I find myself feeling increasingly isolated by the groupthink I see everywhere these days.
Am I the only person who is uncomfortable with the spirit of the times which divides people and judges them on the basis of what they believe or how they vote?
(Photo of a memorial to prisoners of war killed building the Thai-Burma railway in World War 2.
Hellfire Pass, Thailand)
How sad it would be
If I believed in tolerance so strongly,
I could show no tolerance
to those who saw things differently.
If I praised diversity in all things
except opinion.
If I defended human rights
with personal abuse,
foul language
or violence.
If I believed those who thought differently
were stupid,
or evil.
If I my belief in a cause
stopped me reaching out in friendship.
If I believed I held the truth and it were mine alone.
How sad it would be.

The Sadness of Labels

I've written on this previously, but the world, by and large, hasn't taken much notice.
Perhaps then, one more try will do the trick?
Online comments tacked on to the end of media reports often depress me. You know, where readers vent? It's not so much the lack of grammar, spelling, or abusive put-downs (bad as they are), that bothers me, but the almost complete lack of anything resembling conversation. The communication in these venues, if you can call it that, is pretty much like that of pre-schoolers and because of that, is pretty much pointless.
One of the comments at the end of one opinion piece this morning, bucked the trend, and pressed my interest button:
“So many people talking but in separate orbits often so not really knowing what the whole 'conversation' is. So much for the global electronically connected village, eh?”
This wise observation nails my concern. We don't listen to each other. We talk at each other: parallel conversations going nowhere and contributing to the white noise of alienation. As well as filling electronic pages with self centred twaddle, we just love to use labels, don't we?
Unfortunately, labels have a down side. They can remove the need for empathy at times when we badly need to show it. Labels can make the people less visible and less human. A nuance, like the value of another person, evaporates in the heat generated when we use labels. We can say things and think things and do things to labels that we would not do to living, breathing people.
Labels can be used as weapons against ideas as well as against individuals; quite handy for shutting down communication and stopping debate. Labelling an idea “offensive” places it somewhere we don't need to consider it seriously or respectfully any more. It shuts down debate, and also, most likely, prevents any possibility of resolution. There are others like that one that are quite handy for the same purpose: 'Racist'; 'Homophobic'; 'Islamophobic'; 'Queue jumper; 'Fascist'; 'Subversive'; 'Medieval'; and so on (the list is long).
You know the labels people use. Like me, you probably use them too. I am certainly no saint (another label). I can see the failings and the stupidity of others with crystal clarity. Unfortunately, as valuable as such ability undoubtedly is, and however righteous it helps me to feel, I can also see that it serves only to build walls. The labels I assign so freely do a similar thing. Not only do they prevent me seeing my fellow human beings, they prevent me from listening to their wisdom. All right, some have more or less than others, but you get what I mean.
If I had begun this post by saying I believed the western world faced an existential threat from muslim extremism, would you have immediately reached for a label to attach to me or a box in which to place me?
I have a deep seated sadness in me at what has become of us in this messed up world. I don't think we need to sit in a circle holding hands, singing songs of international goodwill. That would just allow the wolves free reign. Some threats need to be identified and dealt with accordingly.
That deep seated sadness in me, however, will not be healed by the necessary elimination of existential threats, nor the resort to labels to shut discussion down. For me the path to healing is the path that takes me to my neighbour's door with a listening ear.

Secular Sellout?


(Although this view from our back patio does not relate closely to the topic, it looks vaguely secular.)

I haven’t picked up the morning paper to read for some time. Instead I use my ipad to stay in touch with the world. This is good, I tell myself. Instant news updates and the 24 hour news cycle must be good things. I have heard somewhere that knowledge is power. If so, we must be about the most powerful people in history. We’re certainly soaked and drenched in a tank full of ‘knowledge’.

But are we talking about knowledge that informs people and allows them to make up their own minds? Is the information that floods news media sites this sort of knowledge, or something else? It seems to me that an awful lot of content on news channels is actually opinion; or stories crafted by bright young journalists who want to influence the way their viewers see the world. News reported at arms length from the reporter’s personal bias is a rare commodity as far as I can see.

