Democracy presents an interesting dilemma. There needs to be a degree of social harmony to facilitate the peaceful transfer of power from one party to the other after elections. Simultaneously, we need to have vigorous ideological debates about how to achieve the common good, which is what a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ should ultimately work towards
The question of how to balance these two competing interests is the critical issue of our times and it depends on several elements.
The greatest tonic for an ailing democracy seems to be increased participation. If people are averse to the political process and complain that “it’s too divisive,” then they leave it to those who are more fervent (extreme) to decide the outcome for everyone. If only a few percent choose the candidates on the ballots through primaries and fewer than half of voting-age adults participate then that does not present a dissection of the nation. Study after study has shown that increased participation leads to more compromise and working across the aisle… and that turns out to be good for everyone, not just the select few.
In a survey published this fall, More in Common found that two-thirds of the electorate is ‘exhausted’ by the current political atmosphere and wants elected officials to find more ways to work together. That is understandable. A normal society thrives on compromise. Look at families, schools, workplaces, and public spaces. Without cooperation, none of those societal elements would work. Compromise is such a fundamental principle in human interactions that people are generally good at making concessions in their daily lives. The sentiment should seep into public policy and yet it only happens when more people participate in the political process.
I am old enough to remember when the Internet was new. The spiritual community had high hopes. “The Internet is going to be like a big city, where diversity will become the new normal and usher in an age of understanding and compassion,” my friends said. “Yes, the Internet will be like the coastal town where Gandhi grew up, where the temple priests read equally from the Bible, Quran, and the Bhagavad Gita,” I responded.
But that’s not how it has turned out, is it? In fact, some suggest that hate has won the Internet. Extremist groups, many of which had almost become extinct, now thrive. Anyone who expresses his or her opinion online is likely to get trolled by haters. And many react viscerally to other people’s ideas, otherizing each other in the process.
While I don’t think that hate has won (yet), the trend seems to be going in the wrong direction. In this article, I want to examine two ideas that partially explain why the Internet has become so divisive.
My fellow Americans,
I think it is time we talked. Not argued, but talked, you know, like adults do when they attempt to resolve their differences. Before we do, though, I believe that we need to make some adjustments to our approach. To assist with that process, allow me reference three ideas we use here at Harmony Interfaith Initiative, each of them addressing major points in regards to dialogue and reconciliation.
The Human Persona and The Ideological Persona
Padraig O’Malley, who was a facilitator during the Northern Ireland peace process, made the case that each human being has two personas, the ideological persona and the human persona. He pointed out that the only way to dehumanize the other is to see him or her only in terms of ideology and forget their humanity.
Think about that for a moment. Whenever we use an ideological label to describe a person, we fall into the trap of dehumanizing. It’s a great way to polarize, but a lousy way to live and can only lead to further divisions and hostilities.
Based on O’Malley’s concept, the first step towards dialogue is to remember that we are human and that the person on the other side of the discussion is also human, not merely a Christian or a Muslim, a conservative or a liberal, a snowflake or a gun rights activist, a climate warrior or a climate denier. Those are ideological stances people have taken, not something they are born with.
In our work at Harmony Interfaith Initiative, we are constantly reaching out to people and offering them our services. As one would expect, we get mixed responses. I’ve personally been surprised by one repeated response that I had not anticipated. In hindsight, maybe I should have seen it coming.
Here is what the gist of the response sounds like: “We are in complete harmony with each other here at the [church, temple, synagogue, spiritual center] and would welcome any and all to come and be with us. We see no need to engage in interfaith efforts at this time.” Reading between the lines, one can interpret the response this way: “We are okay. It’s them, not us.”
Maybe that is at the heart of the problem. No one thinks that they are to blame. Few are willing to accept responsibility and try to bridge divides. Think about it. Liberals think that conservatives are to blame for the ill will that exists between them, and Conservatives think Liberals are to blame. Christians think that Muslims are to blame and vice versa. The list goes on. Even interfaith activists think that those who refuse to participate are to blame.
We Are All Involved
In his interreligious principles, Dr. Leonard J. Swidler, points out that those who engage in interfaith dialogue need to be, “minimally self-critical of both themselves and their own religious or ideological traditions.”
We have incredible amounts of information at our fingertips. Anyone with a smartphone can get educated about whatever they are interested in—for free. But something has gone terribly wrong. What was once dubbed the Age of Information can now rightfully be called the Age of Misinformation… and we are all a part of the problem.
I get it. Controversy screams at us in a sea of endless information. It self-perpetuates through a cycle of clicks and shares and is fueled by supporters, trolls and outrage.
But at what point will we stop and realize that this trend has turned into a harmful addiction?
When will we realize that we have created an undercurrent of division that has played right into the hands of those who generate the acrimony, and have, quite frankly, succeeded in disrupting our society far beyond their wildest dreams?
When will we accept responsibility for our own part in creating this online phenomenon?
And when will we collectively realize that the only solution is to stop clicking on everything that triggers us, to stop feeding the monster of division?
