The Step Ladder of a Free and Open Society
Why do people care so much—to the point of hatred, even violence—what other people do? Even when it has little direct bearing on their lives? Why do people hate gay people, transgender people, people of color, and people who get abortions? It makes no logical sense: exerting so much energy hating someone whose actions barely impinge on yours.
That fact that I am gay is completely independent of whatever moral or religious perspective you choose. Although I have no personal experience or insight into what motivates a person to be transgender, I can understand that it’s a momentous decision; and so I must respect any fellow human being who makes that change with care and deliberation. There is no more objective reason to disdain a person with dark skin than there is to favor a person with fair hair, beyond millennia of human history that bolster both of those prejudices. And whether I decide to bring a child into this world (if, alas, I could) has nothing whatsoever to do with your moral perspective. By all means, live by the moral code of your choice. But why put it on me?
I am, of course, being flip here. We all know why people care so much about what other people do. Fear. We are all so fricking insecure that we need others to be like us, to think like us, to act like us.
I can imagine how this fear might be internally generated, perhaps as consequence of bad experiences. But for most of us, most of the time, this fear is externally applied by a culture awash in advertising; alternative facts; dubious economics; and tried-and-true political ploys. For over two thousand years, Julius Caesar’s dictum—divide and conquer—has proven to be infallible advice.
Sometimes, we can trace our hate of the ‘other’ as an actual hindrance in our lives. I don’t like vaccine-deniers, smokers, and morbidly obese adults who pump up my health insurance premiums by their slack behavior. Yet I hold my tongue because I realize their impact on me is at best, a second order effect (just like the pablum that immigrants will steal your job or gays will convert your children). More importantly, I have to acknowledge that my monkish behavior is not a viable universal model. We need to grant each other some grace, even celebrate the fact that we are quirky in our own ways.
When we stop considering others as evils to be controlled, or even annihilated, we can begin to ascend what I call the step ladder to a free and open society. The dominant feature of any autocratic society is that it establishes hierarchies that pit people against each other. That is how the rulers stay on top. Meanwhile, the dominant feature of any open society is that it acknowledges all as equal participants. To be sure, there has never been a society on earth that truly meets this definition of a free and open society. Some, like the United States, aspire to that ideal in theory while falling far short in fact. Others, like Iran, make no such pretense.
So where are we, the United States of America, on this step ladder of openness today? I give us a middle rung spot. We tolerate differences: just barely. And we’re quick to use them as political and economic lightning rods. And there’s ample evidence (see Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) that our position on the tolerance rung is shaky.
Yesterday, the US endured the mid-term election. It appears, the houses of Congress will be split. To me, this signifies two more years of rancorous non-doing. Perhaps we will hold on to some modicum of tolerance. Yet we are far from moving up to a rung of accepting others however they wish to live. Because let’s face it, the ladder of treating all humans with mutual respect is a precarious one. The higher up one climbs towards embracing all, the more difficult it is to keep it steady.