The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: prejudice

Hibernating Bigotry

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WITH A FEDERAL ELECTION HEATING UP, the political establishment will come after citizens once more, asking them what they want and promising to give it to them if they would but vote. You’d think that after a time, especially following years of political dysfunction, that this being catered to every four years or so would begin to grate on us somewhat. And perhaps it has and that is part of the reason voter turnout continues to decline.

But politicians know something about us that they would never say and we would never admit: we aren’t just a people of myriad opinions, but of latent prejudices that we quietly live out each day but which we never let fully out into the open. Thus the political order, perhaps even especially in election time, plays to that part of us. ill Clinton, alluded to this tendency in his 1995 State of the Union address:

“If you go back to the beginning of this country, the great strength of America has always been our ability to associate with people who were different from ourselves and to work together to find common ground. And in this day, everybody has a responsibility to do more of that. We simply can’t wait for a tornado, a fire, or a flood to behave like Americans ought to behave in dealing with one another.”

And then Clinton opened up about the prejudice politicians often have for citizens, and it wasn’t pretty: “Most of us in politics haven’t helped very much. For years, we’ve mostly treated citizens like they were consumers or spectators, sort of political couch potatoes who were supposed to watch our political TV ads either promise them something for nothing or play on their fears and frustrations.”

And, so, there it was, how politicians see us. That sad part is that they might, in part at least, be correct. Clinton’s solution to this “silo” form of citizenship was a “New Covenant,” in which citizens get back to the prime task of getting to know one another and working together – something most Americans never got around to.

Recently, Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University, gave a major speech to educators, in which she called up the ghosts of what she called “hibernating bigotry.” She quoted from the book, Taking on Diversity: “We stay away from the interpersonal level where bigotry implicates us all, refusing to acknowledge it. We leave it to our children to carry our baggage on their backs.”

It is easy to spot outright bigotry, and it’s likely our kids see it quicker that we do, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. It’s not about race riots, public violence against women, or the comments by the haters on social media. Most of us rightly avoid such things, even taking stands against them. No, were talking about the “subtle” forms of bigotry. It’s about the distance we place between ourselves and those struggling in the mental health cycle. It’s our quiet avoidance of people from ethnic populations who might make us feel uncomfortable, as we do them. It’s about how we tolerate a growing poverty in our nation, attempting to ameliorate our conscience with the odd donation. It’s the anonymous despair we feel when we increasingly learn of hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women but somehow don’t get around to joining a movement to get the feds to finally deal with it.

But it goes even deeper, this legacy of taking democracy for granted without ever really entering it or truly fighting for it. It’s about how we pull back when we come to understand that the solution to poverty will involve the sacrifice of all citizens, sometimes with taxes, other times by joining together to end homelessness in our communities. And it’s when we become increasingly aware of the impact of climate change but can’t quite manage to alter our lifestyle to play our own part more significantly in healing the planet. I wrestle with all the issues within myself, so I’m presuming many of us face the same battle. Except, in my case at least, it’s not so much a conflict as it is a quiet prejudice of placing myself and my family over truly taking part in healing society and the environment at the same time.

Presidential candidate, John Dewey, put it this was in 1937: “Democracy has to be enacted anew in every generation, in every day and year, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.”

Are we ready for this? Am I? Because the political order is banking on the fact we aren’t and that we can be played according to our prejudices. Perhaps this is the worst aspect of politics, but it represents the shame of citizenship if we can’t transcend our own limitations and persuade politicians to make the tough choices. If we can, though, then this next election will not only bring about a new life of democracy, but a higher kind of politics in the process.

 

 

The Partisan Mind (1)

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The dictionary defines the word partisan as an “adherent or supporter of a person, group, party or cause.  A person who shows a biased, emotional allegiance.”  It also carries a military connotation, meaning someone “engaged in harassing the enemy.”  We get our English word from the Latin pars, which means “particular” and which evolved into the word “partiality.”

