Thursday, December 18, 2008

Vast Realism

Ever notice that when we talk about reality it is rarely in a positive way? When you tell someone to “get real” or “face reality” you are rarely – if ever – pointing out something happy or fortunate. Chances are you are pointing out just how bad things have become and how badly someone is failing to deal with their circumstances. No wonder people are always seeking ways to escape reality! No matter what your definition of reality may be, odds are that it’s not “happy place”. To most of us, reality is the place where pain lives, where we are disappointed, where we do not get what we want, where things do not work out as we would like, where we grow old, get sick and face death. That is why we dream, why we escape into books and film – we create whole worlds that allow us to forget that reality exists at all, if only for a while. Our dreams are where our happiness lies and reality is the rock on which our dreams are shattered. For a lot of people, realism is just another word for pessimism.

I have been thinking of late that maybe we are wrong about reality and realism. Maybe our negative perception of the “real world” has less to do with reality being harsh and cruel and more to do with the narrowness of our focus. I think we seek to escape from reality because we fail to see just how big reality really is. Certainly, there are many things that cause us pain in the real world, but there are so many things that give us joy in it too. It has ugliness but it also has more beauty that we can contain. While we focus on our failures and disappointments we so often fail to notice how many successes we had and how much joy we were given. The same reality that sometimes treats us so cruelly oftentimes also treats us kindly. In this real world there is war and famine and destruction but there is also goodness, mercy and joy. If in your mind “getting real” means recognizing just how rotten and evil people can be then you are really only looking at one small slice of reality for in this real world there are also plenty of good, selfless people. I do not argue that there are plenty of things to discourage and make you hopeless in the real world. What I am trying to point out is that if you look you will also find so much to encourage you and give you hope. Unfortunately though, we are not wired that way are we? Somehow it is easy for us to feel forsaken and hard for us to feel blessed. We make our vision narrow, we choose to focus on one thing and exclude all else. How easily we cry about the love we want but cannot get while we forget about all the love we do receive. (Ever notice how when someone says they want somebody to love they usually already have a specific somebody in mind?) We remember how we were wronged and we forget the thousands of small kindnesses done to us. Clearly it is not reality that is to blame, it is the smallness of our minds and the narrowness of our vision.

So then, the real challenge is to see reality for what it is – to stop seeking refuge in either mind numbing optimism or soul destroying cynicism but rather to become true realists. We do not need to escape reality, we need to learn to appreciate just how large and all encompassing reality really is. Reality is cruel and beautiful and painful and filled with wonder and mystery. In it we find love and disappointment, loneliness and joy, sweet and bitter. When we start to appreciate the bigness of the real world we will not find it such a horrible thing to be grounded in and we will be more willing to live without our precious illusions. Like it or not, the real world is the one we are destined to live in. Why always seek to escape it? There is so much more to gain by embracing it!

One of the reasons realism seems so unattractive is because it seems so bleak, it is perceived to be a life without dreams, dedicated to hard facts alone. I should note though that when I suggest getting rid of illusions I do not mean dreams. Illusions are dangerous, dreams are not. Illusions are fake versions of reality we set up in our own minds to escape and hide from parts of reality we do not like. In so doing we are only blinding ourselves to what truly is. When we hide from reality we trap ourselves in a static unchanging existence. The way to deal with an unpleasant facet of reality is not to hide away from it in a comfortable illusion but rather to face it and do something about it. That is where dreams come in, they remind us that things can be better and spur us on to change things for the better. Of all the creatures on this planet we alone have the ability to bring the things we dream into reality. Not in the nonsensical woo-woo sense like “The Secret” would try to tell you but rather by applying our will, our skill, our resources and our knowledge. So while our illusions trap us, dreams free us. In the words of Marcel Proust, “If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time.” In the same way, if a little reality scares you, the cure is not to seek escape from it but rather to seek to see the true vastness of reality. The real world is alive with possibilities and chances but only dreamers and realists can see this. I only hope I can learn to be both.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Against Groupthink

Today I’m struggling with an age old moral quandary. When does support become a bad thing? Where is the line that separates support from enabling? At what point does faithfully supporting your community turn into irrationally circling the wagons?

It seems that our community spirit is a double edged sword. Our ability to stand together and support one another has throughout human history been the source of our greatest and most noble as well as our dumbest, most irrational actions. The fact that humans started working and living together in tribes made us strong against all obstacles yet to this day this tribal mindset of ours leads to constant fighting and even bloodshed. It is as if the same thing that makes us form strong communities and families also leads to the “us versus them” mindset that makes us do and say the most obviously imbecilic things. Which brings me to the topic of groupthink.

