On Psychology

I cannot accept the idea that “the world would be all right if we could just get rid of those people.”  Depending on the position, those people might be conservative, liberal, progressive, socialist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, gay, heterosexual, transgender, male, female, white, black, urban, rural, educated, uneducated, rich, poor, or virtually any “other” identifiable group.

Any version of this outlook is wrong on so many levels.  It assumes “evil has a group, and it’s not mine.”  It sees evil as “something out there” or “something in you“—but never “something in me.”  Hegel referred to this attitude as the “Beautiful Soul Syndrome.”  The Beautiful Soul cannot stand to see his own imperfections and evil tendencies.  So he conveniently projects evil onto other people.  He says “They are the evil people!  They are the problem!  If only they would think like I do, and believe like I do, and live like I do—then evil would be gone and all would be well!”  The Beautiful Soul blames the evil on those people because he cannot own the evil within himself.

“Splitting” the world up into good people and bad people may help us defend ourselves against facing some harsh reality of good and evil within us.  But Peter Rollins points out that, as with any psychological defence, habitually “splitting” the world up into good people and bad people is harmful in the long-term.  Defence mechanisms allow us to go on with life even when we cannot bear accepting something that is real and true.  We oversimplify what’s true in the short-term in exchange for some relative mental calm and stability.  But we gain our peace of mind at the cost of knowing the whole truth.

Left unchecked, we may develop a wayward appetite for untruths from habitually relying on psychological defences.  When we “split” up the world into moral and immoral groups, we tend to form a high view of ourselves and a low view of “others.”  Such a simplistic anthropology is not simply untrue—it’s dangerous.  Splitting, taken to extremes, motivates atrocities.  One’s group is seen as righteous while outsiders are seen as evil.  “Others” can become so demonized that committing evil acts against them may even be justified in the name of the good.  “But the line dividing good and evil,” writes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Only when I can own my reality, can I see your’s more clearly.  If I cannot see myself, then I cannot see you.

 

On Current Events

The debate surrounding free speech and transgender rights has raised some big questions: What is gender?  What is identity?  What is the relationship between an individual’s sex, gender, personality, and culture?  I must admit, I have become incredulous towards anyone who tries to gloss over the layers and complexities of these underlying issues, no matter their position.  Oversimplifying for convenience distorts the issues at stake and does a disservice to us all.  Despite the overconfidence of some intellectual spokespersons, these questions have not been settled.  And for that matter, these questions may never be settled once and for all, given how vast and profound is their human scope.  Regardless, they remain open questions for now, and therefore should remain open to all forms of reasonable inquiry and discourse.

Beyond these underlying issues, there are big questions related to the social, ethical, and legislative issues: What are the specific concerns of transgender Canadians?  And what should be done to advance and address them?  What are the specific concerns of Canadians who advocate free speech?  And what should be done to address them?  So far, I haven’t heard or formed any adequate solutions to these questions either, though they are the more pressing political dilemmas.  More public discussion and interaction is needed.  There has been a dearth of this because we are all nervous to talk about it.  But it is necessary.  The integrity of our democracy depends on it.

I should clarify something important from the outset: on a personal level, I am willing to use a transgender person’s preferred pronouns if respectfully asked.  I will adjust my language to accommodate their request if doing so would make them more comfortable interacting with me.  However, I do not think that I or any other Canadian should be legally compelled to use certain language.  If Jordan Peterson does not want to use gender non-binary language, then he should not be compelled to do so.  I am concerned by the significant precedent and implications of introducing forms of legally compelled speech into Canadian law.  I believe this is a dangerous pathway for any society to travel.  So I support Jordan Peterson’s principled stand for freedom of speech.

I have learned that some of Peterson’s concerns are not properly understood by some of his critics.  He is sometimes inaccurately portrayed as being against all transgender people.  But this isn’t true.  In actuality, his concerns surround gender non-binary identities and language specifically.  Peterson has publicly used the preferred pronouns of binary transgender individuals.  And as far as I know, he has not claimed he will refuse calling a transgender man “he/him” or a transgender woman “she/her.”  Peterson rather argues that he should not be compelled to use the gender non-binary language created by individuals who reject established gender categories and language, especially since the rejection of established norms is often motivated by particular ideological ends that Peterson disagrees with.  “If Canadians who believe that gender exists on a spectrum are free to choose their words and reality,” writes Irene Ogrizek, “Jordan Peterson … has a right to choose his words and reality too, however objectionable that concept of equality might seem.”

