One question many people are considering lately is how society's power brokers — in both the private and public sector — have been so successful in avoiding consequences for their often brazenly bad behavior. Two examples come to mind: 1) A president with a "kill list" and 2) Wall Street barons responsible for a catastrophic financial meltdown, walking away unpunished more than five years after they brought the country to its knees. How can such things happen?
I'd suggest that whatever your initial response is to this question, it should include the following: We need more conversations that allow us to understand opposing perspectives on complicated subjects — perspectives which cause us emotional angst, and which we initially might not want to have. When people avoid such necessary-but-difficult conversations they often end up barricading themselves in ideological foxholes. This allows the powers that be to use the ensuing polarization to push through their agenda much more easily. "Right and wrong" — so fervently argued on cable news shows — never makes it past the opinion stage because ideological absolutism ensures that the unified effort needed to genuinely explore complicated issues disappears in highly emotive smoke "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
As the recent 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington D.C. reminds us, the kind of unity that ultimately succeeds against entrenched power brokers is unity in diversity — a much different animal than ideological unity. It's important to remember that civil rights-era victories came when blacks constituted 12 percent of the population (same as today). To turn that number into victory, Dr. King recognized that he had to go much deeper than any ideology could take him: he had to make a universal appeal to the ethical nature of all people. It didn't matter that he organized his actions through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or that he was a Baptist; that is not what we remember. We remember people rising up together against a universal injustice initially inspired by the ethical actions of thousands of black people willing to put their lives on the line to fight against injustice.
The majority of ideological battles raging today are based on opinions and on cultivating fear. Increasingly, however, people recognize that the road to success travels through the universal heart of ethical action. The parents of murdered children from Newtown are not being remembered for successfully convincing Congress to register gun owners, but for their bravery in talking with politicians in the midst of grieving their loss. This is an enduring image that ultimately serves as a foundation stone to something greater because it enables people to recognize injustice in a nondogmatic way. The "Dream 9" students protesting against deportation risked having their lives turned upside down by their Arizona protest, but captured the attention of the nation because the ethical nature of their actions was inescapable.
Whenever systems change, three things foreshadow that change: 1) Polarization between the powers that be and those outside that power increases. This puts a premium on people who have the necessary willingness to stand outside the opinion poles, uncertain but solid, confident not that they have a solution but that one can be reached. 2) People are confronted with their own passivity, and many decide to do something about it, moving past cynicism and toward actions guided by increasing awareness. 3) While immediate successes in getting laws changed don't occur, ethical successes (as per the above examples) serve to sustain momentum and demonstrate to people the importance of persevering. That requires moving from calcified opinions shared within an ideological bubble to living more comfortably with doubt — and moving towards others in ways that don't always require them to think the same way as you do.
Greg Jemsek, Narrative Therapist, is author of the book Quiet Horizon (www.quiethorizon.com). Greg will join with colleague Marla Estes, M.A., to teach a class entitled "Split Screen: Using Film To Move From Dogma to Doubt" beginning in October. Details and registration at 541- 482-4948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Send 600 to 700-word articles on all aspects and experiences of inner peace including courage, forgiveness, tolerance, faith, kindness, gratitude and more. Send articles to Sally McKirgan, email@example.com.