I have always considered myself a middle path guy. A left leaning centrists who considers other viewpoints and avoids extreme polarizing thought. I think if you could make a giant Venn Diagram of overlapping circles of each individual’s beliefs, there would be one tiny overlapping speck in the middle labeled “Truth.” Furthermore, that diagram would have a level of fluidity, looking different to everyone who gazed upon it. Or perhaps the truth would be off the page looking down and chuckling “Silly humans.”
This has been my approach in almost every aspect of my life. I have been both an artist and a salesman. Both a hippie and a punk rocker. A weirdo performer and professional. I identify with aspects of conservatives and radical liberals and libertarians and more. Both a mystic and a rationalist. A person of faith and an agnostic. A person who is perhaps not “enough” of any of those things to be considered “one of us” by the card carrying members of those parties. Possibly, just enough to fit in without being labeled a poser, perhaps not enough to fit in at all. Close enough to identify with and connect, while still not entirely buying in to all they say or do. Some might view my level of dedication to the issues surrounding these “roles” as being inauthentic or wishy-washy. I would argue the opposite however, and that my middle ground position is squarely where I feel I ought to be.
I can see the things I love are not perfect. I can see the things I despise are not entirely without value. I understand that I can believe something with every fiber of my being and still be wrong. I appreciate the value of a dark teacher, an enemy from which you learn and become better. I don’t think this makes me less authentic or less honest. In fact I believe it is a more honest way to experience an authentic life.
I believe in the path of rational mysticism. The amalgamation of both the reasonable analysis of facts, and collaboration with the mysterious force of intuition. An openness to making peace with uncertainty, with being wrong, or more importantly, not having to be right. A willingness to listen without needing to correct or judge. Not being rash and close minded. Being able to disagree with civility and to search for common ground. The ability to love your enemy. To realize the greatest enemy is within. One that can only be defeated through a combination of affectionate nudges and firm self discipline. That simply because one thing is right, it does not necessarily follow that the other thing is wrong. That there are degrees of rightness. Context frames and defines them. I cannot always maintain the illusion of control and must surrender to the unknown without fear. My faith is a faith in embracing the unknown, that mysterious fickle friend, not a faith of certainties. I admit these are ideals that I often fall short of. Despite my inadequacies, they are the magnetic north to which my moral compass aligns.
Yes there are things that, given due consideration, I outright reject. On that imaginary Venn diagram, some circles would fall completely outside of the range of that overlapping truth. Some things simply do not hold up to scrutiny and honest reflection. I feel we have now in our national discourse, a clash between reasonable spectral thinking and irrational binary thinking. Those who engage in that scrutinizing of their own thoughts and values versus those who simply perpetuate the echo chamber of internet memes and media talking heads. These different thinkers occupy both parties. That coupled with an intense tribalism within our politics, feeds a growing self destructive narrative.
So, I have realized I am deluding myself with the idea that I am an Independent in our current political climate. I used to live in Maryland and in that state one must be registered Republican or Democrat to vote in the primary. When I moved to North Carolina, the election laws here are such, that I can vote for whoever I want in the primary regardless of party affiliation. I eagerly changed my affiliation to Independent to reflect my desire to be nonpartisan and not be bound to a corrupt two party system. Looking for the qualities in any candidate or policy from any party that would best align with my values. Which are simply: To do the most good for the most people. And, if you can do no good, then do the least harm.
But the fact is for the last 20+ years of voting I’ve yet to find that republican politician, that made it as far as the ballot box, whom I could get behind. Sure I can find common ground with many and continue to look for it. Some engage in bipartisan cooperation for the greater good. There are many good folks who are Republican and the people under that flag are as varied a spectrum, as our whole nation is. I am proud of the many Republicans who have the courage to denounce a demagogue candidate brought to the forefront of the foray against reason. I can acknowledge the real experiences and respect the fears, suffering and even hope that inspire his supporters.
I’ve watched that party be wrested out of the hands of the rationally thinking members and become a dark insipid caricature of itself. I’ve watched as it has moved farther and farther, some would say to the right, but I see many conservatives would agree, is actually a move away from reason. They have abandoned their roots to become the obstructionist party of NO. Facts have become annoying stupid things that get in the way of the corporate agenda to bolster the rich at the expense of the downtrodden. They pander to a twisted ideology. Bigotry, xenophobia and intolerance masquerading as Christianity. Their own constituency, the American people has become their tool and their enemy. They manipulate titillating absurdities to twist people’s faith, fears and prejudices into a perverse self defeating cycle that eats away at our liberties and our populace. Like a sick snake swallowing it’s own tail while decrying “Look they (insert your personal fear trigger here) are stealing your tail!”
