Crossing the Divides

Our country is divided not only in terms of which presidential candidate we supported or which policies we support, but on a much more fundamental level. We differ on what it means to be a human being. We differ in our root beliefs, our understanding of the human mind, the self, and reality. It is a difference in the way of thinking and speaking with others, in activities we engage in, in our view of what a democracy is. It is not simply a matter of income, class or color, although I think income inequity and racism are central causes and indications of division. It is spiritual, intellectual and emotional. It is not a divide between one religion and another, or religious versus secular, but runs right through all such groupings. The differing sides all feel that the other, or one of the others, threatens the world itself. This makes extreme actions appear possible or even necessary.


Karen Armstrong, author, religious scholar, and former nun, provides an important perspective on one issue dividing our land. In 2005, talking about the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism, she said it is wrong to even speak of conducting a war on terrorism, because it is really a religious war, one form of fundamentalism versus another. Fundamentalism is a desire to return to the fundamental values, the original state of a religion. It interprets religious doctrine literally and calls for strict adherence to such doctrine. Truth is solid, fixed, and absolute and tolerance of the “other” can be considered sin. In our world today, there is a “mushrooming worldwide religious fundamentalist revolt against modernity and secularism.” She said, “We are creatures who seek transcendence… We’re meaning-seeking creatures, we fall easily into despair.” Thus, religion has always had a place in human affairs and even the appearance of assaulting religion can have dire consequences.


But, she says, there is “good” religion and “bad.” “Bad” suffocates the sacred and the search for meaning and truth in dogma and rules. “Good” religion is compassion and the experience of dethroning the ego at the center of your world and finding another person or something bigger than your self there. This good religion is not anti-intellectual; it recognizes that understanding deep truths is a matter of feeling, imagination, as well as rationality. For example, some religions consider experience, rational analysis, and wisdom essential to religion. The Dalai Lama, for example, said “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”


Religion is not usually a consciously chosen belief. It can be foundational to one’s sense of self, culture and reality. To threaten religion is to threaten the world itself. Bad religion considers any statement, factual or otherwise, that is contrary to their religious position not only an untruth or lie, but dangerous. This can include science. Armstrong also argues that especially in nations like the US, where there is so much violent imagery in the media and entertainment, the reaction against secularism can be violent. “Whenever religion is allowed to enter political debate, positions become more rigid and absolute.” And when religion is threatened, fundamentalist membership and action increases and bad religion replaces good.


George Lakoff, in his wonderful book, The All New Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, provides another way to frame the divide in our nation. In America, we often use the metaphor of the nation as a family. Yet, Republicans and Democrats have a very different notion of the nature of that family, or what should be that nature. The Republicans think of the nation as needing to conform to a “strict father” model. The Democrats think of needing a “nurturant parent” model. This is, of course, a simplification of both the reality and Lakoff’s analysis, but it provides a general overview of the theory.


The strict father family thinks of the world “as a dangerous place…because there is evil out there in the world.” It is competitive, there is absolute right and wrong, and children, when “bad,” are born bad. So a strict father is needed to protect and teach the children. Children need to be obedient and learn discipline, and be punished when disobedient. Without discipline, the world would go to hell. If you are wealthy, it means you are disciplined. Reality dictates that if you work for your own selfish motives and success, everyone will benefit. If you try to help someone else, be compassionate, and try to nurture others, you interfere with his or her own self-discipline, and undermine self-interest. According to this reasoning, the rich are good, the poor are bad. These metaphors and beliefs translate into domestic and foreign policies that maximize the value of the rich pursuing their self-interest.


Democrats and progressives are likely to believe in a more gender-neutral parent model. Any gender is equally responsible for, and capable of, raising children. Children are born basically “good” or full of potential and can be nurtured to be better. You need empathy, so you can know better what your child needs. You need to take care of yourself so you can take care of your child. You need a sense of responsibility and commitment, not only for your family but your community, country, and world. You want your child to be fulfilled in life, happy. You value freedom, fairness, service, cooperation, and trust.


To speak across this great divide, you must use language that reflects the values others hold dear and does not threaten their religion. To tell another person they are just wrong or their ideas are evil, you strengthen the idea you oppose in the mind of the person you are talking to.


These are just two different perspectives out of many. We’re multidimensional and complex beings. Progressives can be closeted conservatives and conservatives can be closeted progressives. So instead of just attacking those who disagree with you, use the language and metaphors that they value in order to expose the implications or perspective they hadn’t considered. According to Lakoff, the Republican and conservative message is that Democrats, liberals and progressives are weak, angry, and softhearted, so be sincere, respectful, calm, and hold your ground. Re-frame any story anyone tries to use against you in order to illustrate that your point of view and your values show you, too, love your country. You, too, want security, opportunity, and freedom, just as they do. You agree more than you disagree. The road to the freedom and stability that conservatives’ value highly must merge with the road to equity and compassion you value highly.


