Saturday, August 26, 2017

Bubbles 2 - The Great Divide

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And both Thomas and Abe were angry and offended, and they went off to complain to each other about the uncompromising attitudes of their wives.

And Sally wept, because she was abused and vulnerable, and she mourned, because she had been beaten and disbelieved.

And Mary mourned, because Thomas was still her brother, and Abe was still her husband.

* * *

I read a fair bit, over this long warm winter, over this crisp clear summer, about what the meaning of the election really was.

Slavery and Antisla: Just
Two Sides of the Same Divisive Coin?
I read that it represented the end of ‘identity politics,’ which seemed to mean ‘voting for somebody who was not a white man.’ I read that it was time for us all to unite behind our new president, but little of what that unity would entail. I read that if he succeeds, we all succeed, a sentiment that seemed unconcerned with the question of what, exactly, he considered success, or at what, precisely, he intended to succeed. I read that it meant we all need to spend a lot of time thinking uncritically about the fears and needs and desires of specific demographics of voters, and stop focusing so much on the fears and needs and desires of other specific demographics.

I learned I now have a new job, which involves many tasks.

I learned that I am in a bubble. I learned it is part of my job to get out of that bubble. It’s a very important task, I’m told.

Is Abolitionist Scolding Causing Pro-Slavery Violence?
I’ve learned that there are many reasons 'regular,' 'hard-working,' 'working-class' people voted for Donald Trump, that have little to do with the many and varied fascist and hateful and violent things that he promised and that they cheered for, and that he continues to promise and that they continue to cheer for, and that it is now my task to discover what those things are, and support them, and this is part of getting out of my bubble.

I’ve been given to understand that the tone of opposition’s rhetoric has become much too sharp and hectoring. I am now tasked with finding a tone much more conducive to comity, and that is part of getting out of my bubble.

I’ve heard there are two sides to everything. I’ve heard it’s very important to consider and respect and understand and publish both sides, and this is part of getting out of my bubble.

Liberal rabble-rousers were so annoying in 1836
Most of all, I’ve read a lot about how divided we are as a nation—the most divided we’ve been in a hundred years. I’ve learned that I and people who feel as I do have scolded far too much, and resentment at this scolding has fueled this political seismic activity, has created and exacerbated these fault lines, and prised apart the tectonic plates of our political body. I’ve learned it is my job now to reach out and mend this divide, and this is part of getting out of my bubble.


Except … I haven’t heard anything about how all the people who Donald Trump and his party threatened and attacked, and continue to threaten and attack, are going to stop being threatened or attacked if I do any of that.

I haven’t heard anything about how, if I choose to move on, those who continue to live under the constant dread of promised menace and violence and bigotry are going to be able to move on, too. Moving on doesn’t seem to be an option for them. Compliance with new proposed laws appears to be more the order of the day for them. Getting press-ganged out of the country appears to be their new role, that, or else being barred from entering it, or else facing imprisonment for crimes disproportionately enforced in their neighborhoods, or being conflated with villains for protests against outrage, or facing cruel retaliation for standing up against injustice, or living in fear that their skin or their dress or their custom will lead either to threats of violence or else the genuine article.

I haven’t heard how my reaching out to mend the divide is going to protect millions of people— including those who voted for Donald Trump and his Republican Congress—who rely on access to health insurance and affordable health care, who now face the very real possibility of losing that access, and dying or suffering from a treatable malady. The first attempt failed, yes...but these men seemed eager, almost giddy, to do it. Given a bit more time, they will try again.

I haven’t heard anything about how all these people are going to be protected from the effects of the intended Republican strip-mining of load-bearing girders of our social infrastructure, which provide relief to tens of thousands who might otherwise have suffered, and allow tens of thousands who might otherwise have died to live, but whose funds could also be used to further enrich the already wealthy.

I haven’t heard anything about how any of us expect our grandchildren to live on a planet that is swiftly tilting toward inhospitablity, due in large part to energy habits many in this country seem intent on preserving primarily for their utility in distressing the rest of us with their recklessness.

All the healing and mending and understanding, it seems, now needs to be performed by the marginalized and threatened, on behalf of those powerful and comfortable people, their power newly re-entrenched, who continue to threaten them.

I can’t help but wonder why that should be.

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
So let’s think about bubbles, and let’s think about our nation's great divide.

But before we do, let’s move the frame a bit. Let us think about justice and order. And let’s think about priorities.

Some people talk about justice as a primary value.

Others talk about order.

Do you see the difference?

Words are promiscuous in meaning if we aren’t precise. We could define these two terms any number of ways, and arguments between those definitions could make their own essay. Best to settle on some definitions, then, if only for use within these posts.

