How many other people are tired of those around us playing the identity game as a rhetorical trump card to emphasize their own importance?
Rending the fabric of social norms
Over two years ago, J.K. Rowling, Fareed Zakaria, Wynton Marsalis, Gloria Steinem and Margaret Atwood joined some 150 other intellectuals in signing a letter published in Harper’s Magazine voicing their views on justice and open debate, taking a stand against the increasing intolerance of opposing or unpopular views.
To avoid the disapprobation of truly allowing free speech, institutions are now running from controversy, bowing to vocal interest groups on both the right and the left.
“…in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.
“Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”
They were in turn attacked for this view, thus justifying their premise.
These attacks are good examples of “virtue signaling” which, instead of being “virtuous” actions, is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as attempts “to show other people that you are a good person, for example by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them.”
In other words, it’s the modern version of upper crust disdain, pulling together as an elite to denigrate others from a self-ascribed position of superiority, the social media form of patting oneself on the back.
This furthers the partisan divide, the defining crisis of our time.
For without consensus, how can our governments get things done? And if one faction manages to pass a regulation to improve people’s lives, then opposing groups will do everything in their power to tear it down.
And today it’s truly an economic chasm, yawning ever wider as a corporate plutocracy seizes control of our governments and courts, as self-centered entities manipulate hot-button issues to sway populations against their own self-interest.
Canada has created a National Day of Truth and Reconciliation to try and bridge the gap between indigenous Canadians, many of whom suffered in boarding schools intent upon reprogramming the Indian out of the child, and those who allowed such a travesty to transpire.
Across the world, leaders and ordinary people need to pursue reconciliation at every level of society, religion, ethnicity, and wealth.
Building bridges, bridging gaps
We need to find our commonality – with family members and neighbors and others who may hold some views that conflict with our own. But let’s emphasize the “some” and try to reconcile those differences to arrive at a consensus that will allow everyone to improve their lives.
Perhaps peer pressure can push social media platforms into ensuring choices (true, follow, like) encourage and reward good behavior rather than attack individuals.
Ironically it was those who signed the Harper’s Magazine letter were the ones called out for challenging the calling-out culture.
The Jonathan Rauch book The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth raises some concepts to be considered in addressing the current state of affairs and its impact on democracy.
There is the fallibilist rule – that everyone and everything is fallible so that no beliefs are certain. And therefore everything is deserving of consideration. Truth will always be open-ended – that the sun observably circles the earth is true until science improves and demonstrates the opposite.
Under such a rule no-one gets a final say because what is true today may not be tomorrow, so people need to be forever open to change. Instead everyone has an equal right to be listened to.
And there is the empirical rule: just because something has not been disproved in the past does not mean a new approach will not reveal its flaws in the future.
And no individual – no queen or pastor, no president or ayatollah – has the right to claim absolute authority to overrule science or general consensus to “prove” or debunk the truth.
Every point of view on every subject is open to being challenged by systematic comparison. Such a system allows our knowledge base to grow over time even though change can push the envelope of people’s understanding and may threaten institutions in the short term.
Since virtue signaling so often serves to benefit only one point of view, it de facto denies all others. And vilification of others by faction gurus too often serves to justify acts of brutality – the hammering of the head of Paul Pelosi, and the stabbing of Salman Rushdie who has since lost sight in one eye and the use of one hand.
We can no longer hold to all people being equal if certain groups claim to be more equal than others. This is what is tearing our courts and our country apart at the moment.
Lincoln called on America to repair the deep divides between the states “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
That means that opponents, even those who had been fighting to the death for their beliefs, are still human beings deserving of each other’s respect and charity. That is a quintessentially democratic notion whereby every single one of us should have equal opportunity to give and to receive.
“…let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
With the end of the war, such charity meant caring for veterans, for widows and orphans, and rebuilding the economy, not only for the winners but for the losing side and for the dispossessed.
Even if Lincoln’s vision may not have been unequivocally realized back then, can we ask for anything less now?
Welcoming all others to join with us today to build a brighter future. Together.
(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)