Monday, May 30, 2011

Bridging Differences

I can imagine a few friends thinking, How can Norm think that way about Israel? Otherwise he’s a thoughtful and decent guy. But here he’s a dunderhead.

At the same time I’m thinking, How can F and R say what they do about Israel? They seem like rational guys who feel compassion towards others, but now they are thinking tribally.

Politics, today more than ever, seems hopelessly bi-polar with so many hot-button issues. Each side has its own set of facts not shared by the opposition. Forgotten in the heated exchange is the emotional dimension which may account for our place on the spectrum. It may also be the closet which needs to be opened and sorted out if there is any hope for a civil conversation. Otherwise we are just shouting across the chasm.

The purpose is not just to have a Kumbaya moment, but to find a path toward self-discovery. What can hurt? Some of our most cherished beliefs might be traced back to emulating or defying a parent or staking a position as an act of individuating early on.

In the travails of my adolescence I found a rather hermetic home in Marxist philosophy. I can see now how that closed and exclusionary thought-system set me apart in ways which served some neurotic needs. Drawing open that curtain does not necessarily invalidate the conviction but its provenance can be the first step in loosening its grip and viewing it more objectively. If the psyche was bruised we might even remove some scar tissue.

Enter: David Brooks, the center-right wing New York Times columnist and author of, The Social Animal. In it he argues that intractable social problems can best be approached by an awareness of how our passions and intuition have a place alongside the usual rational and cognitive elements. In fact, he argues, emotions already play a far greater part in problem-solving than we give them credit for.

As an example of the impact that unconscious forces have upon decision-making he offers the recognition of weaknesses and how we control those impulses. That would include guilt, and the compensatory responses we use to express it. Some may identify with our brethren who lost their lives in the Holocaust while we escaped by accident of birth and geography. “Never again”, is their mantra as if WW II were being re-enacted.

Brooks doesn’t enter into a disquisition on the Israeli / Palestinian divide nor do I wish to examine the volleys from the respective arsenals. I am interested more in finding the thought-process which might lead toward a common denominator between people who generally share the same value system except for these emotionally charged subjects.

Others dis-identify with what they regard as the aggressive behavior of Israel as well as the victimhood stance of present day Israelis. Their empathy has attached itself toward the perceived new victims, the Palestinians.

Both sides claim empathy and the moral high ground. They would do well to trace the origins of their rhetorical geyser to its emotional spring. Human relationships which include generosity of spirit and a true taking in of the other person have the power to bridge differences or at least lower the decibels of discourse and un-stick ourselves from heavily laden labels.

Brooks cites our invasion of Iraq as an example in which policy was made with insufficient weight given to non-cognitive street-smarts concerning the threat our presence posed to their cultural mores.

The cold calculation as applied to the financial sector also failed to weigh the reckless risk-taking and insatiable greed of the players as they declared outrageous bonuses for their nefarious deeds. We now know how irrational the privileged class can act.

The point is that we develop a set of arguments which we regard as just, historically supportable and well-reasoned. The words are often incendiary even as they issue from our mouth, limp and weary from over-use. The debate proceeds like a reflexively-played chess game on a less conscious level than we care to admit.

We need to bring together the full dimension of mind, heart and glands into the discussion and, more importantly, into our daily being.

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