What Passes for Wisdom

The world is increasingly full of negative noise. Very briefly, here’s why: it costs the self less to be angry and hostile than to be generous and welcoming. (I’m going to add this corollary: in the short term. Anything can be declared effective, if the duration it is examined is brief enough.)

When people crash against ideals and ideologies that they don’t immediately align with (or understand), they usually react with fear (self-preservation), which means they get noisy and negative.

The more angry, belligerent and insistent an agenda gets, the more radicalised its pushback.

Multiply this phenomenon by all of the individual issues in the world, and stir in the fact that there is no coherent way to package them. (Our political, social, religious, etc. labels cannot do a fraction of the work we expect of them!)

And that in itself is a large part of the problem.

People occupy different positions on every issue’s spectrum simultaneously. There is no monolithic archetype that we can appeal to when trying to identify ourselves (let alone others, who we’re not nearly as familiar with!). But that doesn’t stop countless numbers of people from trying — from applying a label to themselves (or others) and imagining that the case is thus closed.

But doesn’t it get tricky when those self-attached labels bump into each other, especially if a person finds that she accepts some views which oppose the majority of her label-mates?

In general, the tone of the world’s media has become emotionally toxic. I believe this is merely a developmental phase, kind of like a planetary prepubescent petulance. (I may have to change my tune, I suppose, if we don’t survive it…then again, not every individual survives adolescence, either.) There is a way out of all this, but we’d be jumping the gun it we try to solve this matrix of problems without understanding it. So, uncomfortable as it may be, we need to examine the darkness.

Here, I’m going to use the word anxiety the way psychologists do: the strange toxic soup of emotions: fear, hatred, mistrust, disgust, jealousy, etc., etc. — I’m not going to play the foolish game of guessing which apply in which cases. (Though it does seem to be a popular pastime…) They often work in teams!

Anxiety is a contagious cycle that perpetuates polarisation, and that leads either to war in an effort to subsume, or to radical disengagement to enforce segregation. The problem is, neither of those is even possible in an inter-connected world.

This bring us to what may be the wildest, woolliest issue of our time — perhaps of all time! 


Is identity:

  • Innate?
  • Imbued?
  • Fluid?
  • Fixed?
  • Individual?
  • Communal?

Strange as it may sound, my answer to all of these is no. And yes. And, uh, maybe. This is the unfathomable depth of our identity crisis: we cannot even adequately identify its source or scope!

If, as I’ve seen attempted recently, the best we can do is categorically denounce self-invention (internal impetus), or peer pressure (external impetus), as paths to identity, then we’re morbidly sad creatures indeed. It is easy to assume folly in the examination of identity — to write them off for superficial, negative reasons we perceive. But our perceptions, as important as they may be to us, and critical as they are to creating our own meaning, are not necessarily compelling, relatable, or at all accurate.

Likewise, if we assume that the only thing that brings cohesion to the culture is something as trivial as, say, economic interests, we are merely revealing our limited powers of observation, faculties of reason and capacity for imagination.

Denouncing self-invention is a self-contradiction. We have no access to anything outside of our unique, subjective ability to perceive, or to understand.

There is one immutable and inescapable truth welded to this: our ideas are our own.

Whether they’ve come to us internally or externally, ideas must all filter through the self. Adopting them or rejecting them, at every level of affiliation or motivation, is all choice. No matter what each of us is choosing as a benchmark, we are all inventing ourselves.

In the same way, denouncing peer pressure is also a self-contradiction. When examined as an isolated statement, wouldn’t such a denouncement ironically itself be an effort to influence would-be peers in some way? Indeed, social pressure steers us to at least as many positive, life-affirming choices as it does dangerous temptations.

Our inevitable inability to see is not truth’s fault or failing.

Every way that people talk about identity is necessarily reductionist and simplistic. This is not monopolised by any side on any established dividing line whether left wing, right wing, conservative, liberal, republican or democrat. Rather everybody seems to have a glimpse of the truth.

It may (or may not) be enough of a glimpse to be satisfying, and perhaps (or perhaps not) it’s sufficient to power an apparently meaningful life.

But no individual’s glimpse is sufficient to be universally acceptable as a standard for wisdom.

Our only hope as pluralists is to build a strong solidarity from the values we share. We rely on these to coalesce into any kind of a cohesive, productive social grouping. As I’ve pointed out, identifying these is no an easy task, made no less so because many voices are unwilling to intelligently, courageously and humbly assert and yield within this interplay. And so one of the inbuilt values of this must be diversity — which introduces shades of a paradox.

Fancy slogans to the contrary, unity and diversity remain largely presumed to be mutually exclusive.

But I believe we can do this better if we concentrate on the values that deeply attract us, and if we learn afresh how to trust and how to become trustworthy. In our context, that may seem naively optimistic.

But, as an alternative to the noisy hostility our world is super-saturated in, maybe we’re (nearly) ready for just such a novelty!