“Stupidity is oblivious to negative consequences; it falls into a pit. Gross stupidity invites negative consequences; it looks for a pit. There’s an element of willfulness to it: let the oceans rise, let the virus rage, you can’t scare me.” (Garret Keizer)
This quote is from an essay in last month’s issue of Harper’s. I read it the other day and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It’s a philosophical, even religious, reflection on stupidity. It cites Aristotle and Bonhoeffer. It tells the story of Andre Trocme, the Protestant parson who led his French village to harbor Jews from the Nazis (Trocme came to see that stupidity was a third force “seeking hegemony over this world,” in addition to good and evil). It’s a great read and I recommend it.
What I can’t stop thinking about is how reflexes for empathy and understanding can be in the service of stupidity. Ever since 2016, I have tried really hard to listen to points of view I don’t agree with and to understand the values that underlie them, but over and over again those efforts have been rewarded with increasing doses of unreality from some of the people I’m trying to understand. People aghast at the election of Trump were told to read “Hillbilly Elegy” so that they could better understand rural America. It skyrocketed in popularity and became a Netflix movie, and now its venture capitalist author is running for Senate and blaming America’s woes on “the childless left.”
“Only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity,” wrote Bonhoeffer. The people I used to try to persuade and then understand actually need liberated. So do I. We all need liberated from the powers of our time marching us into pits for their own ends.
Stupidity isn’t harmless, and opposing it isn’t elitist. Liberating our neighbors from stupidity is an act of kindness.
The news about Facebook is bad right now. The company permits bad behavior by prominent accounts, facilitates illegal activity, and helps teen girls feel awful about themselves. Also, it’s jiggering the News Feed algorithm so that users see positive stories about Facebook (whatever) and so that your racist uncle’s posts keep showing up at the top, as long as you keep arguing in the comments.
Still, we’re all on Facebook every day. Just a few minutes ago I posted a picture to Instagram (owned by Facebook) that will automatically share to my Facebook profile. I will most definitely go look for notifications related to that picture later today. While there I will scroll through the News Feed.
Here’s what I’ve done with the News Feed, though: unfollowed you. And you. And you. I have unfollowed every one of my Facebook friends except my wife and every group or page except my church. If I’m seeing you in my Facebook feed, it’s because you’re married to me or you employ me.
This is no judgment of your posts and links and photos. It’s a judgment of the News Feed. Knowing that it’s driven by an algorithm to show me things the site thinks will drive my continued engagement makes me want no part of it. I still look for you, though. We’re still friends, so I can still see your page, and sometimes I go look at it to see what you’re up to. I just don’t trust the algorithm to serve it to me beneath my high school classmate’s anti-vaccination rant.
I want social media to work for me, not the other way around.
An echo is cool, but it’s not that useful. Shouts across a canyon that only want to hear themselves repeated at a distance, and softer, don’t tend toward the meaningful. “Hello!” “Hey!” “Woo hoo!”
I should probably stop “echoing” people in group conversation. If we’ve heard it from someone else already, my echo only contributes a fainter and less clear version. Worse, it probably pulls attention away from the impact someone else intended and toward whatever “echo” effect I’m going for.
If you already said it, I will endorse it or modify it or disagree with it outright. I’ll try to do more than simply echo it.
“Vigorous organisms talk not about their processes but about their aims.” G.K. Chesterton
A conflict resolution process aims to resolve specific instances of disagreement between parties. Its aim is resolution. Its aim is resolution. Its aim is resolution. When the process becomes the aim there can be no resolution–only more process.
Processes must serve aims. We’d better be clear on the latter, because the former have been badly disrupted, and if all we’re after is a restoration of processes we’re in trouble. Youth groups, worship services, mission projects, anti-racism trainings: these are processes that serve the aims of growth in faith, glorifying God, loving neighbors, and maturation into Christ-likeness, respectively (actually not respectively; all those processes serve all those aims).
Confusing processes for aims makes panic inevitable when a process is forced to change. But we’re free to choose new processes to accomplish our aims. That’s how we got these processes to begin with.
