What is right > who is right

Coalescing while appreciating nuance

Forgive me for having little to any knowledge of the intricacies of Grateful Dead culture. I wasn’t raised in a Dead-friendly home, which is hardly an indictment on my dear parents. There was plenty of music, but they were into earlier stuff, and the late ‘60s-early ‘70s are a bit of a blind spot, country artists notwithstanding (my earliest memory is probably looking at the cover of Willy’s Stardust album).

But I regret not appreciating the Dead-adjacent John Perry Barlow while he was around. Barlow passed away February 7, at age 70. And while his politics might not have aligned with mine, he was a champion of free speech, and loved for his embracing of technology. You can read a fine obituary here.

In fact, it’s probably suitable that we might not have agreed on things like Dick Cheney’s career. Because before I knew any of that, someone had posted his ’25 principles of adult behavior.’

There’s a lot to love here. And a lot each of us has to work on. A few things stand out as more timely and relevant than usual, though. I’d like to explore one of those in a bit more detail.

‘Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right’

Well! Hi. I like this a lot. The reason has to do with nuance as much as anything. Because in division, there are sides. And when taking sides, we tend to protect those who might be in the wrong on some matters, aligning with them on all fronts for the sake of unity.

The problem with this is we paint ‘us’ and ‘them’ in broad strokes. I saw a brilliant quote from author and very smart, thoughtful human Roxane Gay recently while Googling quotes about ‘nuance’ when I had an idea where this post was heading:

I like this so much because it leaves room for the individual to adhere to an ethos, rather than taking an all-or-nothing, if-you’re-not-with-me-you’re-against-me stance. And while I know I’m not always right (someday I’ll revisit these posts and illustrate), at least I know deep down what is right. So whatever you label me, whatever boxes I’ve checked on that job application, at least we can stand with each other in doing what is right.

This is not to say we should give everyone a pass for being wrong — but we can’t nitpick. Nuance is good, but so is The Big Picture, The Greater Good.

A word keeps popping into my head lately: coalesce. There are synonyms, of course: unite, combine, fuse… But there’s something beautiful about coalescing. It feels seamless, organic, effortless… Its number one definition in Merriam-Webster is, ‘to grow together.’ And that idea of growing together feels powerful.

Everything That Rises Must Converge, Flannery O’Connor posthumously reminds us. Since I read that collection of fiction in college, I’ve just thought it was a random, poetic turn of phrase, referring to nothing in particular in the titular story. I finally looked it up — lo, it’s from a passage in philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘Omega Point.’

‘Omega Point’ refers to a time in the future when all consciousness will come together, something I’m sure John Barlow thought about while tripping with Jerry and Bob and Phil and Mickey. But rising and converging for what’s right is paramount right now. Let’s not get hung up on who said what with lousy grammar. MLK was right about “the content of their character,” even as it extends beyond the color of their skin.

In 1995, Barlow told People magazine that cyberspace, which he fought valiantly to keep the government from constraining, is as good as real-life open space. “There is a lot of room to define yourself. You can literally make yourself up.” Which reminds me of something funny that happened last week, if you’ll indulge me.

A couple friends and I made up a holiday in 2010. It was an inside joke that became a website, a video, a news story, events, t-shirts… On Valentines Day (maybe all holidays are made up?), our joke was a clue on ‘Jeopardy!’ (exclamation point theirs). Here’s the thing: sometimes I’ll go to great lengths to say exactly what I really want to say perfectly, only for it to go largely ignored on social media. “Stupid algorithms,” I mutter to myself. But we posted a screen-shot of the ‘Jeopardy!’ clue, and I’m not sure my phone will ever recover from the barrage of notifications that ensued.

I bring this up for two reasons, neither of which are to toot our own Milwaukee Day horn.

First, it turns out people are paying attention. Always. Algorithms are a trouble, to be sure (ask any social media strategist). But whether it’s you or me or Jane Doe, the right content might rise to the top, and people will converge upon it — for good and for bad. Act accordingly. “You can literally make yourself up.” So even if you’re not a perfect reflection of your true self online, make sure that person you’re making up is someone doing the right thing.

But for our purposes, I mention our completely random appearance on a beloved game show because of that idea of coalescing, and its power. A guy killed 17 people at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentines Day. In the midst of that horror I couldn’t look away from, the texts started about our silly holiday being on ‘Jeopardy!’ Abysmal lows, bizarre highs… just another day on Earth. Even in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre, there’s been power in coalescing around a cause. And over the ensuing weekend, America coalesced around a historic box office showing for Black Panther, a film unlike any we’ve ever seen. Going back to the beginning of the month, we even coalesced around the Philadelphia Eagles beating the Patriots in the stupid Super Bowl. It… it feels good to be in good company, especially now, when it feels too often like nothing makes perfect sense. Our brief TV appearance reinforced this.

Barlow has plenty to say in his above list of principles, things that are more important than ever. Love, praise, respect… But also, “Tolerate ambiguity.” In that moment Wednesday, watching a massacre while feeling pride in our very small game show accomplishment, I didn’t know how to feel. We’re living in ambiguous, incongruous times. It can make anyone feel like things are spiraling away. But sometimes when what’s right is a grey area and what’s wrong is appealing, we need to live through it and learn to recognize nuance. To look inside ourselves and figure out what we stand for. It’s not easy as it should be most of the time. Politics make strange bedfellows, I am told. But every day, you can take comfort in knowing you’re never alone in this.

Adventures in reading and writing. Making sense of what’s new in science, sci-fi, philosophy, culture, and creativity. And basketball.