*You might find this recent post on the election by George Lakoff extremely useful.

Is Truth Now Illegal?

We have to study Dictators and reread books like 1984. Since the election, so many people have been coming to this realization that maybe this is now obvious, but I will say it anyway: Once again, a would-be dictator is trying to impose thought control. As we’ve witnessed over the last week, the new administration has been taking steps to prevent agencies like the EPA from sharing climate information with the public. They have gone from claiming global warming is a hoax, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to destroying that evidence. Our fearless leader doesn’t like the fact that Hillary got more popular votes than he did, so he will now start an investigation to find all those illegal voters who supposedly preferred his opponent. He doesn’t like the photos negatively comparing the size of the crowd at his own inauguration to President Obama’s, so he claims the photos were altered and information distorted. He doesn’t like a CNN reporter questioning him, so he tries to prevent the reporter from speaking. He doesn’t like people protesting his policies and statements, as with the Women’s March, so he sends out his press secretary to deny what occurred, and Republican legislators in 5 states try to make it illegal to peacefully protest.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984.

This is both laughable and frightening. The consequences of such actions can be disastrous. He may try to imprison truth, but truth can be slippery and easily escape, to take revenge on him and on all of us. Any statement about ‘truth’ is a statement about reality. Our daily lives depend on how well we discern it. We depend on scientific information, for example. Will he next outlaw the weather forecast? It, too, is based on climate science. Will he stop the use of climate information from going to cities and towns on the coasts that could be used to prepare for sea level rise? Will he try to stop information going to medical researchers about the harmful effects of air pollution and thus cause the death of many children or cause more lung and breathing problems in our population?

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” George Orwell.

Our economy is dependent on science. Creating new technologies can be a rich source of new jobs, but if scientific research is interfered with and access to it restricted, our economy will falter.

“We are not interested in the good of others. We are interested solely in power, pure power.”

“Power is in tearing human minds apart and putting them together again in shapes of your own choosing.”

In whatever area of life you look at, restricting information, restricting science, making up reality to fit your vision of power, puts everyone at risk. You try to lock away truth when you fear it. Since truth is about what is real, he is trying to lock away reality so none of us, including himself, can perceive it. I think he is doing this not only so he has free reign to do as he pleases without being held accountable, but so he doesn’t have to see what he is.

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

This is 1984. But we don’t have to allow ourselves to be infected by this vision of the world. “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Schools, news media, social media, people passing on the street, gatherings, demonstrations: perceiving and telling the truth, “speaking truth to power,” is now a revolutionary act.


*Journalists have also been arrested for covering last week’s protests. Please do not forget these journalists.

The Power Of Names

The day of dread has passed, but I am still unsure what I should call him now that he is President. I don’t like Mr. Deceiver or Mr. Misogynist or any of those other names that easily come to mind. There are so many choices; and he is, unfortunately, not the only person who might fit the labels. Names are important. In the Book of Genesis (2:19), Adam names all living creatures “and [for ever after] that was the name thereof.” Language works by creating distinctions. By creating distinctions, we define what exists. The word ‘exist’ combines the roots ‘ex’ (out) and ‘sistere’ (stand) to mean ‘stand out.’ What is alive or dead, good or bad, human or other? Thus, naming is very powerful.


During the campaign, the mainstream and social media kept repeating his name, and the outrageous comments he made or actions he took. They, we forgot the power of language. Everyday, all we heard was his name. He constantly complained about being mistreated by the media but the news outlets kept giving him what he wanted most—attention. He became foremost in our ears and eyes and is now foremost in the power our government awards him. I don’t want to give him such attention and power. I recognize he is President, but I don’t want to say his name and give him what he wants.


Should I be like the characters in the Harry Potter stories who won’t repeat, won’t name, the evil one? The result of that was to enshrine fear in their speech and in their silence.


Should I try to call him out on his direct and unabashed lies, manipulations, sexist, racist and other biased statements? Of course. Should I spit out his name, spell it with anger and disgust? I fully understand such anger. Anger will be needed to fuel the fire of defiance in the next year or more. Anger can motivate me to join others in pushing against barricades of hate and the greedy grasping for power and prestige that he represents. But it can hurt, hurt everyone I meet and relate to. It can take me over, be unthinking and unsubtle. It needs a tempering force. It needs a fierce concern for the quality of my relationships with others, for the quality of each moment of life. It needs subtlety and depth of thought.