Should a non-Christian be legally compelled to recite the Nicene Creed with me as a sign of respect for my Christian identity?  Would a non-Christian be disrespecting me if he or she refused to speak the words if I asked them to?  Most people, including myself, I think would surely say no.  Someone does not need to voice agreement with my views in order to treat me with respect.  You can respect me as a human being and still disagree with some of my choices, opinions, or beliefs.  And reciting the words of the Nicene Creed implies a profound understanding of human life and existence.  I wouldn’t recommend just mouthing them lightly.  Likewise, gender non-binary language is not nearly as trivial as some of its advocates claim (and incidentally, if its language is trivial, then why fuss over it in the first place?).  Gender non-binary language implies a social constructionist theory of gender, which implies a particular understanding of human identity, which implies a particular understanding of human nature, life, and meaning.  To claim gender non-binary language is “just words” is naive, disingenuous, or both.

A fundamental assumption behind human rights is every individual deserves basic respect, safety, and freedom as a human being, despite his or her race, sexuality, religion, gender, or status.  Human rights are not essentially racial identity rights or sexual identity rights or religious identity rights or gender identity rights.  Basic respect, safety, and freedom are afforded to individuals as inalienable rights on the basis of their human identity.  The rationale for its doctrine is simple: “If you are a human being, then you are entitled to basic respect, safety, and freedom.”  It is a person’s basic humanity that warrants unconditional respect.  The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms lists freedom of thought, belief, opinion, expression, religion, and conscience as “fundamental freedoms” afforded to Canadian citizens.  Defending basic human rights should not be used as a Trojan horse to advance any one group’s particular views or agenda—which is precisely what some transgender advocates have done, wittingly or unwittingly, veiling debatable social constructionist theories behind moralizing statements like “human rights are not up for debate.”  Human rights are indeed not up for debate.  But transgender people do not deserve basic human rights because they are transgender.  This is the divisive logic of identity politics.  Transgender people, like all people, deserve basic human rights because they are human beings.

My own present view on the nature of gender may be best described as “interactionist.”  I’m inclined to think that an individual’s gender is the product of the complex interaction of his or her biology, personality, relationships, and culture—an untidy mixture of nature and nurture.  I therefore only find “social constructionist” theories of gender questionable as global, exclusive explanations, which is how some social constructionists construe them. I think these theories have valuable contributions to make to our knowledge insofar as they withstand the free marketplace of ideas in academia.  However, whenever social constructionism or any other theory is defended by uncritically dismissing alternative views, simply because they contradict one’s preferred view, then it has become an ideology.  No theory should be sheltered from questioning, within and across disciplines.  The truth can withstand scrutiny.

 

On Politics

I’d say I’m liberal because, as Marilynne Robinson writes, “I believe society exists to nurture and liberate the human spirit, and that largemindedness and openhandedness are the means by which these things are accomplished.”  I see individual liberty—of conscience, work, and expression, to name a few—as crucial for facilitating this human development.  Depriving individuals of basic liberties hinders their growth.  And yet, I’d say I’m a social liberal because I believe healthy societies freely seek justice and equality for its members.  Indeed, human development cannot be an entirely individualistic affair.  Forming healthy relationships and communities is also crucial for growth.  And I’d say I’m conservative because I believe healthy societies are built around enduring cultural traditions.  Though as a liberal-conservative, I see these as “living traditions” that should evolve as they endure over time.  Cultural traditions, at their best, represent tested wisdom from the past, which can powerfully support and guide human development.

