(Former Khymer Rouge Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. My photo 2019)
The prisons we build for ourselves.
I have jumped in to deep water with this post, and it feels good. A weight has been lifted.
Some things have been bugging me for quite a while. I know I’m not the only one bothered by the tribalism and divisions opening up in our public life and politics, but I’ve seen what can happen to people who share that concern publicly. Hence feeling like I’m in deep water.
It seems to me that we are allowing ourselves to be controlled by slogans. By our silence, we are allowing these slogans to become established. We embrace slogans that divide us, and dominant ones that control us, with the subservience of serfs.
Simplistic slogans lead us nowhere useful. This is especially true of slogans adopted by opposing tribes.
The first example:
“A Woman’s Right to Choose” on the one hand, and “The Right to Life” on the other. Both are defended righteously and loudly by their respective tribes. Both deny the legitimacy of the other’s case. Both demonise the other. Both own a portion of the truth, but neither can see, apparently, that the issue of abortion is more difficult than they would like it to be. Neither appear to wrestle with the tragedies that arise when we operate with one slogan being correct beyond question, and the other absolutely wrong.
“The Right to Life” calls out the murder of unborn children, but seems blind to ethical problems arising from poverty, family breakdown and rape.
“A Woman’s Right to Choose” calls out the latter but seems blind to the former.
Obviously, the ethical dilemnas attending abortion can not be explored in adequate depth in a single paragraph, but this is what a slogan does! It reduces complex ethical matters to placards.
What bugs me about the way abortion is discussed and contested? Well, you guessed it. When it is presented as a simple choice, devoid of complexity and pain. When it is used to divide people into tribes; each without insight into the deeply held beliefs of the other. It is not simply a woman’s right to choose, unless her foetus is not in any sense human, and unless her rights are the only ones that matter. It is not simply that every foetus has a right to life, unless that right transcends the health and wellbeing of the mother.
A second example?
“Voluntary Assisted Dying” has taken the place formerly held by Euthanasia in the public conscience. Here too, are polarised opinions, and self referential tribes, each with a penchant for simplistic truth. Here too, each tribe owns a portion of the truth and guards it jealously, without concession. Here too, the complexity of the issue seems to be missed among the slogans.
“Dying with Dignity” calls for a humane approach to those terminally ill and in unbearable pain. It argues that the wishes of the patient to avoid pain and trauma trump any notion of the sanctity or ‘specialness’ of human life. There is nothing dignified in dying wracked with pain, they say. The opposing slogan, “Human Life is sacred” argues that humans are not the same as animals and their lives should be regarded as inherently valuable. Suffering and dying are an integral part of human life, they say.
Those who would act to help people avoid what they see as unnecessary suffering say it is humane to end a person’s suffering and there is obvious truth it this.
Many of those in the opposing tribe, believe that life is more than just an individual possession, to be disposed of when the going is tough. There seems, to me anyway, to be truth in this also.
It should not surprise us that this issue is more complex than simple slogans can handle. For example:
Is ending the life of a terminally ill person about the comfort and dignity of that person or more about the distress and discomfort of relatives and friends, who don’t want to witness the proceedings?
Is a person’s wish to end their own life influenced by their perception that they are a burden on their loved ones?
On the other hand, if human life is sacred, what good is there is prolonging suffering unnecessarily?
Who has the right to end another person’s life? Is living uncommunicatively in an extended coma, really living?
Again, slogans help us to avoid the complexities of an issue.
Take truth itself: Truth matters, but it has a bad reputation in some quarters. It is variously contested, distorted, concealed, embellished, manipulated, hidden, and even made up. We seek it; worship it; disagree on it; live for it; kill for it, and die for it.
Truth is often straightforward, but also more often than not, has grey, fuzzy edges.
We love our truth, don’t we? We cling to it, and defend it. We sharpen it, polish it, and are happy to plunge it into the heart of an opponent. Many of us need little encouragement to use our truth to bludgeon those who think differently.
Truth is beautiful, but can be cold, hard and cruel when used as a weapon.
Craving certainty and simple answers, we can find ourselves imprisoned by those simple answers, unable to see the humanity of those who believe differently.
May I suggest a better approach than the tribalism and slogans growing among us like weeds?
May I suggest while there may very well be a lot of evil and many demons in our world, that evil and those demons might not be what we currently recognise them to be?
There are different types of prisons. Not all are made of bricks and mortar. Some we construct ourselves when joining tribes that provide simplistic truths while demonising others.