We are told not to talk about ideological differences. Look at where that has gotten us. We are more ideologically divided than ever before. Maybe we should reconsider? These are important topics worthy of conversation. For example, when we discuss politics, we are debating what kind of society we want to live in, and when we discuss religion, we are speaking of personal values and spiritual inclinations.
If we want to have civil discussions, we need to make a distinction between two competing elements that are found within each human being. Equipped with that understanding, we can practice talking to each other rather than talking at each other.
Human and Ideological Personas
The idea of the two personas—which is central to our work at Harmony Interfaith Initiative and was originally presented by Padraig O’Malley who took part in the Northern Ireland peace process—explains the distinction we need to make if we want to have meaningful discussions. According to O’Malley, each human being is a mix of two personas. One is human the other ideological.
A number of the world’s religions have made the cultivation of goodness their primary goal, which—for a lack of another word—is good. Goodness is both a lofty and worthy ideal. Who wouldn’t want to be able to display more empathy, kindness, love, altruism, and compassion?
Having said that, there are two very different ways to achieve the goal of becoming a better person that have to do with strong emotions of attraction and repulsion. We call this the attraction-repulsion principle.
To understand the dynamics, it is important to realize that goodness cannot exist in a vacuum since it is a dualistic concept. For goodness to exist there has to exist something other than goodness. This means that when we are attracted by what we perceive as good, we are naturally repulsed by the opposite. The stronger our attraction, the stronger the repulsion can become.
Attraction Automatically Generates Repulsion
One approach to cultivating goodness focuses on the beneficial elements of changing one’s behavior; the other focuses on the detrimental aspects of the opposite behavior. One embraces on the sun while the other tries to eliminate the shadow.
“Focus on the sun! The shadow can’t be eliminated!” one could exclaim.
Sure. It would probably be better if we could just focus on the positive aspects of goodness and cultivate niceties without accruing any dislike for their opposites, but it is harder than you think—near impossible I would say.
Everyone is a critic. It’s easy to look around, find the things we disagree with or don’t like and then let loose. With the number of social media outlets and blogs available, it’s never been easier.
And yet, few ever stop and think about what the purpose of a critique is. Is it to let everyone know about a particular point of view that is opposite to another person’s point of view? Is it a dog whistle that signals to a group of likeminded people? Is it a way to show superiority by means of demeaning others? Or is a critique the start of a constructive conversation about what can be done better?
Opposition, dog whistling and demeaning need no further examination as they speak for themselves. However, if a critique is meant to be constructive, it must meet certain criteria.
While I was writing this week’s newsletter, I realized that the forces of division had not taken a summer break this year. While I was entertaining my kids during our eighth consecutive daddy-summer-camp, the steady drumbeat of anger, fear, and contempt in public discourse seemed to grow louder—if that’s even possible.
Everyone Thinks They Are On the Right Side of History
As emotions have gotten hotter, everyone seems to assume that they are on the right side of history, that their ideological position is the only one that is correct and that everyone else is mistaken. People stand on the opposite sides of widening chasms in both religion and politics and shout: “They started it! They are wrong!”
Who Will Listen to the Bridge Builders?
In this type of atmosphere, people who suggest that we should build bridges and work towards harmony are often branded as delusional. “Peace is not in sight,” they say. “You have to fight for your right. Stay angry and outraged!”
It's a sad fact that peacemakers have historically been laughed at, scorned and shouted down. Fortunately for us, history is on the side of those who long for a state of civil discourse. Peace has prevailed more often than not… but it hasn’t come out of nowhere. Peace is usually the result of tireless work by those who are committed to it.
What do you do when someone spouts anger at you, drenches you in hate or shows utter contempt for everything you stand for? The instinctive response is to fight back, to meet fire with fire. But what is the spiritual response to the same situation? Martin Luther King Jr. echoed the Nazarene when he said: "Hate can never drive out hate, only love can do that."
Meeting hate with hate is natural but it leads to an escalation that is impossible to stop. Hate breeds hate breeds hate breeds hate.
Good People Giving Into Instinct
In the past few years, I have seen good people give into the instinct of anger over and over again. It’s a fine line that is easy to cross. Yes, it is true that resisting hateful, bigoted rhetoric is important, but once resistance turns into name-calling, once offense turns into spiteful indignation, once the outrage becomes the focal point rather than a temporary feeling, then the line between a loving and respectful response and an instinctive hateful response has been crossed.
I’ve seen good people, loving people, altruistic people cross this line. Heck, I’ve crossed the line in my mind more than once in the past couple of years—but I’ve refused to act on it publicly.
“They started it,” some may respond. That may be true. But a tit for tat reaction will only escalate tensions. If we want to deescalate the situation, a better response is needed.
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Our Vision and Primary Goal
We are an educational and social good interfaith organization. We envision a world where people have access to strategies, methods and ideas that promote social harmony and enable bridge building across divides. To us, the term 'interfaith' means the continual improvement of interrelations between people who strongly believe in different worldviews. Our primary goal is to support and supplement new and ongoing efforts.
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Registered in Hays County, Texas
Founded in 2018
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