Can you tell me what about it speaks to you?
Andrew Sullivan’s blog was so extraordinary to me in the early 2000’s not because he linked to so much stuff but because for every link he highlighted a quote and a thought or two of his own. He didn’t just share links. He told you why the links mattered.
I promise that if I email you a link to a story or an essay, or if I post one here, I’ll tell you why. I will excerpt the sentences that feel important to me, so that it’s not just some link but a link you got from me. Because you know me.
Links are for more than just sharing.
Talking with high schoolers about the manna story in Exodus, I asked, “Have you ever received help right on time and out of the blue?” Immediately, two hands went up. The first student told a story about trying to pay for cookies with cash at a place that only took cards; a stranger used their card and took the students’ cash. The second hand told the same story, but at a different place, and with a stranger who outright paid for the food.
I know, there’s a lot of privileged real estate between freed slaves on the run in the desert and American teenagers trying to buy junk food with $20 bills. But why blame the teenagers for that? They are where they are. Also, privilege is relative; getting turned away by an adult when you’re trying to buy food for yourself as a minor is an acute experience of economic and social distress. Materially well-off though they may be, God knows American teenagers don’t have a lot of power or agency over the adult environments they inhabit.
Your next interaction with a teenager may be, for you as well as for them, manna from heaven.
If you are trying to do meaningful work, you will find that there is always an urgent task needing completed. A grant application needs submitting, a proposal needs writing, a meeting needs scheduling. Even otherwise leisurely pursuits, like reading, become critical.
This is what people call “the tyranny of the urgent.”
The problem with the tyranny of the urgent, of course, is that it shrinks our view of what we’re doing only to what is directly in front of us, which both diminishes our impact and burns us out. What’s more, you’re probably facing multiple urgencies at once: work, school, family, the citizenry. And there isn’t an easy fix; the things in the window really are urgent.
Context helps, though, chronologically and situationally. The context questions are: how is this urgent thing related to the things that came before it and that will follow it? And how is it related to the urgent things in adjacent areas of my life? The answer might prompt us to take a deep breath and focus instead on one of those adjacent urgencies for a minute. It might prompt us to drop one of them.
Busy-ness is not totally a choice, but we can make choices within it.
“The night is dark and full of terrors.”
There is plenty to fear in the day as in the night. For people trying to do meaningful work, to combat the evils of the world and score points for kindness and compassion, the limitations of our understanding and the complexities of our motivations are persistent fears that can keep us from making an impact.
We are wise to think critically before we act, especially before we act on behalf of others. The “iron rule” of community organizing–never do for others what they can do for themselves–is a concrete standard we can apply to whatever help we are considering, but it need not prevent us from doing good. Fear of causing harm when we seek to help is instructive, but not if it freezes us.
We are not as good as we hope. But neither are we as bad as we fear.
“Being unequivocal is easier.”
This fall feels very different from last fall, which was unlike any fall any of us had ever experienced. The constraints and collateral damage of last year’s conditions were terrible, yet one thing I now appreciate about them was that they were clear and non-negotiable. We simply could not gather in person. We had to up our remote game, and we did.
Things aren’t so unequivocal now. Now we’re making choices from among options, and that feels a lot more fraught. Choices have to be carefully considered, then clearly explained, and then defended with conviction–until circumstances change and new choices are called for. It’s exhausting.
But I wonder what living and leading like this is teaching us about what we’re really capable of. I hope we’re learning that we can trust ourselves and the people we work and worship with to make good decisions. I hope so. If we don’t trust our own decision making we’re stuck.
There is a huge difference between “we” and “they” when it comes to collaborating and leading. If I get to be part of the staff or the committee or the team, I must identify with the work it produces. That means all the work, not only the outcomes I agree with and advocate for.
If an action is under consideration that I oppose, it’s on me to state my opposition and use whatever influence I have to amend it. In the end I have to identify with the action, even though it doesn’t go my way. When I’m asked “Who did this?” I can only answer “We did.”
“They did” is not an option for integral leadership.