According to Wikipedia: “Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group. ” That in itself is pretty dangerous. Still, it does make sense in a way. After all, in order for a group to function as a cohesive unit, every individual whim can’t be catered for. It’s not ideal and it’s not always for the best but it does make sense. For a group to work effectively one course of action has to be settled for and for that to happen not everyone will get to have their way – otherwise it would be like trying to herd cats!

In this sense, groupthink is a less than ideal situation and can lead to some problems. I for one am not a fan of groupthink in this sense. It causes people to stay inside the group comfort zone and this in turns hampers progress because new – and possibly better – avenues of thought are left unexplored. However, thanks to the information age and the popularity of online discussion forums, there is another type of groupthink on the rise that I find far more disturbing than the more traditional kind.

My friend Lawrence and I were discussing this phenomenon a while back (He wrote a very good blog post on logical fallacies where he very graciously credited me with working out this secondary definition but I feel it's only fair that I share the credit for this. Please go check out his blog. ) During time spent on various discussion boards, we found that very often one member of a group would say something that we knew the rest of the group disagrees with very much but not only would they keep quiet, they would actually step up and defend this member and his opinion when someone belonging to another "group" criticized it. I think it is also fair to call this groupthink – when an ally and his viewpoints are defended simply because he is a member of your own group and even when said ally is obviously wrong . This type of groupthink absolutely destroys any moral high ground the group could have claimed and undermines the credibility of the entire group.

I ran into a particularly ugly example of this yesterday on a Facebook group discussing evolution and creationism. One of the more vocal creationists came out as a holocaust denier. No, calling him a holocaust denier is putting it too kindly. His exact words were: “lol!! haha ,sorry but I dont believe in the holocaust” (seriously, how much of a douchebag do you have to be to even type a sentence like that?!) He then went on for several pages telling people – some who actually lost grandparents in the death camps – that the holocaust was a big lie and was basically just a propaganda trick by the Jews, English and Americans to vilify the good Christian people of Germany. Now up to this point, things were pretty bad. It got a whole lot worse when some of the other creationists on the board – who never let the opportunity pass to blame Hitler and the holocaust on Darwin – actually defended this guy! Not one but several suggested that maybe he was just being misunderstood, that he probably didn’t doubt the holocaust but most likely simply had some questions about some of the numbers given. (This was not the case at all, something he made crystal clear when he quoted Tom Blair saying: “Do I "deny the Holocaust"? No! No indeed. I hope the holocaust is not denied and never forgotten. I hope the holocaust is remembered as the greatest propaganda effort and hate campaign ever waged against a civilized people”) This kind of behavior leaves me at a loss for words.

Now as Gumby pointed out in his blog on the similarities between Creationists and other conspiracy theorists, this kind of behavior is common to a lot of groups. However it disturbs me a lot more when it happens among Christians. Christians already have a very bad reputation for unchristian behavior on Internet discussion forums. When a Christian in a public forum makes statements that are cruel, ignorant, bigoted or arrogant the image of Christianity becomes slightly more tainted in the eyes of non-Christians. When other Christians refuse to speak up against those statements (in effect giving their silent approval) the damage is increased a hundred fold. The simple act of not speaking up speaks volumes to those outside of the faith, confirming every negative stereotype they already have concerning Christianity and Christians. How much more damage then is done when other Christians actually defend the people making such statements?

So what are we to do? I certainly do not think we should swing the pendulum to the other side and start constantly berating each other in public over every single disagreement. Surely though, some things are just so wrong that staying silent for the sake of unity is not an option. Some have suggested rather approaching people in private instead of airing dirty laundry in public. Certainly that is proper and Biblical even but I do believe that in some cases more is needed. Especially in severe cases where a lot of damage is done in public, the problem needs to be addressed in public. After all, everyone saw the offense, but they will see nothing of the private reprimand, so then what is the actual difference between addressing the matter privately and doing nothing at all? I believe there is a line that can be crossed where addressing a wrong becomes more important than maintaining unity (and I think the Apostle Paul would agree with me on this...) It was for this reason I started the "The Christian I am not" series on this blog - there are some things done in the name of Christ that I feel I need to distance myself from publicly lest I am seen as actually agreeing with it and/or supporting it.

If anyone has any thoughts on the subject I would love to hear it. How far should support go? Surely we should be willing to cut others some slack, but up to what point? Does anyone have a clear guideline or does everyone just tend to play this one by ear? Where does protecting Christian unity end and standing up for what you believe is true and right begin?