Cultural Dialogue and Humility

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2It is difficult to observe the world these days without being struck by the ubiquity of conflict both in the US and around the World.  All our politicians seem to do is fight with one another. A new terror attack is an almost daily occurrence as are shooting incidents in schools, homes and stores abound some even perpetrated by toddlers. Racial tension and strife continues. The rich get rich and the poor get poor.  Income inequality grows and society grows less and less civil.

In all this we do not seem to be able to talk to one another and to work through difficulties.  Real dialogue is becoming more and more elusive.  Why? In this short essay I would like to suggest two among myriad explanatory contenders: the lack of social humility and courage.

As finite beings, you and I really can not interpret the world around us from anyone else’s perspective.  We can empathize and try to see things from the perspective of another but we can not, for example, actually leave ourselves and look back at ourselves from the other’s point of view. We can imagine. We can project. At best, we can approximate.

This reality is very easy to forget.  The experience of our own self-awareness–our consciousness– can fool us into thinking that we have stepped out of ourselves and taken up a kind of universal and decontextualized perspective from which we perceive ourselves and others objectively, clearly, truly. The fact that we experience, to one degree or another, what psychologists call, a subject/object relationship with ourselves can deceive us into thinking that we can have an almost unlimited and disembodied point of view on all of reality. While most of us have no trouble acknowledging that we do not have all the answers to vexing life issues, we much less frequently acknowledge that our perspective itself is radically constrained by the conditions of our finitude.

One of the conditions of that finitude is the fact that our lives are deeply contextualized.  We exist in time and space–we live in a particular time and place.  We all enter that time and space with specific genetic potential and limitation. Experience, both profound and apparently insignificant, teaches us about life, shapes our identities and our views of what is good/bad, wise/unwise and right/wrong.  We become who we are and live as we do within a context of past and present experience.  We do not live or perceive outside of that context. The notion of decontextualized perspective is an illusion.

One aspect of our radical contextualization is culture.  We are all encultured and see our world through the lenses of the various cultures and subcultures that have shaped us and which we continue to shape in turn.  Enculturation is both a good and somewhat problematic feature of our lives.

On the one hand, enculturation enables us to interpret the world around us in the real time of everyday life.  Without a cultural framework we would be, metaphorically, stumbling around in the dark without any sense of the “lay of the land” and without reference points and “aids to navigation.”  In this sense, culture affords us what Archimedes, over two thousand years ago, called “a place to stand.”


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On the other hand, because cultures seem to those who live in them and have been shaped by them to define the natural and normal way of things, they make cultural realities other than one’s own seem unnatural, odd and in many cases even invisible. For example, it is difficult to see economic or racial privilege for what it is from the point of view–cultural perspective– of privilege itself.  In other words, each culture limits the perspective of its members to its own confines and because members of a cultural group see their own cultural norms as the natural “way of it,” they default to the assumption that their own cultural lens is more revelatory and less limited than it actually is or can be.

These qualities of contextualization put us in a difficult position.  We need the guiding light of our cultural cues but if we follow that refracted light alone, we will miss the guidance of other refracted beams and fall afoul of the dangers no single cultural light can illuminate.  Are we stuck? Must we simply stand still or continue going along merrily oblivious to our cultural myopia.

To proceed we need the virtues of humility and courage simultaneously.  The Latin root of the word “humility” is humus which means earth or ground. The humble are those who recognize that they are of the earth.  Dust we are and to dust shall we return.ashes

The humble person is the person who realizes and accepts his/her earth bound finitude–their humanity in all its limitations.  The humble person embraces and accepts the conditions of finitude and does not fall victim to imagining themselves on high free of all the conditions of finite existence and enlightened by some universal light.  The humble person takes themselves to be seeing their way through life lighting their path with their own unique light along with all others who are doing the same.  The humble person takes their light to be a light like any other–no better no worse.  In this sense, humility shares a great deal with being firmly grounded.