Does it happen on the Democrat side too? Don’t all politicians lie and worst a manipulate the facts to their own gain, at best? Yes. But any reasonable assessment shows it happens far more and far worse on the Republican side thanks the tabloids like FOX News, the conservative Onion posing as legitimate journalism. People become so aligned to supporting team red and bashing team blue, that they will demonize the people on team blue even when they are pushing the same agenda’s they have championed. It’s only progress if their team achieves it, and it’s an outrage if the other team achieves the same goal. Double standards are the norm. They can not dare to admit if the other side does anything right. Polarization on steroids has tied and gagged reason, tossed it in the trunk and gone speeding down a bumpy road, steering toward the cliffs of insanity.
How can this be? How can we have come so far away from reasonable cooperation toward our collective mutual benefit? I believe the answer lies in both our ethical and our neurological laziness.
Now I am no neurologist and I am not deluded for a moment to think that, just because I’ve read a handful of books on the subject, I am by any means an expert. But stick with me if you will. See, the brain is a complex network of electrical connections and it is also a muscle. Electricity will always follow the path of least resistance and muscles will wither away if not exercised. With every experience we have and every thought generated, we either form new neurological pathways (a lot when we are younger) or reinforce existing pathways (a lot when we are older). As adults with our primary neural framework mapped out, we spend most of our time reinforcing the existing pathways. When we encounter new information, we compare it to our existing network and look for the easiest place it fits. I would suggest, in the absence of oversight, the electrons follow the path of least resistance to the closest memory of a match, if we don’t actively engage the muscle to explore other pathways. This is why we see faces and animals in clouds and why, as a white middle class liberal supporter of racial equity, I still see the brown person across the street as more threatening than our white neighbor. It’s not about truth or considering causes, it’s about complacent and habitual conditioning.
Whatever this thing in question is, there is a neural pathway that has been reinforced over and over in our own past experience, in the media, in stories we have heard, songs we have sung, prayers we have prayed. The thing is, just because it fits in our preconceived narrative, doesn’t mean it is true. We’re simply engaging in habitual automatic thinking, which when you think about it, is hardly thinking at all. That is what happens if you don’t actively engage in the process. We also have a tendency to stimulate the short term pleasure centers of the brain at the expense of long term gains. This is the pathway to addiction and we can become addicted to reinforcing our beliefs, surrounding ourselves with friends who agree, and media sources that reinforce our biases. Because it feels good mentally to be “right”. We get a little shot of dopamine every time someone likes something we post online or agrees with what we say. The same my be true for taking an easy jab at someone else’s belief. Trump has shown us that it can be fun to be a bully and lash out. That can be an easier path than caring, to power.
But there is another way to think. You can consciously intervene and flex that muscle to explore and create new neural pathways. It’s called critical thinking and it is hard work. It takes effort. It is learning and it’s easier not to. So most of us don’t, most of the time. I would have to seek out and successfully navigate a lot of positive relationships with people of color to override the systemic racism spoon fed to me since birth. I have to be open to acknowledging and owning my part of the problem. My tarnished inheritance. I am co-author of a message perpetuated in a million small ways, that feed into a bias I like to pretend I have fully overcome, because I know I should. But it’s easy to just say black lives matter or write a post like this and not actually do the work of trying to form more deeper relationships with my black brothers and sisters. To have difficult conversations about hard truths. If I’m honest I have to admit I have more work to do. That I’m privileged enough to ignore it if I choose.
Now, when I go to work in the morning and I think; “Where are my keys?” The least path of resistance in my brain is to first think of what I usually do with my keys in recent history. That is the well worn easy trail. Many aspects of our lives are like finding your keys, this is actually extremely helpful and enables us to be able to function and perform our daily duties. If we had to really think hard about how to go to the bathroom, every time we went, you can imagine what a mess that would be. In fact, I wrote a good bit of this article in my head while I was driving. The function of driving on the highway is such a well worn pathway, it requires almost no effort. This frees up my brain to flex some other pathways and think this through. But this amazing autopilot aspect of the brain is also a trap. Because we do the same thing with ideologies, biases, relationship patterns and political beliefs. We put them on autopilot. Actively observing and engaging in the automatic thinking of the brain is what is referred to as mindfulness.
