Earlier today I was watching a Youtube conversation between Dr. Vinay Prasad and ZDoggMD on cancelling Dr. Seuss and it got me thinking. I began to wonder how I became someone who is not too easily offended by the things I read, watch or listen to. I’ve always prided myself as a follower of Aristotle’s golden mean- “Virtue lies in the middle”. I’ve always thought the moment you start finding yourself pitching towards the extremes, it’s good to keep an eye out for a quick fall down the path of closed mindedness to opposing views and, eventually, find yourself square in the middle of saying some downright non-sensical and even outrageous things. Instead, if you correct yourself constantly towards the middle, giving both sides of an argument a chance, the odds are you will be able to think a lot more clearly and find yourself saner in the long run as well.
I used to teach Sunday school to 12th graders and my favorite classes were the ones with the rebels and skeptics. Not only did they keep me on my toes and keep me educating myself, I always appreciated their ability to step out in a religious environment and question the validity of the beast in whose belly they were standing. That takes guts and I appreciate that. At the same time, I’d always remind my class, it’s not a true argument if you only listen to one side and completely ignore the other. If you believe one thing, then yes, look up supporting information to bolster what you think. But if you never look up the opposing side and the arguments they bring to the table, you leave yourself open to a terrible shock, when you finally come across someone who thinks differently, and maybe even eventually discovering you actually see the point in some of those arguments. So be a good thinker always and look at both sides- fairly. Don’t build straw men and settle for the weakest arguments, find the ones that challenge you and then find people who respond to those challenges and go back and forth. And then, once you have truly exposed and explored all the sides you possibly could digest and understand, sit back, consider it all and figure out where you stand.
This is how all critical thinkers up and down the centuries have thought well. They leave themselves very vulnerable to the possibility that they might be wrong, and in doing so, they have the privilege of arriving at the truth and knowing wholeheartedly that it is actually true, because they gave it a thorough shakedown. Hence they don’t ever have to be afraid of listening to differing opinions, because they’ve already heard the best arguments. They don’t have to be worried about talking with people of opposing opinions, because they’ve put their own minds through the tortuous dilemma of truly wrestling with their own beliefs. And so, they can breathe and roam freely, never tripped over by snide comments or insults.
When I was thinking of how I may have ended up thinking the way I do, I thought of watching movies with my mom. Growing up, my parents were very religious. My dad, always enthusiastic to jump wholeheartedly into ideas presented, was quite strict on the list of do’s and don’ts. He parked himself in the camp of not being a fan of movies, due to their questionable choices. My mom, on the other hand, was a natural moderate. She always knew how to the walk the line well. I remember her watching an Indian movie with us, when we were little and when we finished the movie, she asked us, what did we learn from the movie? I don’t remember what movie it was, but I don’t think it had a very clear moral. When we told her this, she responded by saying something along the lines of “there is good and bad in everything. You can choose to take the good, or you can choose to take the bad. Learn to look for the good and forget the bad”. And that lesson stuck. Ever since then, whenever I faced a situation where things looked morally ambiguous or gray, I knew I had a choice- I could choose the good or the bad, and the choice was mine.
I don’t think I realized it back then, but I think that lesson gave me a lot of freedom. I don’t think I ever thought of myself of helpless in the face of ambiguous ethics or situations, and I never felt like a slave to someone else’s morals/ideas that they may/may not be trying to force down my throat. I knew I could think for myself, choose for myself and decide for myself.
I remember years later, I voraciously read the Harry Potter series and the Da Vinci code, which was a little controversial in the Catholic circles at that time. My parents never thought twice about restricting my reading. In fact the only books my mom forbade, were ghost stories. After I’d read those books though, I remember a lot of buzz in the Catholic world about the magic and sorcery in Harry Potter and the anti-Catholic sentiments of the Da Vinci code. I was a pre-teen then, being told by adults that I would be wise to avoid them, because the Pope said not to read them. I don’t for a second remember thinking I shouldn’t read them…instead, I thought, that seems quite unreasonable since the books were perfectly harmless (and I knew because I’d read them myself!). So I set about searching the internet for articles on what the Pope said, to see if he saw something I didn’t. When I finally found the article, and read his full opinion, I realized he never said not to read the books. In fact, he had said you were free to choose to read them if you wanted to, and if you felt like you couldn’t handle reading about sorcery or anti-Catholic stories, then don’t. He gave absolute freedom to the individual to decide, based on their knowledge of themselves. I think that was the day I stopped trusting things I heard people say (and thank God I learned that lesson young!)
That incident taught me a good lesson though- find the facts out for yourself, especially if they sound unreasonably out of character (in short, if they sound like something a caricaturist would draw up, rather than sounding like a normal person like you or I would think- that should be an obvious red flag). I also learned just because someone was older than I was, or someone who was supposed to be more knowledgeable than me was telling me something, it didn’t always mean they were right. People fall surprisingly easily for what someone who’s close to them tells them and, rarely check facts for themselves. Or these days, pass on info they see in a Whatsapp forward or on their social media feeds, without going to the source article and reading it for themselves. We often think because we share a social media feed with someone, they would never lie to us. But most people just repost from their feeds and so on and so forth. I don’t believe people intentionally try to mislead, but I think people do trust easily. And so checking the original stories or facts out for yourself, can shed incredible light on the complexity of a situation and how nuanced they can be.
In the face of cancel culture, I see a lot of people who cannot stand being in the presence of an idea different than what you think, because we feel we know better than them. We don’t take into account that they may have lived in a different century than us, grown up in a different part of the world from us (and thus had an entirely different experience than us)b. That they may have been a young teen who didn’t know better (do you remember all the stupid things you wore, said and did as a teen?! I do and my God were they cringe worthy), or may even have a different perspective to offer that could enrich or educate our own. We are so quick to judge, while telling others not to judge. Moreover, while calling ourselves mature and knowing better, we don’t even have the maturity to glean from a situation and understand the nuances of a story. Can you imagine being a parent who looked at their child with such critical eyes? What do you think a child would learn from being treated with such little grace and mercy when they make a mistake? Do you think they would love their parents after such a treatment? What would you think of a parent who you caught mocking/belittling their child in such a manner?
To step outside your shoes and into the shoes of another is difficult. Often when I find myself at an impasse or difficult moment in a conversation and I do not know how to react to a person, I ask myself what I would do if the other person were my child, my brother, my cousin, my mother. It’s a great exercise to expose the unkindness in my heart and show myself what an act of kindness in that moment would look like. And you may say, if they were my family, I would get even angrier and leave. But would you be able to leave them forever? I would hope you would eventually come back to them, knowing the relationship is worth saving still. Until we learn to face others with love, I fear we will forget how to become a society.
I believe there’s a reason why we all love watching and sharing videos or stories of random acts of kindness by strangers. We want and desire a world like that, with such earnestness. And our hearts are pained when we see the opposite, and perhaps it’s that pain that causes us to lash out. But that’s the problem exactly. In fact, when people who did change societies, were asked how they did, they often remarked that they did it by changing themselves. To get to a loving society, we can’t start at just magically changing society. Firstly because that would be an insurmountable and impossible task and mainly because that really would require magic, which I have no power or knowledge of. It’s done in fact, by changing you. Besides, how can we ask someone else to do something we’ve never even had the discipline or openness to do/try ourselves? I want the world I live in to change, and so I have decided to start with myself. Say a prayer for me, please- I’ve got my work cut out for me.
“If you want to change the world, start with yourself” – Mahatma Gandhi
“As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”- John Paul II
“If you want to bring peace to the whole world, go home and love your family” – Mother Teresa