And this is, I think, what all humans want and need, a caring, loving quality of life and a depth of thought and meaning. But what Mr. T and other Republican leaders stand for can steal this quality of life from us and replace it with a one-dimensional and overarching fear of what he might do, so we can be easily manipulated. Maybe he fears the world and so wants to remake us in his image. He wants to rule not just in the media and the political realm, but in our thoughts. And we can’t give him that.


Or should I find some humorous way to speak of him, so every time he raises the specter of fear he is met with bouts of laughter?


I will try to respect his humanity even as I oppose his words and deeds. To see him as non-human or as evil-incarnate is to blind my own perceptions and give him too much power. Self and other are two complimentary, interrelated ideas. How I think and speak of him creates how I think of myself. So, I will find some way to speak of him, and hope you can, too—one that empowers all of us who oppose his greed and hate while highlighting our shared humanity. We need to demonstrate to him, as  people will do tomorrow, in the US and throughout the world, that the words he uses matter by making our words matter. Words can wink into existence realities of hurt that no one, even him, would want to unleash, if he thought about it.


It is raining now. There are deer in the yard, chicadees, crows, and cardinals. The rain falls at an easy pace, darkening the brown and grey bark of the apple trees.


**Update: George Lakoff, in a recent post, discussed the election and why you might want to name him “Mr. Minority” or “The Minority President”.

Those Who Lie to Create Fear vs Those Who Face Even Death to Reveal the Lie.

As the inauguration nears, or as any feared event draws near, what do you do? If you’re a teacher and your students are anxious and fearful, maybe it’s due to a test or a presentation, or a difficult situation in the world, what do you do? Do you go on, and basically ignore the situation, or do you acknowledge and face it? How do you face it? How do you allow yourself to notice and understand what hurts and oppresses you so you can take action to end it?


Take a moment. Too often people rush through life and miss the simple things, simple pleasures. Without knowing yourself and the feeling, emotion, the anticipation in your body and mind, all that you do can be compromised. So, begin with the simplest thing. Close your eyes and put attention on your breath. Simply breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out. You do it every second of every day. It can be your lifeline, your awakening. Breathe in and be aware of breathing in. Breathe out and be aware of breathing out. Breathe in and notice what you do. Notice the sensations of taking in air, taking in the world. Breathe out and notice letting go, pushing out, settling down, focusing. It’s ok to take a moment for yourself. 


Notice any place of discomfort as you breathe in. Just notice its feel and placement. And breathe out and move on. Notice any thoughts or images that arise. Simply notice with your in-breath, and let go with the out-breath.


As you breathe in, allow to come to mind a time that you helped another person, or stood up for a principle, stood up for what was right. What images come to mind when you think of helping others or helping one other person? Have you ever witnessed one person helping another, or imagined doing so yourself? What happened or what did you imagine? It doesn’t have to be dramatic, like in the movies. It can be something simple, like sticking up for someone or speaking out—or putting yourself at some risk.


If you imagined someone else taking action, what do you think this person felt afterwards? Or if you saw yourself doing such an act, what did it feel like for you to do this? Imagine the feeling, when you’re home, safe, knowing you could do what you did. Would you do it again? Was it the right thing to do? Sit for a moment with the feeling of knowing you could imagine and take action to help others or do the right thing.


All through history people have been helping others, facing adversity, taking risks. Study history. You are not alone. This struggle needs to be awakened, refought and refined, improving it, strengthening your self, as it is needed. When have your parents helped others or faced fearsome events? When have you? When were people in the past as afraid for the future as many people are now? When were people of this nation afraid of the government or people in the government?


Think of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his version of the Witch-Trials. He “rose suddenly to national fame in February, 1950 when he asserted in a speech that he had a list of ‘members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring’ who were employed in the State Department.” It was a lie. He stoked the fears of communist takeover during the Cold War and went after writers and actors as well as people in the government and gay men and others, accusing them of disloyalty or being communist sympathizers or committing sex crimes, when for most the only crime they committed was being different from or opposing him. He destroyed the lives of many good people all to fuel his own selfish desire for power. Many times in history, the fear of an external threat was distorted into a fear of our own neighbors, all to fuel the hunger for power by a few.


McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate and the lies of the man who was once popular and feared were revealed. He died a despised man. That can happen again. When did people in the US and other nations fight such oppressive leaders or fight to change the government or social institutions? Think of the Women’s Suffrage movement, for example, or the anti-slavery or Civil Rights movement. Think of people who faced even death to do what was right and awaken the “conscience of a nation,” Martin Luther King Jr., for example.


