By Donella Meadows
–January 18, 1996–
It’s an ancient urge to want to destroy those who don’t believe what you believe. People who think in strange ways seem even more dangerous sometimes than people who cheat, steal, or kill. The latter merely threaten your property or life. The former call into question your identity, your purpose, your God, your whole world.
So history is full of violent upwellings against alien ideas, from the persecution of the early Christians to the Spanish Inquisition to the Nazi holocaust to the nuclear arms race.
But we can also see in history a slow progression toward “civilization,” which might be defined as the realization that force can neither prove nor annihilate ideas. Civilized people don’t blast their opponents, they talk to them. “It’s interesting that you see it that way. Here’s how I see it. Could we just let each other be? Might we come to a larger way of seeing that incorporates both your partial vision and mine?”
Science is founded on the skill of respecting different ideas and submitting them to objective test. Whoever turns out to be wrong admits it graciously. Neither side practices ridicule or revenge (ideally, anyway). Whatever the outcome, both sides know they have engaged in an honorable process.
In theory that’s how democracy works too. The role of a citizen is to respect different views, weigh them, vote for the ones that make the most sense, and abide by majority rule while respecting minority rights. We may try to sway each other by cogent argument, but not by lies, bribes, or threats (again, ideally). So collectively we move toward truth.
Why then, at the end of the 20th century, does America, land of science, home of democracy, appear to be regressing toward barbarity? The media provide microphones to people who do nothing but ridicule the opposition. A number of movements proudly make their points with defamation or violence. Our leaders do not answer each others’ arguments; they call each other traitors. Democratic debate sinks from evidence to exaggeration, from reason to mud-throwing.
Some would say these incivilities have multiplied with the rise of the far right, but the far left has been known to behave in much the same way. The important word seems to be not “left” or “right,” but “far.” Those who turn civilized discourse into shouting matches seem to be motivated less by the content of what they believe than by the raging heat with which they believe it.
A psychologist named Arno Gruen, who escaped the Nazis and has been studying them ever since, says that authoritarians of any stripe are driven primarily by their hatred of the very point of view I have been expressing here — not only the assumption that we approach truth by reasoning together, but the related assumption that people are basically decent, capable of working together in community, sacrificing for the future, sharing the wealth, ruling themselves by reason.
Why should anyone be allergic to that sunny idea? Because, Gruen says, it cannot coexist with the conviction that people are mean and uncaring, that we are each starkly alone, that we must fight for ourselves. Someone who has come to see human nature as rotten at the core (probably in childhood, probably not consciously, perhaps driven by a real terror) has to operate from suspicion rather than trust, individualism rather than community, power rather than love. That person can only despise those who see — also probably by an accident of childhood — the better side of humanity.
The contest between love and power. The choice offered to Christ in the wilderness, seized by the Nibelung to launch Wagner’s Ring Cycle. A chilling decision either way, but those who choose love at least have the reward (and trap) of righteousness. Those who go for power have to live with no love from others and no love for themselves.
In his book The Betrayal of the Self, Gruen says that most of us waffle the choice. We negotiate between the extremes of saintliness and hatefulness. Most democracies, most of the time, for better or worse, try to balance community and individual, generosity and greed, tolerance and intolerance, force and reason.
But when the old ways no longer work, when former enemies turn into fallen giants, when old friends outcompete you, when you work hard and get nowhere, when there is no certainty, then fear flares up. Middle-of-the-road people run for security to the loudest, most certain-sounding voice. Almost by definition, that will be a voice of power. There are always some around. They resonate widely only when the world seems to be wavering and ordinary folks search desperately for solid ground.
We have seen it happen in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, places where power plays on fear and civilization is darkened. South Africa, Northern Ireland, and parts of the Middle East are finding their way back to the light. Russia, having just escaped one dark age, is on the edge of another.
So, perhaps, is America. The voices of intolerance, cruelty, and greed are increasingly fashionable. The voices of community and compassion grow quieter and quieter. It takes courage to face the ridicule that comes with speaking in public of reason, sharing, love and trust.
In such a time, for the sake of civilization, we need not only leaders, but ordinary folks by the millions to keep speaking in public of reason, sharing, love and trust — and meaning it, and acting on it.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996