Tag Archives: civilization

Enlightenment Turns on a Pin

By   November 14, 2016

Seismic upheaval is currently emanating from parts of the world normally associated with stability. Tectonic fractures and aftershocks are rippling from Europe and North America in ways that make all other parts of the planet shakier.

A reasonable response to this is to run for cover. But is it better to seek shelter or run out into the open?

At stake is the preservation of a habitable world. It’s true that many human institutions are long overdue for an overhaul, so some of this tearing down is not necessarily a bad thing. Many of the perils we face are indeed from technology running ahead of our wisdom to control it. Some slowing down of our advancement can be seen as a good thing.

At the same time, these technological problems can only be resolved one of two ways: we need better and wiser technologies to replace the ones that threaten our sustainability, or else we will soon undergo a cataclysmic culling of civilization. One path takes us forward to a more stable and secure future, the other takes us backwards to a new period of Dark Ages.

Civilization? The recent US election was, among many other things, a referendum on civility. Civility lost. We have now entered an era where internet trolls and their ilk have risen to power and prominence. We can no long consider them to be lurking in the dark corners spewing venom. They are now wearing suits and shaking hands on TV.

Civilization… I would choose a civil society. I would choose a civilization that encompasses the globe and is inclusive of all people. I would choose a civilization where all are equal citizens — all civilians equally protected and protective of one another. I would choose a civilization liberal in its thinking and education, while being conservative of the world’s resources.

The pace of progress of the last several hundred years has caused undeniable problems, but it is a mistake to blame the problems on the progress itself rather than the pace. This same period has brought us all of the benefits of what we now call the Age of Enlightenment. Scientific understanding, progress in medicine, technological revolution, the establishment of higher education, economics of abundance more widely available than at any point prior, the rejection of authoritarianism, and the establishment of rule by the people, have all emerged as a direct result of Enlightenment philosophies.

The United States of America was founded specifically on these principles. To repudiate this is to ignore history. To repudiate these principles is to reject the idea of America as a more perfect union, as a place of liberty, equality, and justice for all.

To return to the question, how to respond? Within ourselves, we cannot afford to give in to despair no matter how much we feel it, or even how rational it appears. We must double down on our own habits of thought and exemplify the discipline of critical thinking and the empirical assessment of evidence.

We must do our best to be kind to those who prefer to be driven by emotion, instinct, intuition, and gut-feelings. We must extend kindness and understanding, but we must never tolerate intolerance. We must not allow those who are governed primarily by emotion to govern us. The Enlightenment was specifically a rejection of dogma and fundamentalism. Enlightened thinking does not come easily or automatically. It must be learned and practiced. It is a discipline. It is not natural in the common sense of the term, yet it is logically inevitable if given fair consideration.

The adoption of the safety pin as a symbolic response, as so many are choosing, can be a decent answer to those who would wage terror. It is decent in the sense that it is better than mediocre, but not sensational. It is also decent in the sense that it is a reminder for the wearer and to witnesses to practice decency.

A safety pin is not a super-hero costume. It is not a license to be a rescuer or a vigilante. It is not, in my opinion, a pledge to right all wrongs or to stand up to all bullies and trolls. It is not a polished halo or a badge of self-righteousness. I see it as a simple declaration of safety, only insofar as one can extend it.

If you see me wearing a safety pin, it means only that you are safe from me, by default. I will do what I can to extend my zone of safety to others, but I specifically do not reduce your responsibility for your own safety.

Should you choose to be a source of harm to anyone, I may, if I’m able, extend my zone of safety to your intended targets. I do not consent to become your next target. If necessary, I may engage you under the presumption of safety for you and all concerned, but I cannot guaranty your safety even from me if you persist in seeking harm.

I will de-escalate threat of harm wherever possible. I will make my actions proportional to the threat, if necessary. My strategy is one of peace, but I am not a pacifist. I will remain dedicated to the reduction of violence in all human interactions, but don’t imagine that I’m a non-violent person.

Civilization has sought to perpetuate its own security through the violence of warfare, yet all empires and dynasties past have fallen mostly through war.

With stakes so high for our current civilization — not just in the Americas and in Europe, but in all free-thinking and egalitarian societies — it is right to take a stand against those who would undermine us. I have made a lifelong practice of tolerance and inclusivity, of openness and respect, but I will fight for the humanist cause. I do not seek conflict, but I will not turn aside from the threats of retrograde thinking.

To repeat: a return to pre-Enlightenment modes of thought and doctrine may be intellectual reversion, but it will accelerate us toward a future of immanent failure.

I regret to find myself among purveyors of fear, but I am not honest if I do not declare that I am terrified. Notwithstanding, though we must honor our emotions, I say again we must not allow ourselves to be governed by them. I will do my best to feel my fear fully, but I will not practice it. I will do my best to embody courage and optimism through action.

I will practice hope, even if I don’t feel it. I will practice a confidence that may seem baseless. I will practice joy even when I am overcome with sorrow. I will practice, not just in spite of these shortcomings, but specifically because of them. It is the nature of practice to do that which needs improving.

I will practice tolerance, but it’s worth saying again — intolerance must not be tolerated. I will seek conciliation, knowing there are ideologies that are not reconcilable. I will work for unity, knowing that it can only be fulfilled through diversity.

I will accept division as a natural and inevitable expression of growth. Where there are divides, I will practice healing, but I may need to take sides and oppose the agents of disease.

Rod Kobayashi, the founder of Seidokan Aikido, took as his motto “Earnest, Sincere, and Realistic.” We cannot even get started on being earnest if we cannot accept reality. We cannot make real the ideals of compassion and justice if we lack discipline. I will practice realistically on behalf of my idealism.

Run for shelter, or run for the open?

If you can manage it, run for the open, and be the shelter.

Whoever you are reading this, I need you.

R.A. Robertson

November 2016

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