accept viewpoints other than my own are just as valid, even if they are diametrically opposed to the things I hold dear. My personal difficulties come when I think of “The Right Wing” as a group, or “The Tea Party.” It’s so very easy to say, “what a bunch of morons,” or “obviously, these people are misinformed” when speaking of the groups as a whole.

This is a real thing. I didn't make it up. It's high on the list of "most absurd slogans EVER."

It’s difficult for me to remember these groups are made up of individuals, because I am inherently uncomfortable with large groups of humans – they tend to make bad decisions collectively. I see this in nearly any group that gets riled up – it suddenly becomes ok to do things no one would ever think of doing on their own. Witness the NCAA championship in Ann Arbor in 1988. Witness Halloween in Detroit any year. Witness the WTO riots of 1999 in Seattle.

Don’t get me wrong; I get frustrated and sometimes outraged when I talk to someone whose deepest values contradict my own. I cannot wrap my brain around someone who hates gay people, who thinks the rich are more important than the poor, who discounts the importance of protecting the environment, who values money over decency, who feels people of other races or religions are inherently lesser beings. These things make me very, very angry. I consider them extreme injustices.

Yet many of these same people feel equally strongly about my pro-choice views – the idea of killing an unborn child fills them with the same sense of desperation and sadness I feel when I see factories dumping waste into rivers. To them, I’m the bad guy, the immoral person, the woman from whom they must try to protect the world. I can’t argue with their intentions, either – I mean, I’m not anti-life or anti-baby; I appreciate their concerns. I also realize what mitigating circumstances may spur the choice to terminate a pregnancy, and recognize the validity of that decision.

The point I want to make, though, is that our society (however dysfunctional it may be) is made up of individuals. People who want to be happy and successful, whatever those things mean to them. Most of us are not out to get each other, though there are a few exceptions. The problem we’re running into, though, is The Monkeysphere. I highly recommend this article – it’s funny and amusing, but it talks about an important idea many will find interesting.

“Monkeysphere” is a term you’re likely to see me use a lot in the coming months. It neatly defines a concept I’ve been trying to understand for decades. For those of you who aren’t going to click the link and read the article, I’ll nutshell it for you:

The Monkeysphere is the group of people who each of us, using our monkeyish brains, are able to conceptualize as people. If the monkey scientists are monkey right, it’s physically impossible for this to be a number much larger than 150.

“Most of us do not have room in our Monkeysphere for our friendly neighborhood sanitation worker. So, we don’t think of him as a person. We think of him as The Thing That Makes The Trash Go Away.

“And even if you happen to know and like your particular garbage man, at one point or another we all have limits to our sphere of monkey concern. It’s the way our brains are built. We each have a certain circle of people who we think of as people, usually our own friends and family and neighbors, and then maybe some classmates or coworkers or church or suicide cult.”

Our Monkeysphere, then, is our group of people we care about personally. It’s easier to dismiss people outside our own Monkeyspheres, and that is partly how we can rationalize doing stuff that adversely affects those people; stuff we wouldn’t do to people inside our Monkeysphere.

It’s difficult for us to comprehend on a meaningful level the people outside our Monkeysphere are actual humans, let alone think of their well-being in our day-to-day actions. The rest of the world can remain largely nameless, faceless entities about whom we care little. It makes things so much easier for us.

It’s much easier to toss that computer into the trash that’s hauled to a landfill dozens or hundreds of miles from our own homes. Why buy the recycled paper that’s more expensive? The old-growth forests are far away. Why support sustainable wages for people we’ll never meet?

You get the point.

My proposal, for myself and for you, for this coming year is to work on being more inclusive, more tolerant of other viewpoints, and to remember those people who are outside our Monkeysphere. I’m not saying cuddle up with Tea Party member if you’re a staunch Democrat or vice versa, but maybe work on feeling less contempt, less scorn, less hatred when thinking or speaking of them.

For me, changing my external behavior was easier and then the internal stuff followed suit. I stopped reposting the contempt-laden links slamming the right-wingers. I stopped using derogatory terms like “tea baggers.” This started edging me out of the cycle and helped me to gain perspective. Soon, my inner dialogue followed suit and I felt less outrage and more tolerance.

“It is utterly useless to try to change the outer world, for it is but a reflection of inner causes. The true seeker seeks to change himself.” ~ Vernon Howard

This doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally want to strangle Severin’s dad, Michael, who shares my love of warbirds, motorcycles and firearms, but who also is about as right-wing and stubborn as they come. I enjoy hearing his perspective for the most part, but it’s also frustrating to butt heads so firmly.

