Called Into Darkness

Liberal Entitlement, part 2

You are called, dear reader. You, and everyone you know, have been called to live into this period of darkness, of danger, for our people, our society, our planet. Whether any of us will live through this period of darkness, I cannot say, but we have been called to be here now, to live into this time. It is for us to make what light we can against this darkness. This calling comes late in some of our lives, early in others, and in the middle of others. Wherever you are in the arc of your life, you are at this point now, facing this challenge.

On the plus side, you have resources. You are probably pretty smart, judging from what I know of the readership of this blog. And probably resilient. When you have to be, you can be very determined. And now you have to be.

None of us asked for this assignment – nor have we the option of refusing it. We’ve been training for it all our short, medium, or long lives.

Also on the plus side, you are not alone. Unitarian Universalists and others of good will are ready to stand with you. Are we enough? We are always enough to shine the light that we can shine.

Whether or not you think you’re ready, you’re ready. You stand now upon this stage, called to play the part that only you can play. The darkness has been with us for some time. That we haven’t known it constitutes our predicament.

One member of my congregation emailed me on the morning of Wed Nov 9 to say she
“woke sad and stunned by the election results. Why don't so many in our country think and feel like we do?”
Another added that he and his spouse
“went to sleep last night feeling worried and baffled, and woke up this morning in much the same state....We wondered whether our sense of liberal entitlement blinded us to who is really in need and hurting in this country. [Have we been] quick to dismiss concerns of people who don't think like we do (or who we don't think think like we do)? Is there a danger that in our insistence on inclusiveness we get blinded to those we don't realize we are excluding? And of course, we wonder where we go from here? How do we pick up the pieces and feel positive about the work we are all trying to see done? How do we pick ourselves up spiritually and reconcile what happened in the election -- not only in the results but the way we were all swept into the fervor and divisiveness?”
Those are questions a lot of us have.

Before I try to address any of that, I need to remind – well, myself – of something I’ve said before: Don’t believe what you think. Whatever story we have about what’s going on in the social and political world is just a story. You can take it provisionally and use it and temporarily let it guide you, but don’t believe it. No story can ever be complete. With that caveat, I offer you this story, in the hope that it offers a little bit of sense to what seems to make no sense.

From cognitive scientist George Lakoff, who I first read some 15 years ago, I learned that there’s an authoritarian paradigm and a nurturant paradigm.

The Authoritarian Paradigm

The authoritarian paradigm puts the emphasis on fighting evil. It sees life as difficult and the world as fundamentally dangerous. Survival requires strength and discipline to confront dangers and evils from competitors and within the human soul. It requires a clear and strict sense of right and wrong with a minimum acknowledgment of moral gray areas. Evil must be attacked and destroyed. Respect for authority is crucial in the fight against evil. Obedience to authority is part of maintaining the strict sense of right and wrong we need to navigate life’s difficulties, resist evil, and maintain the social and natural order. Systems of reward and punishment -- rewarding the self-disciplined, responsible pursuit of self-interest and punishing for those who undermine authority or lack self-discipline – are crucial to maintain authority and order. People come in two kinds: the mature, self-disciplined, self-reliant ones who should not be meddled with, and the whining, undisciplined, dependent ones who should never be coddled.

The Nurturant Paradigm

The nurturant paradigm puts the emphasis on nurturing good. It sees life as centered on loving interactions, caring and being cared for, deriving meaning from connection and care. A fulfilling life is a nurturant life, a life of empathy, of imaginative capacity to put ourselves in others shoes to more effectively caringly respond to their needs. Life is for self-development, realizing our unique potential, understanding our own self-development as intertwined with the development of others. The value of self-discipline and self-reliance lies in helping us contribute more to society, in realizing and developing self, and in finding joy – not merely as defenses against evil. And that self-discipline is fostered better through relationships of care and respect than through systems of reward and punishment. There is a legitimate role for authority, but authority arises less from a hierarchy for enforcing black-and-white morality with reward and punishment, and more from developed skill as a nurturer. The paradigm of authority is a kindly teacher, aimed at others’ development, rather than military dictator aimed at vanquishing threats. Legitimate authority emerges from relationships of accountability, for this facilitates dialog and individual critical thinking – as opposed to the authoritarian paradigm, in which authority comes from being strong and righteous, and accountability to morally weaker carping characters is unproductive and wearisome.

How the Paradigms Underlie Political and Child-Rearing Philosophies

Most of us have both paradigms, and we tend to go back and forth between them. Almost all of us can be authoritarian when decisive leadership is called for, and almost all of us have an ability to facilitate the growth and learning of others. It's a question of relative dominance. If the nurturant paradigm is relatively more dominant in your thinking, you'll tend to support political issues identified as "liberal." If the authoritarian paradigm is relatively more dominant, you'll tend to support political issues identified as "conservative."

Our attitudes about child-rearing parallel our political attitudes. The assumptions about how parents parent generally match our assumptions about how governments govern. Thus, researchers have found that the best way to tease out an authoritarian paradigm is by asking questions about child-rearing. Matthew MacWilliams has isolated just four questions that powerfully predict an authoritarian or nurturant outlook on child-rearing and on politics.

Is it more important for a child to be:
  • respectful or independent?
  • obedient or self-reliant?
  • well-behaved or considerate?
  • well-mannered or curious?
The former in each pair indicates an authoritarian orientation. Generally, we’d like our children to exemplify both qualities of each pair. The authoritarian paradigm sees independence and self-reliance as flowing from respect and obedience, so learning to be respectful and obedient is the priority. The nurturant paradigm sees being well-behaved as flowing from being considerate, so learning to be considerate is the priority.

For the last year, I’ve been somewhat obsessively reading lots of articles in newspapers, magazines, and online analyzing this campaign. Most of them weren’t very memorable, but one of the ones that stuck with me came out last January by Matthew MacWilliams.

What MacWilliams’ research was finding, he reported, was that these four questions predicted Trump support better than any other factor – better than age, gender, education, or income class. Trump himself isn’t respectful, obedient, well-behaved, or well-mannered, but he certainly wants to be shown orderly respect and obedience, so supporters saw in him a strong man who would enforce the needed qualities on an unruly populace. The felt need for an authoritarian approach – encouraged by every action movie and a lot of the news narratives – occurs in women as well as men, which perhaps helps us understand how 42 percent of women could have voted for Trump.

There are a lot of lenses available for looking at what happened on Tue Nov 8. This one might be worth keeping in mind: The authoritarian need has been on the rise, encouraged by frustrations and a changing world. Trump appealed to the authoritarian need.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Liberal Entitlement"
See also:
Part 1: Election Prayer
Part 3: The Problem with Anti-Politics
Part 4: Join the Rebel Alliance

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