When it come to thinking, I can’t think of anything that I find more discouraging than how public discussion degrades it.
Let me give an example. In the last decade or so, a rather interesting term has become widely used: micro-aggressions.
I have no idea where and when I first encountered it, mostly because it was a while ago and also because I’ve entered more deeply into my dotage during its spring time. What I can almost guarantee you, however, is that it was either in a “left-wing” or at least “left-leaning” article accusing “right-wingers” of making them, or it was in a “right-wing” or at least “right-leaning” article accusing “left-wingers” of using the term for political advantage.
What about me?
Why is that a concern to me? Because, if I withdraw a few feet and think about the idea itself, separated from the urge to politicize, it offers me valuable insight.
If I follow the Biblical injunction not to judge my brother but to examine my own heart, it is very easy to see that I engage in micro-aggressions quite often. For example, I say sarcastic things to my wife, my colleagues, and even my grandchildren far too often to take pride in my humility.
Sometimes these sarcastic micro-aggressions are merely failed attempts to reveal the superiority of my wit through twisted irony. More often, they are micro attempts to put the other in his place – or rather, the place I think they should occupy in relation to me: subject. They are, I confess to my shame, micro-aggressions.
Perhaps you have your own specialized and highly refined forms of micro-aggression.
The Value of the Term
For this reason, the term proves to be very valuable to me because there is nothing more important than guarding our hearts and being watchful over it, and there are few things against which I need to guard it more carefully than micro-attacks from or micro-defenses of my pride.
When I gaze into the silence of my heart, I see a deep darkness. The term micro-aggressions helps me identify some of the demons hiding in that darkness.
In the words “micro-aggression” we can see, once again, our Lord’s mercy that permeates the created order, including the human mind, with the form of His wisdom. Let us assume, for a moment, that the inventor of the term created it for evil intent. Even so, we can use it for good.
But you can easily see what happens when the term is politicized.
This article is only using the term “micro-aggressions” as an example. Nevertheless, I would wager you are feeling some degree of discomfort from the example, which might be distracting you from the point.
If you are right-leaning, you are sure that if you confess to micro-aggressions in public you will not be absolved. If you are left-leaning, you might feel that I am attacking you by raising the issue and explaining it the way I have. Perhaps you feel I am stealing it from you.
If you want to attack me for my moral failures, I can assure you, I have done things more nefarious than micro-aggressions. I have seen more of the gunk and darkness in my soul than you will ever be able to see. If, therefore, you wish to accuse me, you will not find it difficult and I am almost certain to agree (the one exception seems to be that I have never been tempted to excesses of alcohol – no idea why).
However, you need to know that I confess my sins to God through His priest and God has absolved me by the blood of Christ. You can hurt and accuse me, therefore, but you cannot reattach guilt to me.
And here we encounter the great crisis of our time: forgiveness has evaporated into the pre-dawn fog.
Why it is so hard to forgive
I’ve pondered this for a long time. Why do we find it so hard to forgive?
The most obvious reason is that the person who hurt us is still there and could hurt us again if we don’t keep up our guard.
Another reason, more immediately applicable to this article, is that once discussions are made political we become convinced that we derive no benefit when we forgive the other.
Anybody over 40 probably remembers the awful Los Angeles race riots over the beating of Rodney King. While he didn’t quite say it, a famous line came from King’s response to the riots during a television interview, “Can’t we all just get along?”
This was a cri de couer. It had one major problem though: it was made in public. In the ensuing years, I have heard plenty of people use it mockingly, like King was an immature, spoiled child complaining because he couldn’t have his ice cream cone. I have also heard people treat it like the end of a discussion, with its interpretation being that what the user of the term wants would lead to everybody getting along.
Like almost any proverb or moral, I have heard it used to mock and for special pleading.
Is it not the case that at some level this is the cry of our hearts? Why can’t we just get along? Twenty years earlier, the Carpenters applied to romance: “Can’t we stop hurting each other…” This weekend I discussed it with my grandchildren. Twenty years ago, my wife and I applied it to our children, day after bickering day.
Read anything about an American politician by, say Bob Woodward. Watch how much energy is consumed by members of the most powerful government in the world jockeying for position with a free-lancing willingness to destroy lives and reputations.
The Hopelessness of Utopia
In February 2021, Psychology Today published an article with the title, Why Can’t We All Just Get Along and this masthead:
Science indicates that we should be pessimistic about achieving unity.
That might deserve the award for least useful statement of the last decade. Or maybe not.
The author begins:
The Biden administration has promised to heal the deep divides that exist in modern America, moving us toward national unity. But is this a realistic goal? Probably not: A wide array of research findings have shown that attempts to achieve intergroup harmony often fail, and achieving unity can yield insidious side effects.
It is a short article and written in popular language within a conventionally educated context, and it is well-written and worth reading. It has a subtext that was either subtly intended by the author or drawn out by me as a necessary implication: this is not a problem to be solved. There isn’t going to be a stable resting point. Utopia is utopia (Greek for “nowhere”).
This article in the Atlantic from 2013 uses the same title, is a lot longer, and gives a utilitarian argument for moral interaction. Its sub-title: “The Uncertain Biological Basis of Morality.” It doesn’t so much as mention Rodney King (unless I glazed it), thus showing how ubiquitous the cry is.
This one modifies the title to: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along: Because We Shouldn’t. It’s in Entrepreneur magazine and made me chuckle with its business-like pragmatism. But it has practical insights and shows the value of openness in a constrained context where a common goal is shared.
I could turn to texts from the ancient, classical, and medieval world that show the same matter, but at this point it has probably become a truism and my post would become even more tedious. To add them could be construed as a micro-aggression against my readers.
So I’ll summarize. Humans have a hard time getting along at every scale, from the family to the school yard to the Empire.
What are we to do?
Unfortunately, that leads to two conflicting responses:
- Therefore, we need a powerful state to restrict the oppressors
- Therefore, we need to ensure that the state is not empowered to oppress
I draw this rather minimalist conclusion: everything turns on deliberation.
Deliberation, in turn, turns on our willingness and ability to forgive.
Forgiveness, in turn, turns on two things:
- The authority to forgive
- Faith that forgiveness is worth giving.
A Better Way To Think About The Problem?
There are two things we all want:
- A stable order (a safe space, a constitutional republic, a tidy house)
- Adaptability to necessary change (activities that make things more fair, avoidance of an oligarchy, reduction of the oppressor’s power)
These two heart’s desires do not describe a problem needing a solution, as though it were an arithmetic problem, soluble through the right relationships among abstract numbers.
Nor do they describe a stable system requiring knowledge of first principles, definitions, and axioms from which we can draw necessary conclusions.
These are heart’s desires, and that means two things: music and mystery.
I hope to have more to say about that in a subsequent post, but in the meantime, let me say that, if there were a solution to this problem (and there isn’t, since it is not a problem but a mystery) that solution would be this:
We have to bring confession, forgiveness, and love into the public sphere even if we are punished, mocked, and rejected for it. The Christian can bring these blessings for two reasons:
- He believes that God Himself will reward, with greater crowns than the world can forge, the one who forgives
- He has the authority to forgive. He has received forgiveness from God inside the temple, so now he can bring it out into the camp.
I dare say that nobody can bring the forgiveness of God into the world who has not received forgiveness from God.