Today I finished an audiobook whose conclusion massively disappointed me. The author pointed out that the rise of fierce social media hostility has made people feel bad about being out of the mainstream and acted as if that was inherently a bad thing. To be sure, our contemporary mainstream is not a very desirable one, and it is at times very important to be outside of it. Yet at the same time the author’s thinking that being edgy and controversial and strange was itself automatically a good thing is deeply mistaken. There is a strange relationship that often exists between we as individuals and the institutions that we are a part of. On the one hand, those institutions are flawed and corrupt and need to be changed, and so we have a hard time giving them the respect and honor that they demand as authorities, and often feel quite justified in resisting their imperfect authority. On the other hand, we too are flawed, and it is because we are flawed that we most greatly resist to give institutions and authorities their due. It would be easier to be charitable towards them if they made fewer demands on us.
Even so, it was a bit irritating to me to see prudence viewed as a bad thing. We live in a dangerous world, and a world that moreover is hostile to us. If we are ourselves, we will find ourselves being out of the norm, weird, and likely an outcast or a pariah at some point in our lives. We do not have to be that unusual to face this sort of isolation and ridicule and contempt. Maybe we’re a bit loud, or we try a bit too hard, or we like obscure and esoteric subjects. None of this is itself wrong, and yet these are the sorts of things that can drive us from the company of others. If our opinions are a bit out of line, we do well to find a tribe of like-minded people or else things could be very lonely indeed. This brings the tension again into relief. We were created for relationships, but yet those relationships place on us demands that we act not only according to our own desires but according to what is best for other people as well. We want the safety of numbers but find it difficult to be gracious in dealing with others.
It is a bad thing to be reminded of this? I don’t think so. Nor do I think it is necessarily a bad thing that most of the time we should prefer to be around those who are like us. To be sure, there are often benefits to society at large when there is a certain amount of diversity, and a certain willingness to admit talented and ambitious outsiders. Yet this does not mean that there be any great diversity in one’s personal acquaintances. We can work with people who share some essential similarity with ourselves even as our society as a whole is benefited by their being many people. It’s not a bad thing that people would want the comfort of being around others like them, nor that society as a whole benefits by there being a diverse group of populations, many of which likely live and interact within their own circles. Tolerance does not necessarily mean that we appreciate a wide degree of ideological diversity–I don’t and it doesn’t look like most of the people I know or interact with do. It is easiest to get along with people either on a superficial level or those who fundamentally agree with us, and little else is demanded for us to gain the benefits of diversity. It is only when the level of agreement raises beyond that where it becomes a problem.
There are a great many things in this world that trigger ourselves and others. I would consider this a bad thing, because what triggers us is not reality but a perception or a fear. How do we fear less, or fear correctly? It is hard to properly govern our emotions that way, but essential if we are to be just in our dealings with others. For if we judge others by the responses they trigger in us, we cannot fail but be unjust, no matter what our identity or theirs, or what it is that triggers us. After all, we will feel righteous even though we have done unrighteously by judging someone for the sins (or the imagined sins) of others against us. And yet while we think it is a bad thing to live prudentially, or think it is a bad thing to appreciate ideological diversity in our lives, we seldom think it is a bad thing to be triggered and to respond in full force to that. It is strange what we consider good and bad things.