Friday, December 4, 2009

Making ourselves the measure of all things

We keep our house at 68 degrees in the winter. Our son keeps his at 67, so I always feel a little chilly when I am there. Our daughter keeps her house at 69, so of course her house feels uncomfortably warm to me. Sixty-eight degrees is the perfect compromise between comfort and energy efficiency. Why can’t everyone see this as clearly as I do?

For many years I have poured 1% milk on my cereal in the morning, so now skim milk tastes like white water while 2% milk feels like something that needs to be chewed. Why doesn’t everyone buy 1% milk? I always drive at precisely the right speed, grumbling at all the fools around me who are driving either too fast or too slow. People who spend more money than I do are self-indulgent spendthrifts, and those who spend less than I do are stingy tightwads. On it goes. We develop our own particular patterns and habits and come to regard them as normal and right, not just for ourselves but for the world in general. We make ourselves the measure of all things.

Mostly this is a harmless conceit that makes for stimulating debate with friends who also believe their particular patterns and habits are normal and right (they are wrong about this, of course). To my knowledge a war has never been caused by disagreement over the ideal fat content of milk.

But this harmless conceit becomes pathological and dangerous when extended to the arenas of religion, race, sexual orientation, and politics. When we label someone else’s religion as “false,” their race as “inferior” or their sexual orientation as “sinful” we have denigrated their personhood and created fertile ground for hatred, violence and oppression. It is dangerously easy to fall into these patterns, sometimes in ways so subtle that we are barely aware that we are doing so.

Politics used to be an arena where we could disagree with one another with mutual respect and affection, but the growing polarization of our society has hardened the edges in disturbing ways. Views have become more extreme, and we are far more prone to demonize those with whom we disagree. For examples we need look no further than the extreme right’s view of Barack Obama or (let’s be honest) my own view of Sarah Palin. Yes, I am guilty of the attitudes I condemn. Civility, which includes the ability to “agree to disagree,” is essential to a healthy society, and we have allowed civility to erode so badly that it will be very difficult to recover.

It is human tendency to make ourselves the measure of all things and to have too high a regard for our own opinions, whether we are discussing milk or politics. We need the wisdom to know when our convictions represent a harmless conceit and when they represent a destructive prejudice.


Anonymous said...

It is truly admirable to drive precisely at the right speed. I remember traveling in Utah with a member of the clergy driving, and a Utah state trooper felt that the right speed was not precisely established.

Richard L. Floyd said...

Good thoughts, John. I, too, have become a fussy old man about my driving, my milk fat content, and other adiaphora. Let us confess our sin of making ourselves the measure of all things. (I will do this as long as I can still hate the Yankees!)

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