Friday, August 20, 2010

Appealing to our demons, not our better angels

Why do I subscribe to Maclean's? Well, for $1.50/month on my Rogers cable bill they've finally hit a price level I'm comfortable with. And it's also because every issue there's always at least a few examples of great journalism. And this week's issue has at least two (haven't dived-in too deeply yet).

...economic success is as much about character and determination as anything else—the kind of determination that would move a person to sit in a darkened hold eating spiders for four months, just for a chance to better their lot. If that’s queue-jumping, fine: these are the sort of people we want.
There are, by one count, 23 mosques in Manhattan. Four are south of Canal Street, in Lower Manhattan. According to the New York Times, the two closest to the site of the former World Trade Center have become snug fits for their worshippers in recent years as Manhattan’s Muslim community grows. People who want to pray are routinely turned away.

So if we were talking about, say, sporting-goods stores, the case for a new one would be pretty clear. Such things are not unheard of in the neighbourhood. There is a demand for more of them. So make some more.
You should read both pieces, but I wanted to draw-out, emphasize and expand on one passage in particular from Wells' column:
Deep fear that resists easy answers is, of course, catnip for politicians. People like to hear they’re right to worry. There will always be politicians willing to tell them that. But if any of them feel like showing a little responsibility, they should spare some thoughts about consequences.
This is exactly right, and it speaks to a much wider phenomenon then mosques or immigration. It's a worrying trend in America, in Europe, and yes, even in Canada.

We're all imperfect people. We always will be. We can say we're as enlightened or as tolerant as can be, but within us, on a sub-conscious level, we all have prejudices, we all have fears, we all have worries.

We all have demons, and we all have better angels. And they're constantly at war within us, whether we're conscious of it or not. And that can be exploited.

It's hard to appeal to our better angels. Particularly in difficult times, when the economy is choppy, when jobs are scarce, when we have trouble ourselves. It's easier to be compassionate when you're affluent.

It's far easier to appeal to our demons. To our baser instincts. And it can be politically advantageous too. It can win votes. It's far easier to scare than to inspire. To find an outlet for our anger, for our demons, somewhere to focus that anger and position yourself as the ones with the answers.

But it's dangerous, and it's destructive. Because hate begets hate, it fuels on itself, and once unleashed our demons tend to run free. It may start small. It always does. It may seem reasonable in isolation. It always does. But it doesn't stop there. It never does. And that road will take us to somewhere we won't like. But by the time we're there, it will be too late.

And as bad as those who shamelessly exploit our base instincts and appeal to our demons are, they're not the worst. They often don't know better, or believe the ends justify the means. No, worse are those who know that this is wrong, but they don't speak out.

They don't speak out because, as hard as appealing to our better angels is, countering an appeal to our demons can be as difficult. It's hard to counter emotion with fact, and fear with compassion. Too often, afraid of being labeled soft, afraid of being on the wrong side of a wedge issue, those who know better will do nothing. They'll stay on the sidelines, afraid to speak-up.

And it is this timidity, this weakness, that allows hate to flourish, and our demons to overwhelm our better angels. It can't happen without us.

Is what we're seeing passing flare-ups, or emerging trends? I don't know. You don't usually know until you're on the other side. But I'm worried. And I'm worried too that I don't see the battle being waged, and the challenge being met.

I hope our better angels haven't left us. They're still needed.

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1 comment:

Pamela said...

Very well said Jeff. We all need to speak up and speak out.

Pam Allard
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