The term has always possessed a kind of edge, yet previous times viewed a partisan as a loyalist who held to certain views.  Today it accumulates increasingly negative baggage and such a person is frequently viewed as incapable of understanding and blind to further truth.  That’s a shame.  Sincere partisans are everywhere in politics, believing in their cause, and furthering their point of view.  All of us hold opinions and have every right to express them.

Sadly, partisans can sometimes get caught up in a bigger game where larger forces seek to manipulate their leanings, where the stakes are higher and the modus operandi becomes mean instead of meaningful.

The unfortunate part is that even the best intentioned partisans can slide into a pattern of behavior or a culture that makes permissible what would never be accepted previously.  Those larger forces pump us up, and, as time draws on, our need to fight for an ideal gets transcended by the need to see those with opposing views as somehow diminished or even demented.  In willy-nilly fashion our political leanings become a form of blind faith that quietly closes the drapes and depends on interior lighting.  Over time, we sell ourselves into it as a kind of political worshipper, bowing to the leader and serving up the sacraments of our new religion.

By this very process we slowly become drained of morality just at the time we think we are practicing it.  The truth evolves into “our” truth and seeks to view society through the lens we have created.  Yet the more we remain in such a setting, the less effective we become in the broader world.  We sense we aren’t connecting and grow inwardly bitter as we live only for the horizon we see.  Certain intrigues of cruelty breeze among us towards other persuasions and eventually they hardly trouble us.

Over time, as with ingrown religion, it becomes apparent that society at large just isn’t interested in our fervor and this reality frustrates us.  Yet it is a democracy and if we are to succeed we must gain broader support.  And though we can detect the detachment of citizens at large, we can at least conceal our own narrowed identity and pass among them without any real friction.  In living this kind of double life, our pretences become hollow.  We know if we express the true passions of our beliefs that our very ardour will trouble a general audience.  The fervor that we once had plods on mechanically while our reasonable minds slowly leave us. 

You can spot this most clearly in community versus political life.  The modern partisan can work on school boards, charitable committees or broader community initiatives with people of other persuasions, flowing effortlessly through the waters of engagement.  And yet he or she can’t operate in the same fashion in a parliament or even a city council because that would expose a kind of political weakness.

Without realizing it, when it comes to politics we can no longer incorporate half-tones in our visions; we have become a people of primary colours.  And it could be worse than that: we view politics as black and white, monochrome and contrasting.  We know only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without troubling ourselves with the finer shades required for community understanding and usefulness.  We eventually become at ease only in extremes and express superlatives by choice.

The broader community can watch this process from a distance, understanding that our logic, our group-think, is leading us to absurd ends.  They see our imaginations as vivid, but not creative.  But the heavily partisan among us can’t spot in himself what the majority of citizens do in his movement.  Where he once believed in values for their own sake, he now must take the form and custom of the tribe.  In so doing, he loses his relevance and becomes perennially angry as a result.

Soon to be retired New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg witnessed the effect of all this on his own city, concluding:

The politics of partisanship and the resulting inaction and excuses have paralyzed decision-making, and the big issues of the day are not being addressed, leaving our future in jeopardy.”

Our communities require creative thinking not conformist ideologies.  The sincere partisan who holds to valued principles must ever be careful of subscribing to the skepticism of modern politics and moving from the former to the latter.  Unfortunately it is a journey increasing numbers of politically motivated and sincere individuals are taking.  There is a place for partisanship in the modern political structure, but it is not the prominent place, nor even the most important public one.

Goodwill Hunting

Find-Inspiration3And on earth, peace to those of goodwill … Luke 2:14

Today I turn 62. A birthday is always a good occasion for reflection and this past year has been more notable than some. From having my daughter Kristy move back to London with her son Jack to undergoing major surgery, from seeing how Londoners responded so generously to the food bank during demanding times to finishing my book on London – these made the year meaningful, challenging, and inspiring.

My Mom, Dad and brother all died of cancer when they were 62 – an irony not lost on me. Yet I feel there are still many more things to do, to accomplish, to share with others, and to enjoy.