We are here, now, in a new moment. I hope we all learn from history the importance and power of facing fear and injustice.


When you’re anxious and afraid, you can feel brittle. You can hold onto the fear as if it was your identity and fear letting it go. But it is fear itself that is brittle. Fear serves a purpose. It is telling you to wake up. Beyond that, it no longer serves you. It is telling you to beware and turn away from some person or event, but it is too easy to interpret it as telling you to turn away from this moment that you feel it. As little children, we learned to turn away from many uncomfortable feelings. But when you notice and simply study it; notice “I know that biting sensation in my stomach, that trembling in my knees.” And you take a deep breath anyway and move on. The fear dissolves. You think more clearly. Your life takes on more meaning. You come back to this very moment, this very breath, now. That’s a powerful place to be.




Lazy Or Miraculous? Both?

How do you talk about the human brain? I just read a very interesting and timely article by David Ropiek called “The Problem of the Lazy Brain: The first step in confronting the ‘post-truth’ era is recognizing that we are all susceptible to lapses in critical thinking and motivated reasoning.” The author talks about how different people can take in the same raw information, like the color of someone’s dress, and perceive it differently. Or someone, like Mr. Trump, can assert something demonstrably false, yet people who follow him accept what he says as truth and surrender to him their power to think critically. How does this happen so easily? To combat the problem, Ropiek says, we must first understand it.


He goes on to say that “the brain is lazy. It instinctively works no harder than necessary…” Thinking critically takes more glucose and more effort. It is easier to accept uncritically than to critique. We reason only about things we are motivated to think about, for example about our own survival. Since we rely on a group to survive, we are most highly motivated to think in ways that reinforce our group’s social cohesion. We don’t accept information that counters our group’s beliefs. Thus, you can’t throw information, “facts,” at people who disagree with you in order to persuade them to change their viewpoint.


I agree with most of this but not the part about using the adjective ‘lazy’ to describe the brain. To say “the brain is lazy” is using a metaphor or conceptual framework that can undermine my own power. Brains are not lazy; people are. If I say the brain is lazy, I am saying I am lazy. To speak about “the brain” is to speak about this very mind, this very being writing and reading this essay. I am by profession a teacher, although mostly retired. If any teacher in my school called some student lazy, my ears would perk up to watch for some form of bias.


Saying “the brain is lazy” distorts the nature of the brain. In contrast, I think the brain is miraculous and powerful. Right now, my brain is hardly lazy. It is working on, engaged in thousands, maybe millions of tasks and processes. It is keeping me sitting up, awake, focused on my ideas, helping digest food, be warm, sense, breathe, etc. And add to that the amazing feat of somehow creating language, abstract ideas, and being involved in conscious awareness itself.


If I’m lazy by nature, then won’t I be lazy about everything I do, even trying to change? How can I change the world or change how I think if I’m lazy?


Each human being is both all human beings and totally unique. We all have characteristics developed through evolution, and characteristics developed through personal experience. We are all more alike than different. It is extremely helpful to know what these human characteristics are and how our own mind works. Ropiek’s discussion can be helpful in that regard, as in his discussion about the influence of motivation in perception. Human attention is limited, and thus selective. This enables us to focus. An illustration of this is “inattentional blindness,” where we miss something happening right in front of us because our attention is on a different stimulus. We are especially motivated to search the world for what might be dangerous or might threaten our understanding of the world, or what might cause pain—or bring pleasure. We pay particular attention to what’s new and unanticipated. Our default mode is to spend a good deal of thought time imagining, speaking to ourselves about the social world we are moment-by-moment constructing. We consciously consider one construct at a time, so it behooves all of us to do all we can to increase our ability to monitor and evaluate what we think about.


Our capacity for thought and imagination is actually so powerful that it can help or destroy us, cause immense joy or terrifying pain. Our brain constantly changes and learns. What we learn, or what we make of what we experience, the theories and beliefs we construct, affect our very perceptions, and how much we will learn in the future. That is how miraculous the brain and mind is; it certainly is not lazy. So we need to consider how we talk about ourselves so we can better hear what we, and the world, has to say.


**Photo is from Crete, of possibly the first paved road, in Europe, the world?

Happy New Year! And May the New Year Bring A Renewal of Democracy.