The Latin root of “courage” is cor which means heart and, by extension, innermost spirit.  In its earliest usage, the word meant to speak or act one’s heart and later to mean an inner strength in the face of fear.  Accepting that we are finite, mortal and profoundly limited in a variety of ways can be a fearsome prospect and requires real courage but without a courageous acceptance of finitude (humility) we sentence ourselves to a future of tunnel vision confined to our own limited context and unable to see beyond our present cultural limits.

Real social dialogue requires both humility and courage.  Without a deep acceptance of our finitude and the humility that ensues, we can never really open ourselves to the individual and cultural lenses of others.  While we consider ourselves “mighty,” “exceptional,” “special” and “more enlightened than thou,” dialogue remains a pipe dream.

Can a Theocracy also be a True Democracy?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Can theocracy and democracy co-exist?  Is it possible to have such a thing as a democratic theocracy? Or is this combination of adjective and noun not a mere oxymoron but a real contradiction in terms?

The terms theocracy and democracy have similar endings.  Both words’ roots are Greek.  In Greek the word “kratia” means power or rule. Thus both theo and demo refer to a type or source of power or rule.  In Greek the word “theos” refers to god or the divine and the word “demos” refers to people or the people.

Theocracy then refers to divine rule or power and democracy to rule or power residing in the people.  In a theocracy, a divinity of some type is not only the one source of governmental authority but also provides the fundamental law which all are to follow.  In a democracy, the people are the source of authority and also the creators of the laws to which members of that state subject themselves.

Simply put, in a theocracy, something is right or wrong (should or should not done) because god says so.  In a democracy, something is right or wrong (should or should not done) because the people say so.  These two terms describe mutually exclusive notions of governmental authority: one divine and the other human.

Both Jesus of Nazareth and Abraham Lincoln, at much different times and places, noted that houses divided against themselves “cannot stand.”  Either governmental authority resides in the people or with god but it cannot be both.

In a democracy, people who believe in a god and seek to live in conformance with what they believe that god requires of them are free to express their opinion and to vote and engage in other forms of public discourse and decision making but they must do so with the understanding that the government in which they are participating is, as Lincoln said, “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

This understanding is a bedrock principle of democracy itself–not of secular democracy, representative democracy or any other adjective used to qualify the noun democracy.  Democracies do not seek to do the will of god.  They seek to do the will of the people.  Individual believers may seek to do the will of a deity but the structure of government in a democracy recognizes only the authority of the people qua people.

Therefore, seeking to place the authority of a god above that of the people is by definition anti-democratic.  In taking this position, I do not want to suggest that a divinity may not function as an authority for a believer.  Nor do I want to suggest that believers should not be faithful to the gods in whom they believe.

All I want to argue is that when it comes to government, democracy and theocracy are mutually exclusive terms and that when we muddy the distinction between the two, we do so at our peril and at the risk of liberty.

In America today, there are Christian groups who argue that America is a Christian nation and should not only recognize this fact but also subordinate the authority of the people to the authority of God in matters of government. We are after all, they argue, “one nation under God.”  The same can be said for some Islamic groups in other parts of the world. Elements of Zionism also share this theocratic vision.

If these groups were to hold sway in nations that are currently democracies, the net effect would be to change those countries from pluralistic democracies to theocracies.  A Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Buddhist can be a good citizen in a democracy but it is quite another thing for a member of a religious group to try to subordinate the will of the people to that of any particular divinity or religious teacher.  Voting is a viable means of determining the will of the people but largely irrelevant in determining the will of god. Calvin’s Geneva, Vatican City, and Riyadh are one thing and the United States or any other democracy quite another.

Gun Control versus Disarming the Populace

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Recent events in Newtown CT and Aurora CO have aroused the concerns of many about the level of gun related violence in America and the safety of public places from schools, to restaurants and movie theaters.  Shocked by the level of gun violence many Americans argue that guns of all types should be better regulated and that guns of some types (e.g.; semi automatic assault rifles) should be prohibited from ownership by the public altogether.

