The constant need to be right is not only incredibly annoying, it is also terminally divisive.
Perhaps I find an interesting article online. I read on into the comments section to see what others thought of it. The world of reason and opinion are rapidly left behind and I find myself on trial in a judgemental world of dualistic thinking.
It doesn't take long to realise that there are people out there who not only disagree with my interpretation of events but also think I am some sort of deviant thinker, who needs to toe their line or face the consequences. Unless I think the way they do I am clearly a lesser, maybe even a dangerous individual. The 'discussion' often turns to name-calling, threats and worse.
I am a lover of social media, but it presents a double curse:
- that we can criticise another without responsibility, displaying a total disregard for the opinions, intelligence and personhood of all those people we decide are 'wrong' simply because they don't think like us.
- that by being very selective about the online company we keep we can live in a very narrow virtual world where everyone thinks like us and we never have to face the challenge of opinions that differ to ours.
I was recently introduced to the idea of polyphony in music when reading Ian Adam's book of reflections “Running Over Rocks”. As I understand it, polyphony is about many voices, rather than monophony, which is 'one voice'; everyone singing the same melody at the same time would be monophonic, whereas two or more voices singing slightly different, but complimentary, melodies all together at the same time would be polyphonic…a simple example would be a round, like 'Frère Jacque” ('Are you sleeping?'). Composers like Giovanni Palestrina have turned this into an art form of multi-layered contrasting melodies making up a beautiful auditory experience.
Somehow, the many voices, interpreting the theme in many different ways, make the experience of listening to the music richer, bigger, more fulfilling, than everybody singing the same melody. There are many obvious parallels to our modern obsession with everybody having to sing 'my song, my way' and the dangerous, yet enriching possibility of many voices enlarging the horizons of our opinions.
I have always believed that the ability to live with things in tension is a mark of maturity, as is the ability to assert one's own views while maintaining the humility to be open to the idea that I might just be wrong. I struggle with this dualistic, black and white, right or wrong way of thinking; it disturbs me as I see all too clearly why our world is increasingly a dangerous place, with individuals, nations and cultures unable to reason and discuss or even to countenance the views or the culture of another. Worse, this face-off and disempowerment is all too frequently the catalyst for the perceived need to resort to violence.
Any opinion inevitably involves the interpretation of the data available, and our interpretations may vary wildly. Culture, age, life experience, social and political ideology, religious belief, world view…all these contribute to the screening process that goes on with every new piece of information we receive. Even those who share, say, a faith background sometimes disagree over the way that faith is lived and worked out in relation to others in the world.
A key idea in Celtic Christian thought, and in the Rule of St Benedict, is that Christ is often encountered in the stranger, in the one who's not 'like me'. I wonder how often I've missed out in meeting Jesus, or hearing him speak, because I've felt myself to be better than someone else.
Accepting that my way of seeing may not be the only way may not only bring me closer to another person or group of people, but may just enlarge my vision and make life richer. Dualistic thinking is narrow,competitive, rejecting, self-promoting and divisive. Polyphonic thinking, by contrast, is enlarging, co-operative, accepting, humble and unifying.
I'm not naïve enough to think that “all opinions are of equal merit”, and for certain views and opinions there is a global consensus that a thing is morally unacceptable…the pitfalls of libertinism, anarchy and syncretism have not escaped my notice. However, it seems to me that a judgemental dualism of those who are different to 'me' is rapidly spilling into every part of life…fundamentalism is by no mean restricted to the religious!
I think it would be true to say that my faith journey has been one of learning to love and accept voices speaking ideas and lives lived very differently to my own. It has enriched and enlarged my life…along with setting me up as a target to those who prefer the certainties of dualistic thinking.
“There's a famous story told of Jesus' opponents trying to trap him into giving the wrong answer to a question. It's a legal issue with political, religious and cultural undertones – and carries potentially dangerous implications for Jesus. It's about paying taxes, and whichever way he answers – with a yes or with a no – the Pharisees know he will be trapped…Jesus answers his dualistic critics with a clever and delightful song of polyphony. Give to the emperor what is rightfully his, and to God what is rightfully God's.” (Ian Adams Running Over Rocks page 49.)
Adams comments that not only does Jesus recognise the conflicting claims, but asks a further question of his own about where true worth belongs…allowing the listeners to add their own voices to the 'tune'.
How we respond to situations where views are polarised is vital. We need to try to step outside the situation and view the thought processes on both sides that have brought the issue to this point. Is there a bigger picture? Do both sides offer an element of truth that brings a broader perspective?
I'll let Ian Adams have the last word:
“Dualistic thinking is deeply ingrained within us. We can think dualistically about almost anything! Politics and religion might be obvious candidates, but it's just as prevalent in sport, food, music, art and culture. Seeing how far divisive thinking has shaped us can be a sobering experience. But we can and must learn a better way.”