Has it always been thus? No, I don’t think so. Not anywhere close to the present extent. Moralistic preaching dressed up as informed opinion has become viral. While neutral disinterested news sources have always been a bit like unicorns (mythical creatures), at least the aspiration used to be there. The difference I am noticing in recent years is that no one bothers to pretend anymore.

There are now unashamedly different camps; each with its own causes to champion and each with its own ideological filters through which its stories pass. As an example, one camp reports changes in health policy as ‘new budget efficiencies’, while the other reports them as an ‘assault on the poor’. One camp reports police action in detaining suspected terrorists as a ‘wise initiative’. The other derides it as ‘theatre’ aimed at creating fear and uncertainty. Same events, different slants. Truth in both? Maybe. News crafted to influence opinion? Definitely.

Comment and opinion used to be the preserve of editorials written by senior staff. Now every newly minted journalism graduate is an activist of some persuasion. A by product of this trend is the loss of much of the authority that media sources used to have, and the growth in popularity of feedback and commentary by readers. Every second news story, it seems to me, has a section following it inviting readers’ comments. And respond to the invitation they do! It’s not unusual for major stories to attract hundreds of reader responses. A pity, I think, that there seems to be no requirement for responses to be logical, well argued, or written with any knowledge at all of the issues. Such requirements would, of course, imply some authoritarian imposition of standards and expectations that itself would betray at worst, undemocratic fascist leanings, or at best, archaic beliefs about how the world should work. We can’t have that.

So, we are left with a situation in contemporary news media and in public feedback comments, that has anyone’s view as valuable as anyone else’s, regardless of familiarity with the topic, experience, or intent. Notice I do not mention correct grammar, or the ability to structure or respond to an argument. There are two reasons I do not mention these factors. One is that I would be dismissed as an even bigger reactionary elitist than I already am, and the other is that in the past my writing seems to have been plagued by occasional embarassing grammatical errors. We can’t give any lurking pedants ammunition to fire at us can we?

Anyway, to move on to my focus.

I read frequent comments and letters in local and national media about Islam and Muslim extremists. Few are complimentary. Most are fearful and suspicious of the threat posed to our security and way of life. There are other postings in which the threat posed by Muslim extremists is played down or ignored. While I believe that both these apparently opposing perspectives have something worthwhile to say, I seem to have drifted into a default position where I listen to opinions I agree with, and ignore those that jar. Not that I’m alone in this. Truly open minds are very rare, maybe because there is something in we humans that makes it painful to be open to all sides to an argument. In a perfect world things would not be that way, but we have only this world.

One comment this morning raised my agitation index more than usual. Its author felt threatened by militant islamism. Fair enough I guess. So do I. But then came this sentence:

“Unlike Christianity, Islam is not just a religion; it is also a way of life.”

Whaat? Ouch!

So it was a good thing to him that Christianity was ‘just’ a religion and not a way of life!

Of all the ignorant, know nothing statements . . . so I began my mental response to him. Just a religion indeed! Not a way of life indeed! Just as quickly as my indignation rose however, so a feeling of something resembling shame began to elbow its way to the front of mind.

My Christian faith is not ‘just a religion’ to me. It is in me and through me; an integral part of me. But so is a lot of other stuff, and I began to wonder if, to an external observer, my faith might appear to be just an optional extra; worn when convenient and discarded when inconvenient. I wondered whether I and Christians around me had allowed ourselves to blend in with our secular society to the extent that we had become all but invisible. I wondered whether in accommodating ourselves to secular culture and its truths and values, we had lost our identity. Certainly the person who contributed the above gem seemed to think so.

Well, I haven’t completely submitted to our secular age, even if I find it easier to live sometimes as if I appear to have. I guess I’ll just have to console myself with that certainty, even as I ask myself whether my life really does allign fully with what I believe. Our secular age does demand its pound of flesh from those who want to belong. The challenge for those of us who are Christian (and also for those who are Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan et. al) is to accommodate with what we must in order to live beside our fellow human beings who do not believe as we do, without compromising who we are.

The challenge is to get the balance right. Fortunately and thankfully, my God knows me, and works miracles.

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