Those advocating better gun control would like to see things like background checks for all firearms purchases, licensing of all firearms, safety training for gun owners, required liability insurance for gun owners and a variety of other measures that stop well short of taking all guns away from all private citizens.

Most Americans whether they are gun owners or not feel that an otherwise law abiding citizen ought to be able to own a firearm for the purposes of self-protection, sport hunting, subsistence hunting, recreational target shooting and related types of activities.  They think that Americans should be free in this way no matter how the Supreme Court interprets the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

What this group of Americans wants is sensible gun control so that persons who should not have firearms do not have them.  They want to stop the completely unregulated flow of firearms at gun shows and they want to see a better (perhaps Federal) data base that is effective in identifying persons who should not be armed.

Most people who take this view realize that better regulation will not prevent ALL gun violence and are not suggesting that lowering the level of gun violence is only a matter of better regulation.  They feel it is a common sense part of a broader approach which also addresses our currently dysfunctional public mental health system and other aspect of our society which give rise to social violence.

In contrast to this first group, there is another segment of the population that feels that it should be armed in order to be able to rise up against a government that becomes totalitarian on the model of a Stalinist Russia or a fascist dictatorship.  These people feel that if the “people” are disarmed then ipso facto the federal government will gradually take over all liberties, eliminate individual choice in most matters of importance and essentially enslave the people and make them passive cogs in the wheels of an evermore dehumanizing state.

These people tend to see the government (especially the Federal government) as a kind of malevolent force which will gradually grind them into submission unless they  arm themselves in a way that would prevent the state from overpowering them.  These individuals argue that the framers of the Constitution recognized the danger of state power over unarmed citizens and that Second Amendment to the Constitution’s purpose is to enable citizens to protect themselves from the tyranny of their own government.  They do not tend to see the US government, as Lincoln eloquently put it, to be, “of the people, by the people and for the people” but rather as inherently alien to “the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness” as articulated in the Declaration of Independence.  Firearms for this group are tools for maintaining their personal and political liberty.

Any attempt to further regulate guns, appears to this latter group to be an attempt to undermine their fundamental right to protect themselves from tyranny and must be resisted no matter how sensible such regulations might seem to the task of lowering gun violence.  Some even admit that some of the proposed regulations would likely have some impact on gun violence but not enough of an impact for them to give any ground on what they see as their right to defend themselves from the government and its natural tendency to totalitarianism.

On the gun control side of the argument, no one wants to ban guns completely; just make them less readily available to the wrong people and control the types of guns that are available to those a person might need for protection, hunting or target shooting.  The defend-myself-from-the-government side of the argument tends to see gun regulation as the first step on the slippery slope toward the total banning of guns and thus the first step in the victory of totalitarianism over liberty. On the fringe of this movement, we even hear of those who want to make it legal to have things like rocket launchers, hand grenades etc. just in case they are needed for the fight against the government.

There is a lot to say about all this and the very different world views of people on either side of this argument and I will try to address some of them in later posts.  For now, I want to come down firmly on the side of greater gun control for greater public safety and health.  Our form of government was designed specifically to avoid the need to have an armed populace ready to revolt against tyrants in power.  The  American experiment is an experiment, if nothing else, in “self” government; i.e., “of the people, by the people and for the people.”  The people together shape society by regulating things and practices that pose unnecessary risks to its members.  Once we decide that we are part of the American project to build an egalitarian and truly participatory society, arming oneself against that project is self defeating in the extreme.

Labeling efforts at sensible gun control as efforts to ban all guns is both misleading and false. I don’t believe that anyone is suggesting the banning of all guns–just some sensible limitations.  Because these limitations will not fix the whole problem, is no reason not to include them in the array of things we, as a nation, decide to do to stem gun violence.  Most important of all, we should not fall victim to the argument that guns are necessary to defend oneself from the inevitable tyranny of government itself.  If we do that, participatory democracy and the American Dream will have literally shot itself in the foot with a rather large caliber weapon.