Finding The Correct Problem
Posted on 15 May 2015
When I was growing up my family frequently moved from one small town to another. As anyone who has been in that position can tell you, being the new kid at a school is a misery, doubly so when it’s in a small town. My response to the teasing and bullying was that I just wanted to be left to myself. It was fine as long as I had a couple friends. I didn’t want to be like the “popular” kids in order to fit in. The “popular” kids were horrible. I work hard to be the sort of person I want to know (doesn’t mean I always get it right).
We were close to another family who also frequently moved. Their kids used different tactics. “If only we were like the popular kids, we would fit in and be happy,” seemed to be their outlook. The girls worked hard to become cheerleaders, fashion leaders, and young business leaders. Their brother got into vicious dogs and guns. We played together when we were little, I find it disturbing interacting with some of them now.
I don’t believe the problem was that we didn’t fit in. I believe the problem was that we had moved into insular cultures with people who had never had the opportunity to learn how to accept diversity. It’s a tricky thing trying to determine how much of a situation is your problem and you need to learn, and how much of it is someone else’s problem. Of course if it’s someone else’s problem, but you have to live with the results, then it becomes your problem again.
People are notoriously bad at risk assessment. They are often equally bad at recognising the core of a serious issue. As such they end up fighting the wrong end of the stick and are surprised when that doesn’t resolve things. People want clear black and white situations. They want leaders who can figure out all the hard stuff for them. They want a simple world with simple solutions, so they can get on with things. They want easy targets for relieving their fear, anger, and anxiety. Don’t talk to them about complexity and longterm solutions. Don’t talk to them about justice, when swift vengence seems so much more satisfying.
When you try to enforce people into a gated community of simplistic living, the results aren’t satisfying. That’s because the results sought are unrealistic. People don’t realise that the way they are biting others in order to make their lives manageable is the way in which they will be bitten as well.
This happens in both the right and the left of politics. You have people on the left who are terrified of those who they see as holding “irrational beliefs”. For some it seems the irrational beliefs are what is causing all the world’s problems and anything that has an association with irrational beliefs should be mocked, banished, and hated. Personally, I find fear and hatred as a basis for how people treat others irrational. You need to be looking deeper. You need the patience to understand and address core issues. If you have an axe murderer who believes in the toothfairy, do you blame his belief in the toothfairy for his murdering ways? I don’t recall anything about the toothfairy that should instigate axe wielding. Now he may be crazy enough to claim it does. However, if you subsequently forbid anyone from believing in the toothfairy as a way to stop axe murdering, don’t be surprised if nothing changes. The focus has gone to the wrong problem.
Alternatively, you have people who focus on ensuring they are associated with the “right sort”. They assume the “right sort” have all the answers, own all the goodness, and can be trusted. Therefore, they seem to be a world of safety. People assume that when they have joined the “right sort” that they have achieved a state of knowingness and goodness, and others should take it for granted that they are people you can trust. Their membership is a sort of talisman that represents who they want others to believe they are, whether or not they have taken the time to earn that representation. “I am a good person because I am wearing a badge with a symbol” rather than “I am a good person because I care, I’m willing to take the time to figure out what is fair, and I do good things.” These are the people who cover up a situation whenever a member strays, because it besmirches their very identity. They lose their “get out of jail free” card. If they weren’t looking for shortcuts for their own behaviour, they might take the time to protect other members in their community. This happens among middle class communities, religious communities, intellectual communities, and more.
All groups are made of people and people are flawed. All writings were written by people and therefore carry their flaws. You cannot judge the entirety of an institution based on the behavior of some members. You cannot judge the entire membership of an institution, because you don’t like the institution. Should we do away with democracy because some politicians are bad? Maybe educating the populace to want better would work better in the long run.
The answer is, as always, there are no easy answers. You will always have to learn how to think for yourself. You can’t rely on shortcuts. You have to have good internal measuring sticks based on life-affirming values, which you regularly apply every time you meet a new person, deal with a new group, or face a tricky situation. Be the person you want to see in the world. Model the behaviour you want others to take up, demonstrating its value. Fear is chewing humanity into pieces. That is the problem which most needs addressing. The solution is learning how to feel strong enough in yourself to wish others well, finding the patience to cooperate, and the kindness to do genuine good in the world.
Peace and kindness,