We have become a world of skeptics, dismissing the stories of our fellow human beings with dogmatic precision. We can do better.
The most challenging truth of being a human being is that if you have enough to eat, someone else is starving. If you have a home, someone else is freezing. And worse of all, if you have someone who is gentle and loving in your life, someone else being beaten to death. Right now. We live in a brutal world. There is injustice every where we look. And it is human beings who are responsible. That’s our starting point.
It is a testament to the startling complexity of our social systems that even as we might aspire to work for what is right, we are also party to acts of chaos and destruction. You cannot live life and not do harm to someone. A cruel word? An angry moment? An unkind act? On a larger scale, did you get in your car and drive somewhere today? What was the impact in Saudi Arabia or Nigeria due to that decision? Or, more directly, is your government waging bloody wars? The suggestion that we are all complicit in the pain of the world is an idea few are willing to acknowledge, but it tugs at our collective conscience..
Our wish to do right in the world combined with our complicity in doing harm is humankind’s collective angel on one shoulder and devil on the other. But, in our pursuit of more just world, we have one devil that threatens to tip the scale irrevocably towards disaster. That devil is story primacy: the idea that our story, our frames, our interpretation of why the world is the way it is, is the right one, and that no different story can also be equally right.
Story primacy is the very human tendency to place our own frames and narratives above those of others. And it may well prove to be the most challenging aspect of solving the problems we collectively face in the world.
Perhaps it is the darkness and light in us, our dueling complicity in both the world’s good and the world’s evil that drives us toward story primacy. We flee into the idea that if we are aligned with a moral position or ideology, we can shift the blame for humankind’s collective failings onto others; to those who don’t share our beliefs; to those who are wrong. We then witness the suffering of the world confident in the knowledge that the only solution is for others to change. We shed our share of responsibility by privileging our narrative and its imbedded ideology. Feminism. Evangelical Religion. Gun rights. Environmentalism. Gay rights. Regardless of what injustice we seek to address, this need to calm our culpability is central to why we privilege our stories.
But ideologies can never accurately interpret the complexity and variety of the human experience. Ideology is a narrow box by which to parse the nuances of human interaction. Ideology is a liability when attempting to know a person. It filters out discovery, connectivity and compassion. We rely on ideology because the human dilemma is too vast to face without allying ourselves with some kind of intellectual construct. We rely on ideology out of fear, and in doing so, find our worse fears to be confirmed. It becomes the template for what we see in the world.
When we say, “you are wrong, I am right and here’s why,” we loose access to the single most powerful collaborative tool out there. We step away from the mystery of the interpersonal, retreating into our own dogma, ideology and opinion. The conversation ends and the argument begins.
The Good Men Project itself can be a textbook case of the debilitating effects of story primacy on larger public discourses. Some discussions at the GMP become so binary so quickly that the solutions to our collective problems seem unattainable. There is jargon and terminology which appears over and over again, used like a bludgeon. We don’t just argue, we have terms that allow us to argue about how people argue. It would be comical were it not indicative of every thing that is failing in our culture of debate. Even when we come from similar areas of the political spectrum, we still battle each other.
We say, “I agree with everything you said in this 1,700 world article except for THIS” and we note why that particular point is problematic. We can not stop ourselves from checking every dialogue against a laundry list of ideological or personal beliefs, looking for the points of disagreement and then applying our counter argument at precisely that intersection. A commenter pointed this tendency out to me early on here at the GMP. He talked about how people scan articles looking for hot button language they can jump on, oblivious to the greater context or intent of the author. He was absolutely right about this.
It may be a function of the way in which we organize ideas here in the Western world, but we have clearly privileged binary modes of engagement. So much so that we are no longer even conscious that this is a choice and not a necessity.
Our collective habit of using ideology to look for and key on points of disagreement has devolved into seeing everything as ideologically suspect. We take the simplest of statements as coded authentication of our ideological critiques, filtering meaning based on the gender, race, or affiliations of the speaker. What were once constructs to try and understand events in the world have become filters to validate our own bias. It’s tragic. Our rigid ideological stances engender distrust and division even among those who should be allies.
Meanwhile deeply human stories are going unheard. And it is these stories, not the pitched battle of ideologies, that will bridge our differences and help us move forward in the world. But if you want to hear people’s stories you have to turn off the binary ideology triggers that we ourselves have put in place. We have to end our ceaseless hunt for the differences we have with others and instead look for something else in our conversations.
How can we shift away from being so very quick to judge?
One option might be to make the following conscious choice. For a few weeks, try letting people know when you see points of agreement with them; any time and anywhere they appear. Especially people who are further removed from your political, religious or social belief systems. This is not about courtesy. This is about creating a wholly alternative way of seeing and being in the world. By looking for points of agreement, we can develop a new mode of being that will redirect our creative energies away from story primacy. A new habit, if you will.
When we approach a conversation with the idea that we are going to create something together, we access a whole other way of listening. A whole other way of looking at each other. We can adopt the “both and”. A way of looking at the world that allows multiple ideas and points to view to co-exist. Jesus next to Allah. North next to South. White next to black. And so on. We can choose to adopt the “not knowing position”, a frame by which we stay curious about what the other is saying, asking questions instead of leaping to conclusions about their agenda or intent.
Dialectics might offer a path forward for us as well, allowing us to see opposing views as both having value and, in combination, creating a further set of options and solutions that neither side alone could arrive at. Think ying and yang.
Finally, listen for people’s stories instead of the markers that allow us to stop listening. Let others share the fullness of their narratives. There is healing there, compassion there and understanding there. Its only in listening that we will transform the simpler more narrow ideas we have about others. Its time to listen.
The irony here is not lost on me. That, in attempting to highlight the challenges of ideology driven conversations, I’m outlining an ideology. An ideology to address the problems of ideology. But it ceases to be ironic if you hold the both/and, understanding that we can in fact engage and embrace the contractions in our dialogues and ways of living as a creative generative sources for something new. If we only allow ourselves a single strand of narrative, we miss the richness of holding multiple views and multiple ways of being.
Besides, nothing we hear see or feel is what it first appears to be. We’re just not that accurate in our observations or astute in our interpretations. None of us. But more importantly, how we choose to frame the events in our lives, what stories we chose to empower, changes the way we see the world, which in turn changes the actual events.
We live the stories we tell.
There will always be men and women of ill will. They will always be with us. Persons who’s actions can not be supported or understood. When we meet them, we need to clearly and effectively stand up to them and condemn their actions. But our challenge is not effective condemnation or outrage. We have that down pat. Our challenge is cooperation and collaboration.
We have lost the art of hearing each other’s stories. Based on our insulating ideologies, we a so very quick to label the stories of others as ignorant, or sexist, or bigoted, or fundamentalist, or socialist, or feminist, or liberal, or some other frame that allows us to categorically silence them. We key on points of difference and are willfully blind to the equally large number of points of agreement. Both are in abundance. Its simply a question of what we choose to focus on and grow.
But most importantly, we have to stop parroting ideological dogma and start telling our own individual stories. As much as we sometimes fall prey to visceral debate here at the Good Men Project, it was founded not to debate the pros and cons of ideology, but to allow us to share our stories; the personal stories that empower us to connect, understand each other better and grow our mutual capacities for empathy. If we want to address the wrongs in the world, binary debates will not help us. They will highlight issues but they will not create the solutions. We have to cast a much wider net of human communication and compassion. One powerful way to do that is to share our personal stories and listen with an open mind to the stories of others in our homes, our schools, our workplaces, and yes, online, too.
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