Even Post-Election Philosophy is Not a Luxury

December 27, 2016

It is the nature of elections that the results always leave some of us deeply disappointment. The most recent US election and the campaign that led up to it has left many feeling frustrated, angry and scared. I want to share some of my thoughts at this moment of national self-reflection.

For the past decade I’ve maintained a blog called Philosophy Is Not a Luxury because I believe that in challenging times philosophy is the first thing we need. In the face of challenging circumstances we are tempted to think that philosophy is a luxury item that we don’t have time for. Instead we feel that it is time to jump into action to address perceived threats.

The truth is that challenges can only be successfully met with a level of thinking that is deeper than what we have been doing so far. If our current thinking didn’t avert the crisis then why would more of it bring resolution?

In challenging times philosophy is not only necessary, it’s unavoidable. Listen and you’ll hear it everywhere right now. Just about everyone, regardless of where they stand on the results, is trying to figure out what those results mean. Everyone is engaged in a philosophical inquiry.

Philosophy is not a stuffy academic subject taught in universities. Philosophy is the process through which we create stories to help us understand the meaning of events and circumstances. The stories we tell about this election will shape the unfolding of the future. Right now stories are developing or being adopted about what this election means. In a very tangible sense these stories are the world we live in.

There are lots of stories we can tell. There are stories about how divided this country is. There are stories about the righteousness of the result and there are stories about the horror of it. Some of the stories tell us about a working class that has been abandoned by the system and regained its voice, others tell us about the unfair burden that universal healthcare places on small businesses. Then there are stories about the ills of racism, xenophobia, and the continued oppression of women.

The facts will always fit many different conclusions depending on how we think about them. Philosophy is the effort we make to think clearly about things and about the way we  are thinking about them.

The rhetoric of this campaign was often negative and even hateful. Both candidates were at times depicted as evil and dangerous. Given the tone of the campaign it was inevitable that the election would result in strong emotional reactions on both sides.

Now the post-election work has to take place and with it comes the opportunity to think deeply about how we’ve been thinking. We all have the opportunity to use the tools of philosophy to create stories about this election that open up the most positive potentials of the future. I would like to offer two philosophical perspectives that are guiding my thinking as I process the events of the past week.

The first one is vicious intellectualism a term coined by the great American philosopher William James. Vicious intellectualism occurs when we unconsciously assume that our assertions of truth negate all other possibilities. You could more simply describe it as the tendency to assume that we’re right and everyone else is wrong.

To whatever extent our thinking is filtered through the lens of vicious intellectualism it ultimately leads to division and polarization. Most people are tired of polarization but most of us also consciously or unconsciously assume that the solution is getting everyone to agree with us.

The pain that we see right now will not be resolved by dualistic, right/wrong thinking. Compromise won’t be enough either. A new level of understanding needs to be developed, which means creating more inclusive and encompassing stories to help us understand life.

I was one of those caught off guard by the current election results. I’ve asked myself what I was missing. How could I have been so wrong in my understanding about what the will of the people would be? One of the conclusions I’ve come to is that there is a large number of people who feel abandoned, alienated and ignored by the political system and I haven’t seen, or haven’t paid enough attention, to their concerns.

I feel called to greater empathy, compassion and understanding. That doesn’t mean giving up my convictions. It means expanding my sensitivity to include more of the complexity at play because in the end political systems don’t work if they don’t work for everyone.

The second philosophical perspective that is guiding me right now comes from the American thinker and supreme court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. During the American civil war Holmes was suffering from multiple gunshot wounds and was presumed to be dying in a military hospital bed. He received final religious rites and his caretakers were keeping him as comfortable as possible as he passed.

Holmes decided this was the perfect time to test his ideals and convictions. So he contemplated each of the convictions he held most dear and asked himself if they still held true at this moment of impending death. He concluded that his ideas had withstood this final analysis.

Miraculously he survived his wounds and went on to become one of the most important figures in the development of American law. During a long and celebrated career he never failed to bring the power of his convictions to his work.

If we feel challenged by the results of this election perhaps it is an opportunity to take a moment to step back and consider our own deepest convictions. If we look at them honestly we can discover which remain strong and which might be worth reconsidering.

By reconsidering our ideals and recommitting to those that continue to feel valid we can emerge from these challenging times with bigger hearts and more open minds. In this way we will be that more capable to manifest the change we want to see in the world.

So yes! Hold on to your convictions and ideals and fight for them wherever they are infringed upon. And at the same time listen more deeply than ever before to convictions and ideals that are different from yours – not only to find common ground, but to enter into higher synthesis. We don’t just want to meet in the middle. We want to struggle our way to a new plateau…together.

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