I was listening to the Diane Rehms show this morning and once again it inspired me. The show was on whether Liberal Democracy is now a stable form of government, and the movements in Europe and the US that are threats to democracy. I recommend this program and, if you’re a secondary school teacher, suggest you share it with your students. Many people think this threat is exemplified by the election of Donald Trump, and that his election represents a failure of democracy. Certainly, I think it represents a failure of our institutions and parties as they are now constituted, but I don’t think it represents a failure of democracy. I think it represents a failure of people to understand their personal role in a democracy, and a failure to understand just how far some people will go for power.


The speakers on the Diane Rehms Show (Moises Naim, Alina Polyakova, Yascha Mounk) discussed how many Americans have begun to take democracy for granted. Yascha Mounk said that, when asked how important it is to live in a democracy, more than two thirds of Americans born in the 1930s said it was of top importance, ten on a one-to-ten scale. Fewer than one third of Millennials (born since 1980), in the US, think it important to live in a democracy. They probably do not understand what most alternatives to democracy might be like— what it would be like to live under a dictatorship or an oligarchy, where the “people,” the majority of citizens of a nation, you and I, have no recognized or institutionalized source of power. They never fought a Fascist government, for example. They do not understand that democracy in a large, diverse nation, means compromise, and are focused only on the negative side of modern US democracy. They do not understand that once the institutions of a democracy are undermined, it is extremely difficult to build them back.


What is happening in the US and elsewhere has been building for years. I have written about how corporate interests have been undermining public education, and the whole idea that a public institution can often work more consciously and efficiently for the common good than a private one. Many Republicans have been working for years to undermine the idea of the Commons (resources and institutions reserved for the common good), voting rights, Congress and the value of the Federal government. In the last election, they took it further. They didn’t aim just to win votes. They aimed to end democracy. North Carolina illustrated this just a few days ago as the Republican state legislature passed bills to take away much of the power of the newly elected Democratic governor.


Imagine what politicians would do if there were no checks on their power. If the opinions of the mass of people were no longer considered relevant. If political and social freedoms, and human rights, ceased to exist. Many of us thought that was the state of affairs before Trump. Well, I think we have realized we weren’t thinking clearly enough. Trump’s cabinet choices give us a better idea of what the end of American democracy might be like.


It is not democracy, not the concept that the people of a nation have to take part in ruling themselves that is not viable. It is that the world is complex and not everyone wants to face that. It is too easy to favor security, favor material stability over the mental, emotional, and spiritual development that a true democracy requires. I know I would sometimes prefer to have nothing much to do other than eat, play, sleep, be with friends and family. But then I wake up and want to act, to notice and create beauty in the world, to do something meaningful for others, or learn something I’ve never known before.


To be a citizen in a democracy requires a commitment to taking responsibility for knowing not just who or what to vote for, but when to take more action. It requires knowing and feeling that one’s life and well-being can never be separated from the well-being of other people and the world around us.


It requires a commitment to an education that is not only about how to learn and think critically, but how to be informed, engaged citizens. We need schools that engage students in being democratic, not just studying democracy. Only then can we have a democracy.


**If you’re a secondary school teacher, this program by Diane Rehms, or segments of the program, can stimulate wonderful discussions in your social studies classes on government, American culture, or an English class on contemporary literature, for example, or a class on how humans relate to each other. So many essential questions wait there for you and your students to uncover. You could ask them to sit, maybe close their eyes, focus on their breath for a second. Then let the word ‘democracy’ come to mind. What thoughts, images come to mind? Or let them free write on the subject. Then share and discuss their responses.


**What does ‘democracy’ mean to you? How did the speakers define democracy—and do you agree with their definition? What is a ‘liberal democracy’? Do you think democracy is threatened today? If so, by what? Do you take democracy for granted? Your friends? Why would Millennials possibly value democracy less than those who were born before World War II? What are other forms of government besides democracy? Does our government work well for you? For most Americans? For the rest of the world? What, if anything, is valuable about democracy that should be preserved at all costs? What is needed for democracy to work? Do the speakers imply that there are no forms of government that are possibly better, for the majority of citizens, than democracy? Do you agree?


A few good quotes for the New Year:

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
― Elie Wiesel


“We did not hesitate to call our movement an army. But it was a special army, with no supplies but its sincerity, no uniform but its determination, no arsenal except its faith, no currency but its conscience.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.Why We Can’t Wait


“We’ve got to make change our national pastime and hold protests more regularly than weekend parties.”
― Rivera SunSteam Drills, Treadmills and Shooting Stars – a story of our times –


“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.

The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.

Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Arundhati Roy, War Talk


“But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.”
― Howard ZinnMarx in Soho: A Play on History


“The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”
― G.K. Chesterton