Let’s say I go to work and I always hang my keys on the hook by the door. I’ll have that moment where I think about my keys and I know that they are hanging on the hook by the door. I am confident and feeling good about my place in the world. But today I look and the keys are not there. Even though I knew I was right, I’m not! Suddenly I am in a panic, my heart sinks, I experience fear. I lash out, “Who took my keys?! I know I put them there!” Now I am forced to engage my brain muscle. Discomfort forces me out of autopilot. I have to start searching across the neural pathways. There must be some small fresh trail somewhere that will lead to my keys. I start to hate myself because I realize that no one stole my keys. I have sabotaged myself again like the failure I am. Finally I remember that they are in the shorts I changed into yesterday after work. I swear to use the well worn neural pathway next time so I can avoid the discomfort of actually thinking about what I did with my keys. Actually thinking is just too painful sometimes.
We can easily fall into that trap with everything we believe in. We form an opinion and seek out information to reinforce that opinion and reject information that challenges it. If we do that for too long unchecked, we can find ourselves clinging to the last shred of our ideals when all reasonable analysis would reveal us to be wrong. We fear the annihilation of our ideas because we attach our self identity to them. We will engage of all manner of ethical and rational contortions to try and keep it together. We believe that If I am wrong, then I matter less, or not at all. In reality, it’s when you can’t admit that you have been wrong, that you matter less. Rational people will see you are irrational, that your opinion is of lesser value because you do not value objective truth over your treasured ideals. That protecting your pride is more important than pursuing a more objective truth or considering nuance and context. Their same fear may lead them to insult and degrade you for the wrong reasons. Not because you are standing up for a loving ideal in the face of tyranny. But because you have chosen to become a fool driven by fear, to embolden tyranny against the beacons of hope. They will no longer tolerate your proliferation of the ideal that your ignorance is as good as their knowledge. It will be your own fault. Though they also will have failed and that fault is theirs to own. They will also be at fault for resorting to low level attacks. One failure does not necessarily justify the reactive opposing failure, though it may rationally cause it. But when reason will not be met with it’s kind, frustration will lead to lack of tolerance. Anyone can choose right now to begin the hard work of forming new pathways to join those on the side of reason as well as practice compassion with those opposed to it. They may be doing the best that they know how. They may simply be afraid. Are we not all afraid?
Now, I should point out there are unreasonable people on the left and right of the political spectrum and that we all fall into these mental traps at times. Eternal self-vigilance is required to keep us all moving in the direction of reason and civil discourse. It will not be easy but if you open yourself up to reason, the reasonable will welcome you with open arms.
An open and engaged mind will consider more viewpoints than their own. Thereby coming to realize that the complexity of life and politics is made of an overlapping dimensional latticework of nearly infinite spectral variation. That sometimes we must choose between a menu of only bad choices. They will use their suffering as tool to empower empathy and compassion. A lazy habitual mind will only see things as one dimensional, black and white, good and evil, left and right. Their suffering may lead to fear and hate against the “other”. That type of lazy binary thinking makes it rather challenging to engage the world in a meaningful way. That line of thinking is a self imposed isolation. An intellectual hermitage. In our current landscape it has become a prevailing mindset that has brought forth a candidate for the most powerful position in the world, whose platform is based on childish hate, fear and isolationism. Pandering to the worst of our nature rather than inspiring our better.
Bernie Sanders realized that to have a chance at affecting the level of change he envisioned, he had to join the Democratic party. One of his current great achievements is moving the party platform to an even more progressive one, from within and bringing new young passionate voices to the table. These new passionate voices and older established ones alike would also benefit from embracing altruistic spectral reasoning over zealous puritanical idealism and petty insults.
I want to see that progressive change carried forward for my children and grandchildren. I also share some conservative values. I’m stepping back on board as a Democrat. In the difficult work of leveraging power to do the most good for the most people, and if we can do no good, to do the least harm, it seems like the rational choice for me today. It’s OK that it’s not perfect. I’m not either. No one is. But when you pile it all on the scales of social justice and American ideals the choice of reason seems clear. I’m still trying to do better and to get outside of my comfort zone, to build new pathways to yet undiscovered keys in my mind and yours. To keep an active invitation to an open door with those who have different points of view. Black and yellow, red or blue, I’ll leave the key under the mat for you.