Thursday, October 3, 2013

Government Shutdown: What Can We Do?

  October 1st, 2013: The United States federal government has entered another phase of being stuck with the consequences of consistently resorting to stubborn partisan bickering and gamesmanship; instead of intelligent, reasonable, equitable methods of solving problems. And sadly, the repercussions taking effect on our nation this week, are just the tip of the iceberg of what is really wrong.

  I have been thinking about what, if anything, I felt like writing about the source of these problems, and what we might do to change the future... and I think I have been able to condense my thoughts down to 3 simple questions we should all be asking ourselves right now.

  So anyway, here's my take on what we as citizens can do to stem the tide of chaos rolling across America right now. I see people embracing anger and division. I see people fearing that their freedom has been taken away. But there is one freedom that I know for certain can never be taken away: the freedom to CHOOSE how we are going to respond to life, and to other people.

The Three Core Concepts of NOT Being a Ridiculous Human Being (TM)

[These questions can (and should) be applied to individuals and groups.]

 1)  Am I ignorant?

  I mean this in the academic sense. The dictionary definition of ignorance is:
ig·no·rant [ig-ner-uhnt] adjective
1. lacking in knowledge or training; unlearned: an ignorant man.
2. lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact: ignorant of quantum physics.
3. uninformed; unaware.
4. due to or showing lack of knowledge or training: an ignorant statement.
  This means that if we don't actually know what we are talking about, we must first be aware that we don't know much about the subject, and then put some real effort into finding out more about it. Determining our level of ignorance in relation to a given topic is not necessarily a question of our intentions, or an insult to our capacity for intelligent thought. Ignorance is the state of being uninformed. Whether or not we choose to remain in that state is another question, better defined as apathy. Apathetic ignorance (individual or collective) can become a genuinely scary thing. For example:

EXHIBIT (A) -- Here is one example of the type of ignorance I am talking about:

  If your own prejudice and/or laziness prevents you from putting a minimal amount of effort into educating yourself on the facts of an issue that you claim is of vital importance to you...

Perhaps that is the real problem.

2)  Do I have my facts straight?

  This means that when we finally do get off our behind, and decide to learn about the subject we are engaged in, we need to be willing to face all the facts of the matter. This willingness needs to carry us beyond the narrow or biased bits of information that don't disturb our comfort zone. Having a casual discussion with a friend, or reading the first opinion piece you get your hands on, generally doesn't qualify as getting educated on the matter.

  Unfortunately, the dialog surrounding complex problems tends to become polarized pretty quickly. Developing a well-rounded understanding of a situation (especially the causal factors) when the topic at hand is overwhelming in scope, is typically more work than most of us are interested in doing.

  Make sure you are getting your information from a credible source. Or even better: multiple credible sources. The information people tend to pass around via social media in particular, usually sides with one extreme or the other, makes one or more arbitrary generalizations, and grossly oversimplifies the issue at hand. These trends should be a clear signal that objective thought is not being employed. We need to resist the urge to let ourselves get excited by such sensationalism, and calmly take ownership of our own search for enlightenment.

The dictionary definition of research is:
re·search [ri-surch, ree-surch] noun
1. diligent and systematic inquiry or investigation into a subject in order to discover or revise facts, theories, applications, etc.: recent research in medicine.
2. a particular instance or piece of research.
verb (used without object)
3. to make researches; investigate carefully.
verb (used with object)
4. to make an extensive investigation into: to research a matter thoroughly.
  If we lack the motivation to research something we feel strongly about, or a topic we feel socially compelled to develop an opinion on, we may need to sit down and take honest inventory of what our current values and priorities really are. Not what we would like them to be, but what they really are at this point in time.

  Once we have obtained more reliable information, we then need to be open to the possibility of letting our discoveries change our opinions. If the prospect of new information actually altering our opinions makes us uncomfortable, I would say that is a good indicator that we have fallen out of the habit of learning. (See question #1.)

  I am a big fan of simple, verifiable pieces of data that are generally self-evident, or can be documented reliably via the scientific method. For example: the time of death on a death certificate is a relatively finite piece of information, it is hard to skew the manner in which that data was obtained, or the ensuing interpretation of it. Of course, information that needs little or no interpretation is a rare and valuable commodity, but certainly worth keeping an eye out for. Statistics, on the other hand, are notoriously corruptible; easily skewed by early data contamination in the gathering phase, poorly designed methods of recording the data that promote misinterpretation, and the most common problem: selective referencing with little or no context, often accompanied by arbitrary interpretation that breeds bias. Statistics referenced solely to give teeth to one side of an argument, rather than to educate on a variety of factors, tend to be the worst offenders.