While in hospital, I told my wife Jane than I want this year to really count, to make sure I at least throw my weight on the side of good and hopefully move the humanitarian needle a notch in the right direction. I have watched in politics and civic life as well-meaning citizens put up barriers, fences, and animosities that ultimately damaged community life. I would, despite my many failures, move in the opposite direction – breaking new ground for ideals and principles, testing new methods for community cooperation that bound across partisan lines and draw citizens together.

I desire to break the shackles of my own limitations and pursue goodwill as far into social and community life as it will go. Knowing I haven’t done this enough, I want to dedicate myself to a new kind of citizenship that puts cooperation above consternation, understanding ahead of umbrage, and humanity before haughtiness. We all mean so well, yet get caught in little prejudices that limit our growth. I desire to break through those comfortable silos, to push for goodwill even when I’m uncomfortable with certain aspects of it.

Our history has been dominated by prejudices, both artificial and antagonistic. From the old ages of tribes and war to the modern era with its partisanship and emptiness, humanity has always struggled against its own tendency to build fences of security around its opinions. Things that are unfamiliar we have tended to distrust. I have traveled too much not to have seen the effects of hidden and open prejudices on entire groups of people. It’s why I’ve always been what they call an internationalist. The very word “international” was invented by Jeremy Bentham in 1780, and eventually found its way into the vernacular of European existence fifty years later. Its very appearance so late in the day of human existence demonstrates just how long people preferred the local over the distant, the known versus the unknown.

In a world so long dominated by prejudice, the only real hope is goodwill towards others. There are no real rules about it, merely some guiding values. It’s an adventure – a call to pull outside of ourselves in an attempt to understand the broader world in which others exist. It has always been more natural to hold negative opinions about others with whom we disagree. But in the end we discover that such prejudice actually impoverishes us in the process. Here we were, shutting others out of our lives because we believed our creeds and politics were nobler than theirs, and it left us all incapable of breaking down the silos that entrap us.

We all perceive ourselves to be good people, capable of understanding and compassion, and there is much truth in it. But then we come up against a Mandela, a Jean Vanier, a Jesus, or a Vaclav Havel and we feel diminished in their noble thoughts – not because their words are lofty but that we never practiced them to that degree. Goodwill isn’t about being smarmy, but incisive, bold in understanding, gracious in forgiveness, and a willing, active partner in building community.

Our best future will never come from a remarkable technological age, nor from some kind of economic order. Such blessings might bring us into a global community, but if we can’t match such outward advancements with inner goodwill then they will leave us divided.

This past year has taught me that it is not enough to be a good person. One must also become an experimenter of goodwill, not just preferring those we like. There must be this tireless attempt to build consensus rather than parking ourselves only with those who agree with us. There’s no community in it, just separate communities.

At 62, perhaps now would be the right time for me to start living up to the noble actions of those historical figures I deeply respect instead of merely quoting them. Let me hunt for those of goodwill even as the wrinkles spread across my face. I desire that all my 62 years pull together in me to produce a person that can get beyond his own inadequacies in order to make a human difference in those I meet.

My father, bless his heart, told me one time when we were fishing near Banff, Alberta that when I was born he and Mom hoped I would become a person of endless possibilities. I didn’t make it – at least not yet. But I am nearer than at any other time in my long life. For whatever time I have remaining, I will search, as God searched on the first Christmas, for people of goodwill. And in that pursuit I might eventually be able to stand in the shadow of those I truly revere, and in doing so free others to fulfill the good in them. There could be no greater birthday gift.