For these purposes, let’s take 'order' to mean “a system which, to the best of its ability, maintains itself with consistency through any attempted disruption.” It’s the quality that allows us to assume that today will follow the same rules as tomorrow. It supports the sort of predictability that allows both society and individuals to make and enact projections and plans. It is the soil from which can spring innovation, growth, wealth, stability, and comfort. It's the bulwark against anarchy.

It’s good. Order is very good.

Now, let’s take 'justice' to mean “the extent to which a system recognizes and ensures, to the best of its ability, essential dignity, equal standing under the law, and basic physical and spiritual needs, of all human beings.” This is the underlying bedrock upon which the soil of order rests, which, when perfected, is smooth and level, with none afforded systemic advantage over another and none systemically robbed. Thus justice defines the shape of order.

It’s good. Justice is very good.

It’s worth repeating that both order and justice are good and necessary things. I personally am not a fan of disorder. I dare hope we can all get behind justice.

I’d observe that evil isn’t usually a product of creativity or innovation. Evil is usually the corruption of things that are already good, by degrading them down or elevating them up out of their proper places.

Take prosperity, for example. To prosper is good. It’s very good. But when prosperity becomes more important than questions of whether your prosperity will cause people to die who might otherwise have lived, then prosperity—a good thing—has become badly corrupted.

And people aren’t evil—people are art. But we choose our priorities, and as our priorities inform our beliefs, we can take on the corrupted and inartful shapes of our bad assumptions. We might later even see the forms we have taken and fail even to recognize ourselves anymore. We may pause to wonder how we arrived there, and attempt to change. Or we might deny the truth of what we have become, might angrily wonder how other people could possibly see us for what we manifestly are.

"This isn't me! This isn't me!"
That’s what makes it all so insidious. We can always try to ignore or promote evil by mistaking the goodness that remains as goodness of the whole. Those who intend great injustice will always retreat to some island of goodness from which to defend themselves:

"I'm not for genocide. I just love my family and want to protect them from other races. So now it's bad to love? Aren't you the twisted one?"

"I don't want to torture our enemies. We need to, to keep our kids safe. You don't want to torture? You must not have kids. Why do you hate safety?"

Repeat: Justice is good. Order is good. They are both good.

I repeat it because I know from experience how people hear—how I hear. It seems we have lost sight of the fact that most conflicts between right and wrong are actually questions of appropriate priority between competing good things. (Which is not to say both sides are in the right.) The expectation in most conflicts between two things is that one of the things is good and the other bad, and usually the goodness and badness are assumed to be undiluted. Thus, when you say that one thing ought to take priority over another, what I hear is not that one thing is more important than another, and should therefore be given precedence, but rather that the one thing is entirely good, and the other thing is entirely bad.

“You think property rights are more important than civil rights. Thus, you think civil rights are a bad thing.”

“You think civil rights are more important than property rights. Thus, you think property rights are a bad thing.”

Obviously, neither proposition is true of most people. But the conflict emerges. Property rights are good. Civil rights are good. But which is more important? The choice matters a lot. One choice honors the fact that all people are art. The other leads, inevitably, to barbarism.

The defining question is one of priority. When two good things come into conflict with each other, which good thing takes preference over the other?

Here is the defining frame I propose: The chief priority among all competing good things is recognition the inherent dignity, legal equality, and provision for basic need, of all human beings, a recognition which, for brevity’s sake, I’ll refer to as ‘justice.’

This is a justice that is founded on the idea that every person is a unique and irreplaceable work of art, carrying an intrinsic and unsurpassable worth.

It is, crucially, a justice with its foundation in love.

I submit that a casual observer can tell a lot about a society by observing how, when, and why it prioritizes justice over order, or order over justice.

If a society is unjust, an insistence on a more perfect justice is going to disrupt that society’s order, and those who demand justice are not going to see that disruption as a bad thing. Not because they hate order (though perhaps a troubled few might), but because they have determined that order must first demand justice; otherwise it is going to be an ordered injustice, a terrible order not worth the cost to the soul and conscience.

And, if a society prefers order above justice, it’s going to focus on the particulars of the existing rules that support that order, with little consideration as to whether or not those rules establish justice; and those who prioritize order are going to ignore and suppress and dismantle any rules that do not support that order. Not because they hate justice (though perhaps a troubled few might), but because they recognize that establishing a more perfect justice will necessarily require a great disruption to their desired order, a terrible price not worth the cost to stability and prosperity.

And so some will prefer equality and justice for all.

And some will prefer law and order.