We are all shaped by our experiences, our environments. Severin’s dad worked in corrections, has been deployed to the Middle East in the military and has a very conservative Christian background. He’s seen things I haven’t and has been affected by them. He calls himself a sheepdog, and considers it part of his duty to protect the flock against the evils of the world that are surely conspiring to overtake us all. I respect his service and his experience.

My experience, however, has been far less violent. My worldview includes people generally being good and decent and well-intentioned. I trust first, rather than distrust. This works very well for me; seldom have I been taken advantage of, and I’ve had wonderful experiences as the result of being trusting that I never would have had were I not open to them. For some of my friends, this stance is maddeningly naive and short-sighted. I’m willing to live with this judgment. I also acknowledge that perhaps I enjoy these freedoms because people like Michael exist. That’s not always a comfortable thought, but I recognize it may be true.

I suspect the “truth” of the world, as much as such a thing could exist, lies between us.  There are bad guys out there, probably in more numbers than I would expect, and in less numbers than Michael would.

Here’s what I want this post to boil down to: We can’t function as a healthy society if each of us treats a full half of it with hatred. The ridiculous partisanship of Congress is a reflection of the ridiculous partisanship of its constituents. None of us enjoy the current state of affairs, but it cannot change until we demand it does so. The current system makes a bunch of people a lot of money, and money speaks louder than the words of the common folk – at least, until the common folk unite behind a common cause.

Right now, the interests of large businesses outweigh the interests of the average citizen. I don’t know that Michael would agree on this point, but it’s how I see things. I know he would agree on this point, however; we all need to exercise more simple common damn sense and take more personal responsibility for our actions and for our lives.

Don’t assume something is “good for you” just because it’s for sale in the store, and surely, if it were unhealthy it would be illegal to sell. Some of the products we now call “food” couldn’t be farther from it. Don’t get me started on “health and beauty products,” holy shit.

Yes, many of these are vitamins. But how would the normal person know that? Consider this a plea for sane labeling. Currently, manufacturers obscure far too much vital information.

But I digress.

When I was younger, I used to say, “nothing is more boring than a bunch of people sitting around agreeing with each other.” My opinion of that has changed, but I know where I was coming from. I prefer peace over conflict, but I understand conflict has its place. To put it in geeky science fiction terms, I am more of a Vorlon than a Shadow, but I do see the Shadows’ point. Granted, neither the Vorlons nor the Shadows were above reproach, but they’re pretty good metaphors for the Democrats and Republicans.

What do you say, Internet? Can we start seeing each other as people and individuals, rather than as members of groups? If not all of us collectively… what about you, personally?

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1 response to Tolerance & Compassion, Vorlons & Shadows


  1. Kirby Adams

    If only the masses would listen. This whole concept you bring up has been on my mind of late after I read some history of Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell. I had no idea they had become “friends” (in Flynt’s own words) after the famous court cases. They each detested what the other was doing and thought the other’s actions were hurting people and sending the country to ruin. But they managed to discuss and debate these things, often in public, to the intellectual betterment of those who would listen. And they managed to find common interests far from the realms of pornography, religion, or the First Amendment that allowed them to enjoy each others company. There’s a lesson there.

    I’m not prone to the hyperbolic outbursts about politics that seem the norm these days. Perhaps that’s because I hold views that straddle the spectrum, many near the center, some far right, and others far left. Additionally – and I think this is important – my views evolve. When I realized my opinions morphed as my wisdom (supposedly) increased with age, I figured it was high time to quit ridiculing those in the opposing camp since I might be sharing a tent with them in the future. When I hear the same tired rhetoric and vitriol being spewed so predictably about…well… everything, I view the brashness of the proclamation to be inversely proportional to openness of mind. This means I view many gun rights advocates (with whom I agree) as very close-minded. It also means, quite ironically, that I view many intellectuals, atheists, and academics as close-minded. Can a staunch supporter of the rights of homosexuals be close-minded? I think so. I could write a whole book about the irony (hypocrisy is such a bellicose word) I see in much of the left-wing propaganda, despite the fact that I wholeheartedly agree with much of the principles. It’s there in the right-wing hate machine as well, but it’s so obvious there as to not warrant mention.

    Anyway, yeah. What you said. As if you needed or wanted more respect from me, it continues to grow with posts like this.

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