I attempt to hold these positions together because I believe healthy societies and healthy individuals emerge from their practical interaction, even though they may not be easily or neatly integrated theoretically.  I wish to see liberal, socialist, and conservative principles coexist in dialogue in our society.  Ideological partisanship poses a serious threat to this, as well as to the integrity of our common life together.  Partisan perception restricts my vision and blinds me to the merits of other approaches.  On an even more practical level, this means we need each other.  We liberal-, social-, and conservative-minded people need one another if we are to form a healthy society for us all.  We need to intentionally balance our concerns and combine our strengths into a truly multi-principled, multi-cultural society.  We need an eclectic politics.  Democracy, at its best, accomplishes this.  Shifting our collective attitude from working against to working with one another is hard.  And not just talking about politically collaborating but actually doing it is even harder.  Truth is, practicing real democracy is very hard.  But our future depends on it.

 

On Ethics

Disagreeing is not necessarily an act of disrespect.  Neither is disapproving of another person’s choices or requests necessarily unempathetic.  Conflating respect with agreement or empathy with approval obscures each beyond recognition.  You can respect me and also disagree with something I think.  You can empathize with me and also disapprove of something I request.  Respect does not imply unconditional agreement, nor does empathy imply unconditional approval.  Maybe you know something I don’t know or see something I’m not seeing.  The only way we can find out is if we talk and think things through together, with mutual respect and empathy, and with a willingness to even have some conflicts and hold some differences.

Implying respecting someone necessarily involves agreeing with everything he thinks, or that empathizing with someone necessarily involves approving of everything she wants is mistaken.  “Respect” and “empathy” are obscurely used to manipulate others into agreement and approval under the pretence of moral superiority whenever this is done.  We vandalize real respect and empathy when we do this.  Indeed, one of the highest expressions of respect is recognizing and honouring someone’s humanity and dignity, even if you disagree with some of his opinions.  One of the highest expressions of empathy is seeing life from someone’s unique perspective, mentally and emotionally, even if you disapprove of some of her requests.

The integrity of our shared life together—at home, at school, at work, and in society—depends greatly on our ability to disagree in a spirit of respect and empathy.

On Ethics

Want to change the world?  Start by changing yourself.  Want to confront corruption?  Start by confronting corruption within your own soul.  I will not make the world a better place by blaming its problems on everyone but myself.  Pointing out the speck in your eye while ignoring the log in my own will not benefit you or me in the long run.  Be wary of anyone who is focused on changing everyone but themselves.  Behaviour like this can hide manipulative desires to conform the world around oneself.

Perhaps the most extraordinary and daunting thing I can do is face the corruption within my own soul while assuming responsibility for becoming a better human being.  A more honest, truthful, compassionate, loving, tough, courageous human being.  To wake up each day and persevere in the hard journey of developing character.  One of the greatest gifts you can give the world is good character.  For we recreate whatever is within our hearts, for better or for worse.  If your work is inspired by love and peace and compassion, then you will leave a legacy of love and peace and compassion.  If your work is inspired by resentment and angst and hatred, then you will leave a legacy of resentment and angst and hatred.

Blaming others is easy.  Blaming the past is easy.  Blaming the system is easy.  But choosing to change yourself, despite what you’ve been given—that’s hard.

On Psychology

David Burns defines Emotional Reasoning as “tak[ing] your emotions as evidence for the truth.”  Its implicit logic is, “I feel it, therefore it must be true,” according to Burns.  Emotional Reasoning can contribute to many mental health issues.  Depression can worsen by coming to the global conclusion that “everything is hopeless and futile,” based on feelings of despair.  Anxiety can intensify from concluding, “I am unable to handle life’s challenges,” based on feelings of fear.  In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Emotional Reasoning is a type of “cognitive distortion,” which is an irrational habit of thinking that can contribute to patterns of emotional distress and unhealthy living.  There is a growing culture of offence that’s largely guided by Emotional Reasoning.  In extreme segments, its logic is revered as sacrosanct.  Questioning it becomes blasphemous.  Anyone who cares about pursuing truth or mental health—which really go hand in hand—should be concerned by these trends.