In a perfected system, law and order will be exactly the same thing as justice. A peaceful order resting upon a system that is completely just is a great aspiration, though as yet an unattained one.

This sort of perfected justice and order would mean nobody is being assaulted, or robbed, or starved, or sleeping without shelter, or exposed to tainted water, or made unwelcome in public spaces or public life, or harassed, or barred from equal treatment under the law, or expected to accept less pay for equal work, or  forced to accept pay that does not allow them enough upon which to live, or otherwise abused in any other way. It would mean that any rules or actions making such abuses likely or inevitable would be ended or curtailed, with consequences enforced for infractions—consequences which restore essential human dignity and provide basic human needs to the victim, while still maintaining and protecting human dignity for the perpetrators.

That sort of justice would require a great deal of honesty and deliberation and probity and intention and hard work and willingness to change. When that system found systemic injustice within itself, the society would need to be willing to submit itself to hard and costly work of correction.

Cost is something we would prefer to avoid. But avoiding cost, while important in its right place, is not more important than justice. Thus, a society preferring justice to order might bring itself to deny itself and suffer, in the name of what is good, might be willing to pay the price to do the good work necessary to dig up the soil of order, to repair the fault lines in justice's underlying bedrock..

But a society preferring order to justice would greatly resent any finding of fault.

Pointing out fault lines of inequality is so … it’s so divisive. Why point fingers?

A preference for order over justice represents a preference to cover over fault lines with new soil, rather than to address the underlying imbalance. It is a desire to say that order and justice are already the same, without doing the hard and costly work to make it so.

It is an invitation—a tempting one—to reconciliation without reparation.

It is an invitation—a tempting one—to forgive somebody who has harmed someone else, as proxy for the one they have harmed, the one they intend to continue harming.

It is an invitation—a tempting one—to create a papered-over justice by urging or even forcing a victim to apologize to the one abusing them, for the disruption to the established order their abuse has caused.

It is an invitation to maintaining an order that will not only allow further abuse, but guarantee it. It will make further abuse inevitable. Permission for continuance of ordered abuse is the reason the invitation, with all its attendant benefits and temptations, is being offered in the first place.

The reason this invitation remains so tempting is this: Its enticements are offered to those with the most power to stop an abuser from their abused, while hurting most those with least power to complain or defend themselves. Some will suffer, and suffer badly, but mostly invisibly—at least for a while. Everybody else is allowed to remain comfortable—until it is their turn to suffer, anyway. Meanwhile, a favored elect are allowed to continue reaping massive advantage from the unjust order, and even, provided they are ruthless enough, to strip away even the covering soil, to work at adjusting the fault lines to restore injustices already ameliorated, to Make Past Injustices Great Again.

And, let us not forget, there are categories other than those who prefer justice to order and order to justice.

For example: There are those who prefer injustice to either justice or order. Evil still does exist. Badness exists. We’re not always dealing with a competition between two good things.



Allow me to suggest that, when there is a great divide between people who prefer order, and people who prefer justice, this is an indication that the undergirding system over which these people contend is deeply, fundamentally abusive and unjust.

Allow me to suggest that, the greater the divide between those who prefer order and those who prefer justice, the more abusive and unjust the existing order of that system is likely to be.

Allow me to suggest that, in cases like this, an increasing divisiveness is not actually the problem, in the same way a symptom is not the disease.

Allow me to suggest that (because order is actually a good thing), when I elect to prioritize order over justice, it can seem in my mind that I am doing good and necessary work, because the thing I am defending is, taken by itself, a good and necessary thing. It may seem to me that others, who prioritize justice over order, are saying that order is bad and should be destroyed, not modified.

But, even if I fail to understand what they are saying, I will notice that they are opposing me. I will become aware of the divide. That much at least will penetrate.

It may well be the divide is the only indication complacent people will ever perceive that the order they support is unjust, and that their support of it makes further abuse not only likely, but inevitable—that their support of an abusive order is itself abuse. If a society has become committed to an unjust enough order, the divide may need to get wide enough that no bubble can cross it.

It may well be the divide is the only thing separating an unjust system from those people the system is designed to abuse, the only thing keeping those people separated from those others, not complacent, very intentional, who intend to deliberately advantage themselves, using the inherent injustices preserved within the order of their society for the abuse and harm of others.

It may be that unity, while a good thing, is not more important than justice.

It may be that before we decide if unity is appropriate, we must ask what it is we intend to unify around.

And it may well be the divide is actually a very, very, very good thing.

Pictured: A Unified Country

I must confess, this year I’ve lost my patience for those who save their first tears for the divide rather than its causes.

* * *

And Mary wept, because Sally was still her sister.

0. ART


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