Anxiety runs rampant these days, as pervasive as salt in an ocean, and it arises from various sources. Security, income, culture, values, etc.—post-modernity is forcing us to consider so many aspects of our collective lives that have recently floated by, calmly, on gyres just beneath the surface. I argue that this age of anxiety springs from a different source.
In a culture in which everything is politicized and agendas are as numerous as opinions, how do we know whom and what we can trust? When science and data are refuted as the agenda of vested interest groups, on what foundation should we stand and make unbiased judgements? When media has (or is alleged to have) blatant political affiliations, where do we find objective news? What does it say about a culture that renders facts and data subjective material? Where is the last reliable bastion of objectivity? More importantly, will we accept it even if we disagree with the results? Our major institutions are letting us down. The pursuit of power, once again, leads us astray.
Now, I’m not naïve. These are complex problems, perpetuated by both sides of political isles in governing bodies and major institutions around the globe. I’m simply disheartened that false equivalencies and their accompanying skepticism permeate my own thoughts when I know better. I’m frustrated that even in the light of day, there’s much deception in the shadows.
LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy sings, in “Pow Pow,”
From this position
I can see both of them
From this position
I totally get how the decision was reached
From this position
I can say "serious" or "cop-out" or "hard to define"
From this position, from this position
It's kind of like eating myself to death
This is my inclination—to acknowledge all stances—not to believe everything (and, hence, nothing)--and respectfully indulge/engage them. I love the dialogue, and I agree that it can cause me to teeter on the verge of intellectual paralysis. Eventually, we must jump out of abstractions and take a stand. But pathos and paranoia rule the airwaves while acrimony and denial obfuscate reality. And in order to satisfy a desire to be on the right side—to affirm ourselves, we willingly deny our best interests. In selfishness, we deny those of others. There are few attempts at empathy, of reaching that position where we try to understand the dynamics of the whole field. And our culture values soundbytes—not depth. Much more than a tweet, and we risk the response TL:DR.
We see this in so many aspects of life; politics, religion, culture wars, climate change, geopolitical dynamics—all have been the prey of agendas and manipulation. And we can usually, and reliably, blame leadership. We are either pigeon holed into a side or left in the grey (and often alone) when we hold nuanced positions. And these positions are often very, very lonely. Humans are neither monolithic nor built for isolation, but we are often forced into such stances.
We are tribal people. Stemming from a lineage of hunting, gathering, an insular existence, and fear of the outside world; we are inclined to identify deeply with our groups and adopt community stances as personal convictions. Seth Godin argues that tribes hold the promise for change, and this thesis is solid. But his definition of a tribe is based on niche factors, specific passions and causes around which people coalesce and collaborate for change. But being niche-based, his tribes follow a different template than our grander associations. Our massive, monolithic tribes, such as our religious and political affiliations subsume so many disparate issues under one umbrella. Inevitably, we compromise certain virtues while adopting less desirables in the name of membership. Membership is the key, for membership—being a part of something—is fundamental to identity and actualization. It has its privileges! Often, we are uncomfortable straddling tribes, or even forging non-traditional ones, so we adhere to the prevailing sentiments, which often forces us to sacrifice our extra-tribal convictions. We become that unnatural monolith. And when science or culture shifts controvert our stances, we take it personally. We get defensive, we yell, we interrupt, and we lose reason. We lose perspective. All for affiliation.
I lied earlier. We shouldn’t place all of the blame on institutions and leadership. If we are honest, we must claim some responsibility for the current climate. We love to define reality by our own standards and values--what we want vs. what is. A painting by Remedios Varo comes to mind, “Embroidering Earth’s Mantle,” in which several imprisoned maidens, under the mysterious, menacing, watchful eye of a guard, weave the world. Their wishes (or his?), woven into the tapestries, fill the void. This is how we organize diversity and chaos. Weaving reality is personal. Our visions and values are threads woven into some ideal. We are so invested, defined to such a staggering degree that we reject divergent thinking with a blend of defensiveness and paranoia. We adopt the role (a crude imitation, really) of the objective skeptic who challenges even the most irrefutable statistics. We allege nefarious scheming. We assert blatantly false allegations. We prop ourselves up.
In The Crying of Lot 49, Pierce Inverarity tells Oedipa Maas to “keep it bouncing.” Now, anyone who’s read Thomas Pynchon knows that any given line overflows with multiple meanings. This one admonishes against settling. Much like the dialogue about belief vs. ideas in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, we run into trouble when our positions stumble into belief. Belief implies finality, skin in the game, and is inherently exclusionary. But we can hold ideas close and replace them when better ones comes along. I realize this runs into sticky territory, but if we consider reality in the public domain, and if we are being truly honest, we should always embrace the best idea. And we should be willing to put an idea aside when we find a better one.
Embracing the alternative too stridently sets us up for failure and victimization. A feedback-loop emerges. We’re likely to believe lies peddled with conviction, and the talking heads and leadership are incentivized to keep the stories coming because they know we’ll listen. But, in issues of public relevance, the willingness to keep it bouncing gives us a degree of autonomy and freedom—especially from ourselves. It’s a powerful inoculation against misinformation. Those who leverage political and social capital in the shadows will realize that we can’t be so easily manipulated. It incentives our pursuit of the truth and the public dissemination of it.
Niko Tsivourakis, Global Initiatives Director
This blog is the collective voice of every person involved in the Global Initiative. Just as the globe hosts billions of disparate voices, we hope this space will embody and embrace the same diversity.