Monday, October 31, 2011

Lumpy Ideals

But there’s a sense among the [Occupy Wall Street] protesters (though it’s common among protesters for other social causes as well) that the nature and existence of the injustice they seek to eliminate is obvious. An apparent corollary of this belief is that those who disagree with their prescriptions are stupid or evil. And that all that’s required to make positive change is to develop the willpower to do what we already know is right.

Maybe it’s the philosopher in me, but this kind of attitude always rubs me the wrong way. Things are rarely so simple. Here, as in so many other involving complex social issues, there is room for reasonable people to disagree not merely about what ought to be done to correct injustice, but about what really ought to count as an injustice in the first place.
Matt Zwolinski, Does Inequality Matter? Bleeding Heart Libertarians
Sometimes, it's seeing your own outlook on life reflected back at you that exposes the parts of it that you never really thought about before. As a moderate, I see people who believe in obvious injustice all around me. The Evangelical Christian who is convinced that Satan is at work in sexual license. The Anarcho-capitalist who believes that taxation is theft and that power of the state is an evil. The advocate for immigration reform who holds that the right to migrate is non-negotiable. Not being excited about any of these things, I find their black-and-white passion to be quaintly naïve at best and a cynical tool that allows them to demonize all who disagree at worst. And so, in my "reasonable" way, I preached the tolerance of agnosticism, calling on the people I interacted with - especially whose viewpoints I sympathized with - to see the world in more shades of gray, and to embrace the complexity that surrounds us. And now, I find myself asking: "why?"

Okay, the world that I live in is very complex. I understand that, even if some people that I come into contact with don't. If no two of us can really live in the same world, why shouldn't they live in one that's simple and easy to navigate? Leaving aside my Truth Reflex, since I understand that my Truth is valid for no more than a single person, what difference does it make to me if people live in a simplistic world where the answers to life's questions are near at hand? In almost all cases, it doesn't matter a whit to me. They're not going to be able to impose their world view on me in anything approaching a reasonable timeframe. Simple worlds are a lot like action - there is an equal and opposite reaction in someone else's simple world, and while those two go at it hammer and tongs, I can go on about my business. Any real concern on my part that I'm going to wake up tomorrow in a theocracy or an anarchy is pure fantasy.

And given that people do things, and see the world, in the ways that they do because these things _work_ for them (no matter how dysfunctional it might appear to me) a simple debate isn't going to change that. I'm neither mean-spirited nor invested enough to do the world that it would take to undermine people enough that their straightforward worldviews aren't going to work for them. And that assumes that I understand the world well enough - which I don't. I can just barely point to the times when things that I used to do stopped working well enough for me that I gave up on them.

In the end, I suspect a firm belief in complexity and an agnostic view towards things that others have a deep and abiding faith in doesn't really preclude one from being an idealist. It's simply becomes a muddy and jumbled form of idealism where the world is both impossibly complex yet not beyond the ability of people to sort it all out. All idealism is founded on wanting to believe that people can be better than they are. The desire that we'll make positive change through developing the willpower to do what we already know it right is one way in which that manifests itself. But so is the idea that we really are smart enough to make an increasingly complex world work without needing to fall back on simple answers. The realization that we're all idealists of a sort can be a difficult one, especially when the term conjures up a starry-eyed naïf. But the liberating things about seeing your own idealism is that it's easier to not hold other people do it. And maybe that's what we're more in need of these days.

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