Emotional Reasoning says things like “I am mad at you, therefore you are a bad person.”  “I am upset by your question, therefore it must be inappropriate and offensive.”  “I am outraged by your opinion, therefore it must be wrong.”  “I am hurt by your comment, therefore it must be insulting.”  Variations of “I feel it, therefore it must be true” are practically endless.  But the underlying logic remains consistent.  Even though its logic goes like this, people rarely say statements like these out loud.  Typically someone simply justifies a reactionary opinion by revealing she was “offended” or he was “distressed” by whatever is being reacted against.  Emotional reactions are used as legitimate reasons for forming strong opinions and judgements.  Simply feeling offended is used to justify moral indignation and outrage, as if that were enough.  And I dare not question the validity of someone’s feelings.  For in a culture where individual choice, expression, and comfort are granted sacred status, questioning a person’s feelings in any way whatsoever is sacrilege.  Indeed, if the greatest purpose and goal I can pursue is to maximize my pleasure and minimize my pain, then anything that makes me feel discomfort is surely evil.

I am certainly not against emotions.  I am actually a very emotional person.  For better and for worse, I’m prone to being touchy, sensitive, and emotionally intense.  One thing I’ve learned is all emotions need to be welcomed and honoured—even dark and difficult ones.  Emotions make life colourful and vibrant.  And dark, discomforting emotions tend to reveal the areas where I am in need of the most profound inward transformation.  Properly facing and listening to my guilt or shame or fear or anger or hatred can be terrifying.  But that is exactly where the greatest healing and growth lies.  The pathway beyond difficult emotions runs through them.  Ignoring, denying, and suppressing emotion will surely make you sick, in one way or another.  Becoming emotionally healthy, aware, and integrated takes some serious courage and commitment.  And it takes time.  Especially if we have developed dysfunctional habits of suppressing or spewing negative emotions in harmful ways.  But the work is worth the effort.

Emotions are indeed a type of intelligence.  They contain knowledge and information about our lived experience.  But translating the messages emotions send us is not as straightforward as “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”  Especially since we may have learned to join certain emotions with faulty thoughts and beliefs and interpretations about life and others and ourselves.  This means our emotions often aren’t simply emotions.  They can carry whole packages of opinions and even world-views too.  We can easily overlook what beliefs we have associated with our emotions if we don’t listen to them carefully.  The real problem with Emotional Reasoning is precisely that it involves forming judgements based on emotional reactions, which are often already laden with unexamined, unconscious beliefs and views that may not be strong enough to withstand conscious scrutiny.

Feeling offended or distressed or outraged by something sends a definite message.  Feelings are true inasmuch as they exist and try to tell us something.  But feelings become increasingly associated with beliefs and values and goals as we mature through life.  So when I feel offended, it is a signal that I should first ask myself, “What belief or value or goal of mine is causing me to feel offended?”  And then second, “What reasons and evidence do I have for holding the belief or value or goal?”  Maybe I’ll discover some solid reasons and evidence for holding it.  Maybe I won’t.  But I will never adequately justify my emotional responses or my beliefs if I simply say, “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”  Feelings are not unquestionable gauges of truth, nor are they sacrosanct.

On Ethics

Living by only one virtue can ironically devolve into unethical behaviour.  An honest person can become mean, disrespectful, and uncaring.  A respectful person can become afraid of offending others, even slightly, that she denies her needs and desires in chronic deference.  A compassionate person can become focused on alleviating every distressful cry that he instinctively coddles others like infants, thereby undermining their development.  A tough person can become emotionally callous towards the suffering and needs of others.  A courageous person can become reckless and foolish, acting destructively towards herself or others.  Indeed, ethical maturity comes not by embracing and elevating a single virtue to the exclusion of all others.  Ethical maturity comes by developing multiple virtues in such a way that they balance and supplement each other.

Having uni-ethical vision leaves me blind to ethical issues that go beyond my field of virtue.  It is a kind of moral myopia.  It’s ethical tunnel vision.  I see and interpret everything in one way only.  I respond to every problem with the same solution.  Sometimes compassionate people see tough people as cruel, and tough people see compassionate people as weak.  Or sometimes kind people see honest people as insensitive, and honest people see kind people as insincere.  Rightly or wrongly, they judge one another according to their own virtue.  Broadly virtuous people learn to be honest and kind and respectful and compassionate and tough and courageous, among other things, responding to each person and situation with a fuller range of moral sensitivity and skill.  They develop multi-ethical awareness.  Like a musician who can proficiently play in multiple keys and genres, they add whatever is called for in a way that is ethically sensitive, relevant, and harmonious.