I was talking to a former student of mine last week and she was bemoaning the state of the world in general but, more particularly, how difficult it is to change the way people think and act regarding things that have more impact on their lives than most would credit. Politics is the obvious example but that is the subject of more than a few blogs to come. For now, I prefer to deal with the issue in more general terms.
This issue matters to me because, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, friends have often accused me of cynicism, a charge I refute at every opportunity. The cynic, as defined by Dictionary.com is “a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.” The nature of the definition itself serves to illustrate what annoys me about being called one. This “person”, in order to strictly conform to the definition, would need to spend all of his/her time assessing ALL human action in such a way. In truth, while I know it isn’t intended to suggest such a thing, it can’t help being valuable as an illustration of what simplistic labeling tends to promote.
Who among us has not been cynical about something? In fact, if regarded as a simple feature of human behavior – a common one, in fact – is it so difficult to believe that self-interest is an element in the things we do? What frustrates me on a regular basis is how readily people are dismissed (even condemned), especially public figures, if so much of a hint of self-interest is evident in anything they do. In this absolutist view of charitable work, for example, one is either the next best thing to Mother Teresa or a grasping con artist seeking to sway public opinion in one’s favour even while busy pursuing personal gain.
As an idealist, I prefer to take the long view. Finding examples of bad behavior becomes easier as more and more of our lives becomes public. Facebook and other social media invite certain of us, it seems, to put on display – potentially for all the world to see – concrete examples of pettiness, prejudice, misogyny, and all varieties of extremes that most of us would choose to hide even if we were subject to them. That being said, surely we do not accept the idea that any person’s totality can be captured by one facet revealed through an intemperate remark or thoughtless action? I suspect all of us have had thoughts of which we would prefer no one ever become aware.
And yet, for all of the world’s flaws, we still manage to make occasional progress here and there, usually as a collective first, and then as individuals. Attitudes toward slavery provide an obvious example. I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone who would defend the concept today even as I acknowledge that prejudice is alive and well in the world. The reality of the latter does not support the notion that things haven’t changed. To my mind, the most remarkable shift of the last twenty odd years remains attitudes toward sexual orientation. To be openly gay twenty years ago was to invite all kinds of trouble. In Canada today, as a societal principle, it hardly causes a ripple.
All of which is to say, this idealist continues to believe that goodness is real and, in fact, evident in the world. And so, too, is evil. Somewhere in the mixing of the two arises the dynamic of day-to-day experience – in each of us and in society at large. We do not live, either in our own lives or in that larger world, in black or white. Everywhere you look, expect to find grey.