Why it matters
If we invent (most of) our reality, does it make a difference what we believe? Isn’t it like choosing your favourite colour?
For some questions, maybe. For others, not. Suppose that preferring blue over red could make you happier. Suppose that our cultural bias towards red causes conflict, wars, and misery. Suppose that by favouring blue we could move towards peace. Wouldn’t you try to get used to blue?
I shall not argue that blue is better. Or that there is a higher truth to red = bad. But I shall show you that all your life you have been brainwashed to prefer red, and encourage you to try, just for a moment, to move towards blue. Who knows, you may get to like it. And you can always go back to red, if you prefer.
The fundamental belief
Stated below is one of the basic tenets of Christian philosophy, the fundament of occidental culture. You encounter these ideas a hundred times a day. You may never even have thought of this as a question. And still the answer you unwittingly give has the most profound effect on your life.
There is Good. There is Evil. As humans we know the difference, and must choose between them.
In more detail:
- Suffering comes from evil.
- Innocence is the basic human condition. The roots of evil lie hidden.
- The other is different from us, an evil and dissembling creature.
- When they see the error of their ways, those who do evil can be saved. Confession and penitence are the road to salvation.
- Cure (for society) lies in the eradication of hidden evil.
- There is one absolute truth.
Now suppose that were not true.
The tragic view
- Suffering is an essential part of life.
- Human motivation is multi-layered. Bad acts often stem from positive qualities or motivations.
- The other is similar to us.
- When we understand why someone acts the way they do, we can find ways to help them change their behaviour, or ways to protect ourselves from that behaviour.
- The ubiquity of suffering requires acceptance, compassion and consolation.
- There can be different, equally valid points of view.
Alon/Omer, see below, call this the tragic view, and the fire-and-brimstone one the demonic view.
This way of thinking may seem unfamiliar, awkward. It certainly goes against <insert age here> years of brainwashing. You don’t think you’ve been brainwashed? Compare how often you’ve heard:
- The bastard, he really deserves to be punished.
- Who does she think she is?
- Well, I don’t like what she did, but I guess that was the best she could do.
- I suppose he must really be in a difficult situation, if it makes him act like that.
So the second kind of thinking feels unfamiliar, maybe even just plain wrong, because you’ve rarely or never done it, or heard it. Each time you think a thought it becomes easier, and seems more plausible, but that doesn’t make it true.
Right or wrong?
Neither view is right or wrong: they are different ways of interpreting the world. There are some arguments against the demonic view, like its basic lack of symmetry: I am good, you are bad, I am right, you are wrong, see the irregular verbs. There also reasons why it’s helpful to adopt the tragic view. More another day.
Alon, Nahi & Haim Omer. The Psychology of Demonization, Promoting Acceptance and Reducing Conflict. NJ: Erlbaum, 2006.