By any account of history, humans have been around for a long time. During that span, we have been able to accomplish some pretty great things — actually, really astonishing things. I am constantly learning about monumental feats that leave me utterly lost for words. History abounds with structures we have built, problems we have solved, disagreements we have sorted, art forms we have birthed, and trajectories that we have changed.
Humanity is amazing.
But, humanity is not perfect.
In sorting through the monumental, one is forced to contend with the regrettable and the despicable moments of our collective story. As much of a creative force that we represent, there is at least an equal portion of destructive energy. Many of us are optimists: we believe that our species tends toward the positive; we see the invaluable lessons learned from our otherwise disgraceful mistakes. I consider myself counted among this group.
Still, I believe that there are many important lessons that we have yet to learn. Though we have had ample opportunity, there is some knowledge that still remains unincorporated into our collective consciousness — lessons that speak to how we live as a species, as citizens, and as good neighbors.
War Metaphor — Words have Influence
While I don’t remember when or how I found it, George Lakoff’s Metaphors of Terror has deeply impacted my entire life. The most basic change has been in the intentionality with which I communicate. Our choice of words has an effect on the meanings that others interpret, reinforces those meanings in our minds, and gives voice to thoughts and concepts that would otherwise remain unconscious. Both in the article above and in his book, Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff speaks to this recursive influence. The article (written days after Sept 11, 2001) brilliantly unpacks the example of the changing language that U.S. officials used in the wake of 9-11.
Within hours of framing the attacks as a crime (with its associated concepts of perpetrators who could be brought to justice, criminals who could be punished on behalf of the victims, etc), the administration began speaking of the event as an act of war (associated with collateral damage, enemies, military action, etc). It is easy to see how this reframe could have changed a countries understanding of the events of that day, especially given the intense trauma that resulted.
My goal here is not to minimize the events of September 11, 2001 in any way — instead, it is an incredibly potent example of how our discourse can impact those around us. We think about criminals differently than we think about those who are evil. We have some tolerance for collateral damage during wartime but we are very conscious of the reach of law enforcement into the lives of the innocent.
Whether it is a government engaged in a war on terror, a church in a war against sin, or a neighbor at war with a homeowner’s association, the language we use both reinforces our beliefs and wraps the idea in a metaphorical wrapper that changes how we interact (e.g. being at war comes with implicit rules of engagement that are quite different from what is acceptable on a day-to-day basis). When at war with sin, for example, well-meaning churches often carpet-bomb those to whom they would otherwise wish to extend an invitation to a church service or a life of faith. The ensuing collateral damage to a few sinners psyches that comes in the wake of statements like “God Hates _______” is justified on the front-lines.
The lesson here then is to be careful about on whom we declare war and to realize how easily that declaration can be made.
Compromise is Hardly a Bad Word
Perhaps it results from a distinctly self-centering cultural influence. Perhaps it is somehow related to an apparent obsession with polarization. Whether for these reasons or some other, the concept of compromise seems to come with a host of negative connotations.
Polarization will do that to you. Whenever we see the world though either-or, black-and-white filters compromise becomes less about mutually agreeing on the most reasonable solution and more about giving into your opponents (or enemies, rivals, challenger, etc). It’s incredibly similar to the situation that Lakoff describes when discussing calling your opponents evil: when we do so, we are implying that we are inherently right or justified.
In the U.S., this is at the core of our political discourse. There are two parties. The implication here is that there are two positions and, depending on your perspective, one right and one wrong. I believe that, over time and with a suitable political climate, parties, politicians, and individual people push these bases further and further to the extremes. Republicans become more conservative. Democrats become more liberal. This is less about political ideology, though, and more about attempts to show relative strength. Any step taken back towards center is viewed as caving to the other sides stance — compromise is aligned negatively with weakness and caving in (a metaphor itself aligned with structural failure and potential harm).
There is a selfishness component to this stance: we are not willing to get anything but everything that we want. It is engrained into the very fiber of the western world. When we privilege the individual over the collective: doing what is best for the group is less important that doing what is best for me (and my personal interests); considering the long-term implications (i.e. those that will ultimately affect others) is far less worthwhile than the immediacy of how I will be affected.
The lesson, then, becomes about pursuing a balance between self and others. Obviously, personal interests are important: survival of the fittest is ultimately about a single organism. When do we put our own interests aside for the benefit of all?
Separate and Equal
Equality is troubling for me to think about — at least, thinking about how people think about equality is troubling.
In my heart, I know that we’re all the same and, in the grand scheme of things, your life is no more or less valuable than mine. I closely identify with a Moravian Church practice I recently learned about that symbolizes the democracy of death. While I’ve not yet seen this first hand, Moravian Church graveyards are such that no single grave is prominent — there is a uniformity that unites each resting soul. We all face the same harsh truth: none of us can cheat death.
While I have this deeply held belief, several things are troubling: I,myself, say and do many things that contradict this belief; there are people in this world (e.g. criminals) who clearly experience the world very differently on this front; we are only a few generations removed from slavery in America (however, there remains an estimated 27 million slaves in the world — clearly, this is still a major issue); and, even in this country, people are treated very differently based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, socioeconomic status, address, family history, and on, and on.
In any number of cultures around the world, practices do not line up with this belief: people are persecuted, attacked, lynched, abused by people whose behavior can only be ascribed to them thinking that they are better than those they victimize. Similarly, albeit less dramatically, comparable behavior occurs daily at high schools or on social networks here in America.
What is the lesson here? If we believe that “… all men are created equal …”, why do we not act as though it were true? This ultimately doesn’t happen at the highest levels of our society. It happens on ground — it happens with you. It happens when you contribute to agencies that are working to eradicate slavery. It happens when you vote for politicians that say they will work for equality. It happens when you teach your children that punching may not be the best solution. It happens when you become part of organizations that celebrate diversity.
Yes, there is far more to learn that these three simple lessons. Still, I wonder why they have eluded us for so long.
I wonder for how much longer they will elude us.