  However, statistics used judiciously, with clear contextual ties to the subject matter, can be a reasonable way to illustrate a claim. The key is to avoid the trap of using statistics as a crutch in order to justify the idea being presented. If you can't make a convincing point without the statistics, you probably shouldn't be using them at all. Instead, I suggest an increased focus on obtaining a more robust personal grasp of the subject.

EXHIBIT (B) -- Here is a good example of supporting your message with data, while presenting a strong persuasive argument that stands on it's own.

3)  Am I being a hypocrite?

  After advocating healthy skepticism where statistics are concerned, I am going to go ahead and make one up. (Yes, my sense of humor feeds on irony.) It is easy to engage in a self-centered rant filled with 50% emotion, 25% thoughtless rhetoric, 20% childish belligerence, and 5% (or less) verifiable fact. Conversely, having an open minded, respectful dialog can facilitate challenging our views/opinions in a way that stretches our paradigm. That's a good thing! Healthy intellectual debate creates opportunities to explore new vistas, foster tolerance, and build the habit of thinking objectively.

  NOTE: Being stubbornly argumentative is not the same as useful debate. Regurgitating what you heard or read somewhere, just to "win" an argument with a stranger, doesn't count as intelligent debate! Equally important: refusing to accept input from sources that don't pander to your current opinion on the subject, does not count as sound intellectual discussion either. In general, we should do what we teach our children to do, and follow the golden rule: if you want your opinions to be respected, then a great place to start is to respect the opinions of others.

The dictionary definition of hypocrisy, is:
hy·poc·ri·sy [hi-pok-ruh-see] noun, plural hy·poc·ri·sies.
1. a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess.
2. a pretense of having some desirable or publicly approved attitude.
3. an act or instance of hypocrisy.
  Being respectful and tolerant does not mean you have to agree with everyone. You can tell someone that you think their statement is not accurate, but pay careful attention not to indulge in making personal assumptions about the other party, and do your best to avoid using a condescending tone!
"As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy."  - Christopher Dawson
  It is wisdom to realize that we should look past the sphere of our own existence, and strive to understand the thoughts and needs of others. In today's "modern" (not to be confused with civilized) social climate, behavior that demonstrates a clear understanding of why we should always strive to exercise compassion, is harder to find than Waldo- if he wasn't wearing that conspicuous red and white striped outfit.

  If we ever find ourselves struggling (or consciously refusing) to genuinely consider the shared reality of the entire human race, not just the part of the world where we live- we need to think about how self absorbed we have become. If we can only manage to feel sympathy for those we see eye-to-eye with, it is time for some serious reflection. (See question #2.)

  An important thought to ponder when tempted to mete out judgment and derision, is this:
If I disagree with the stance another person is taking on a given issue, it is up to me to remember that they might feel the way they do because of something they have experienced. How would I view this topic if my spouse, or my children, or I were on the other side of this issue? How would I be inclined to approach solving this problem, in all honesty, if I had to walk in their shoes?

EXHIBIT (C) -- To call on better words than my own:
"A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another." - John 13:34

  He didn't say "Love one another, unless you disagree on politics." or "Love on another, unless someone else is treating you poorly." or "Love one another, unless you don't feel like it." God is not a Republican, God is not a Democrat. He is not even an American! We need to get over our foolish pride, and quit being so blasphemous as to justify our poor treatment of each other as "patriotism" or "righteousness". The eternal importance of having an attitude of kindness and humility hopefully makes sense to most people, but sadly, it is increasingly absent from too many interactions between "mature" adults in the world today. Remember:

  Ultimately, if a sincere exercise in sympathy doesn't conjure up some patience and tolerance in our hearts, sufficient to be kind to those we disagree with-- then perhaps we have not humbly faced and understood the true significance of the experiences, and relationships, in our own life.

  Perhaps we need to spend some time working on removing the two-by-four from our eye, before making a fuss about the splinter in someone else's. (Luke 6:42) Anger, fear, prejudice, and blame do not get us any closer to finding real, reasonable solutions to a problem. God gave us the instruction to love one another as a commandment. And it is our individual, personal responsibility do that.

Come on y'all...

Don't panic.
Don't turn against each other.

Be kind.
Be compassionate.

Be the best version of yourself!

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