Is there no such thing as a basic truth anymore? What I mean by ‘basic truth’ is a thing which is universally acknowledged as certain. Something you can trust all other humans to believe in no matter what. I don’t really get the impression that I can rely on people to be certain about anything. There is always someone willing to contradict me.
When I was a kid, still figuring things out, I was pretty sure that what I was figuring out was all the answers that adults already had. I figured there was a knack to this life and that when you reached a certain age you just sort of got it. Of course, now that I’m swiftly approaching 30 I realize that that is a nuts thing to think. Nobody has it figured out, everyone who has ever existed was basically making it up as they went along. Gahdi, just making it up as he went along. Thomas Jefferson, just making it up as he went along. Elizabeth I, Saint Francis of Assisi, Genghis Khan… the list goes on and on because it includes every human who has ever existed. All people are clueless and the successful ones are basically better at hiding it than anybody else.
But back to the basic truth- I used to think that there were good and bad ways to behave and that maybe there were a few people out there who behaved badly but that mostly everyone was good. At least everyone could agree, in the most abstract of senses, what good was.
I picked this basic truth up from watching movies. The popular movies of the 80s and 90s were certainly quite idealistic. Normally some Joe-Everyman hero would stand up to some blonde a-hole and would eventually, inevitably come out on top. It just sort of seemed to me that the qualities of a movie hero, compassion for others, strong sense of justice, some code of honor, were always rewarded and that everyone would naturally aspire to emulate these qualities.
I now know that good and evil are a lot more complicated than that, but I’ve still been holding (childishly) on to the idea that compassion, justice, and honor, are qualities that every human everywhere desires and respects in one another. But it doesn’t seem like we do that anymore (maybe I’m nieve and we never did). I don’t think we trust that other humans are capable of both disagreeing with us and remaining human. All disagreements seem to take place in a suspension of decency. We no longer value these qualities enough to maintain them when we encounter people who we consider to be our enemy. And enemies are everywhere.
All it takes to find justice in an unjust thing is to decide that injustice is fine for your enemy. All it takes to abandon honor is to decide that honor is winning, honor is whatever it takes to hurt your enemy. Compassion has become something that we expect to receive from others but refuse to exude ourselves.
Something feels different in the world. I’d like to say that my disappointment in this countries direction has nothing to do with party politics but I’m not so sure that that’s true. There’s a good chance that part of what upsets me is that the way that I think things should be done is no longer happening.
But that is only part of it, and I hope you’ll understand ( I hope you’ll believe me) that the rest of it is a disillusionment with how I assumed this whole ‘being a species’ thing was supposed to work. I thought it meant that we could disagree and still be fine. I thought it meant that we could fight but still value each other as fellow species members. I thought that basically, we all wanted to be the good guy and we all agreed what a good guy looked like, just, honorable, and compassionate. What shook me so hard last November was not the realization that lots of people have different ideas about tax policies or the ideal purview of the federal government. What shook me was the type of rhetoric we are all apparently fine with now. If it means our team scores a point, it’s okay.
I read comment sections, a lot, more than I usually read actual articles. I don’t know why I do it other than a general morbid fascination. I see more and more, in the arguments that take place there, that even the people I agree exhibit none of the qualities I considered a basic foundation of decency. I’d like to sit out. I no longer want to be associated with any of it. But what is my other choice, apathy?
I firmly believe that political activity is the responsibility of any citizen of a democracy. More than that, I am a Socialist, I believe that there are solutions to be found for societal problems that can only be realized through dynamic and responsive governance. Even in this poisonous environment, I cannot accept that debate is a lost cause. We have to get back to the point where we can disagree with respect because disagreement is good, respectful disagreement builds compromise and compromise is democracy.
I’m not complaining about the election really. This isn’t about the election. This problem could not have just sprung up during 2016 and stuck around while winners and sore losers both refused to let it go. Something this big has to have deeper roots than one presidential race. I think that the race, if anything, was the result of our loss of compassion, our ability to accept any sort of behavior so long as it meant points for our team. We are okay with all the insults because the ones being insulted don’t deserve our respect.
There’s are a couple lessons I learned as a child;
- It doesn’t matter who started the fight. If you hurt somebody, say you’re sorry.
- If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.
The fact is, sometimes you meet people you don’t like. Sometimes these people are mean to you. Sometimes these people are mean to your friends. But the rules of human decency don’t get suspended if the other guys started it. That’s what I learned when I was young. Where did that go?
We might be giving other people too much credit. It’s easier to believe that people don’t deserve compassion if you assume that they must know what they are doing and that it’s all part of some dastardly agenda. They must know what you know about the consequences of their actions or beliefs and just not care. How can you argue with a person who is purposefully trying to hurt you? We feel attacked and so we strike back.
But we’re all just making this up as we go along, remember? People tend to find a position and stick to it with all their might because that helps keep them orientated while they pretending to know what they’re supposed to be doing in life. If we are being attacked, it’s by people who are just as frail and lost as we are. Our responses should be tempered by the understanding that being wrong is not the same thing as being evil.
Compassion should remind you that when people are mistaken they deserve your patience, not your anger. Your sense of justice should remind you that the respect you expect from others should be given regardless of whether or not it is reciprocated. Your sense of honor should remind you that you (and only you) are responsible for the hate or the love which you put out into the world.
I miss the idealism of being a kid. I miss believing that adults had some ace up their sleeve, a secret that made the world okay, less scary. But I don’t think that the cynicism and anger of political rhetoric are inevitable when I give up that idealism. If I want change I’ll start with me.
My goal in writing this is to remind myself of a new lesson:
- There will be people in the world who I don’t like and who hold opinions which I think are harmful to society. No matter what, the rules of decency still apply, always.
That is my basic truth. I hope it’s universal, but regardless I’m going to try and live up to it.