Beware the Sciopods and the Blemmyaes

Prior to more detailed reports returning with people like Christopher Columbus and other explorers of the oceans in the 15th century, it was common to suppose that any creatures discovered along the way would be filled with horrific traits. Poetry, folklore, religion, and just plain prejudice and racism, helped to lead the way for millions who were superstitious and mostly illiterate. They heard of Pygmies, who braided their long hair into clothing. Homer’s earlier writing of the Cyclopes convinced even those of later centuries that one-eyed monsters still existed. Antipodes (meaning “opposite footed”) supposedly lived at the bottom of the world and walked upside down. Even Shakespeare wrote of the Blemmyae – creatures whose heads grew beneath their shoulders – and the one-footed Sciopods, who used that great huge appendage as a parasol to protect them from the sun as they lay on their backs.

We smile knowingly at all this now, but in those earlier times people presumed that whoever populated distant lands must be monstrous – from the Latin monstrum, meaning “to warn.” They judged everything by what was familiar to them and their cultural, political and religious leaders were only too happy to accommodate such views because a people fearing such unknowns would surely look to their leaders for protection.

Imagine the shock and disappointment, then, when Columbus wrote back of his amazing discovery of the New World, but went on to describe the people as nothing like what had been prophesied:

“In these islands I have so far found no human monstrosities, as many expected. On the contrary, among all these peoples good looks are esteemed … Thus I have neither found monsters nor any report of any. They are no more malformed than the others … These Indians are very well built, of very handsome bodies and very fine faces.”

Similar stories emerged from the explorers who journeyed to every corner of the globe. In other words, the world wasn’t as alien as people were predisposed to believe – a reality that caused one of the explorers to conclude, “All mankind is one.”

Today, people from all these regions – the former monstrum – are represented by their countries at the United Nations, the Olympics, and other world bodies. They can work in HTML language, fight for peace, love their children, turn their Smartphones into little powerhouses, and are increasingly pursuing their PhDs. Women in these lands are at last getting their opportunity to lead their people into more peaceable futures, and the men are learning to accept – willingly or unwillingly – that without those women who hold up “half the sky” they are only bound to repeat historic failures.

This is humanity, crawling ever toward enlightenment and progress over a process that took millennia. Yet our penchant to form judgments on those things that are unfamiliar lives on through differing venues. It’s difficult for me to count the number of times I’ve been told that Africans are just too violent to help themselves, that most Muslims are terrorists, or that the aboriginal communities in this country will never amount to anything. Prejudice continues; it’s only the objects of derision that change.

Politics increasingly calls out to the petty in us. Conservatives are all rednecks; Liberals are immoral elitists; NDPers are secret socialists; Bloc members all hate Canada. It’s all ridiculously off-based, superficial, damaging – and wrong. Even worse, it demeans a supposedly refined people who have built a terrific country, despite some failures. As politics becomes less human and more rigid, it is inevitable that prejudice seeps back into the human condition. Unchecked, or unrecognized, it leads to a kind of stasis, where civil action or cooperation falls by the wayside because we are just too opinionated to move.

Our growth in humanity was supposed to be all about our ability to learn about what we didn’t understand, not judge it. Author Eckhart Tolle actually viewed our unwillingness to open up our minds as a kind of violence:

“Prejudice of any kind implies that you are identified with the thinking mind. It means you don’t see the other human being anymore, but only your own concept of that human being. To reduce the aliveness of another person to a mere concept is already a form of violence.”

We know enough about history to understand exactly where this has gotten us as a species. The moment we take on an abiding belief in the inferiority of others – individuals or groups – we undercut our ability as a nation to progress. Politics now is all about labeling, not cooperation, and the effects of this are all around us.

This is what makes partisanship so dangerous. It allows us to come to judgements quickly without actually doing the work to support those findings. A gut reaction is much more convenient than a mental process, and takes a lot less time. Opposition parties become idiots instead of people we must do business with for the national good.

If we want to change the world, we have to be in it. Hiding behind our parapets of prejudice will only lead to the decline of our civic structures – and civility itself. We must begin the process of moving out, back into our communities, and work towards a state of cooperation among opposing views. We must come to see that we can learn what we don’t know and that ignorance can be removed. But prejudice will destroy us as a community and as a nation. It’s time to stop fearing what we do not understand. Humanity can’t progress otherwise.

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