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Friday, February 3, 2017

Opposing Forces: Battling the ‘Other’

“I don’t like ‘us vs. them’ talk,” she wrote. Nor do I. Yet there are times when the world seems to array itself into opposing sides.

Does it have to be that way? Couldn’t we all just get along? Be respectful, listen to one another, consider the possibility that we, our side, might be mistaken – or at least that there’s more to think about?

I’m not willing to give up on facts, i.e., that they exist and need to be faced. Does that alone put me on one side of the current political battle?

One undeniable fact seems to be that many human beings (though not all) thrive on battle. Whether the fight is physical, intellectual, emotional or commercial, warriors would be bored without it. They push away the sweet, smooth custard of civility and demand raw bones, with plenty of gristle – your bones, if you’re available for enemy status, that is, if you question their authority or rank or opinion or course of action. Because someone has to be the enemy. A warrior will happily risk breaking his own teeth for the pleasure of a chance to sharpen them on your bones.

When a warrior declares you to be the Other and refuses to acknowledge or admit commonality, and when the stakes of the disagreement are high, what can one do but join in battle?

I’d rather not. Despite a background in academic philosophy, adversarial as it is (arguments, objections, refutations, etc.), I am happier not having to fight for a place to stand. Living is hard enough without that! There are plenty of struggles inherent in daily life: age, cold, ice, gravity, survival!

Even if one looks at contest in terms of excitement and stimulation, something one desires rather than desires to avoid, battling the Other is not the only possible way for human beings to challenge themselves. Other ways to look at self-challenges might include:

Self-improvement: This can mean anything from education to overcoming a weakness or moral flaw to building body mass. Possibilities are endless, and challenges can be as difficult as you want to make them.

Wilderness challenge: Into this category would fall projects like hiking the entire Appalachian Trail or climbing a mountain or surviving alone in the desert for a predetermined length of time. Again, endless possibilities.

Personal best: In whatever a person already excels, there is usually a chance to improve, and when age rules out marathon running, substitute endeavors can be found.

In short, we can challenge ourselves rather than an Other. ‘Challenge’ does not have to mean getting in the ring and punching another person. Pursuit of an elusive ideal can be a lifelong challenge.

Why, though, might this not inspire a pugnacious warrior?

Well, some of the challenges I’ve suggested are invisible, and meeting them brings no medals, no ribbons, no applause. Often no one else will care at all, even if the struggle is visible in principle. (Climbing a mountain is not an invisible inner struggle, but the mountain is indifferent to the climber's success. The mountain does not applaud the climber.) If someone is after purely extrinsic rewards, recognition will always be essential to satisfaction.

Moreover, even where there is a cheering audience – say, for the successful marathon runner -- certain kinds of personalities will only be satisfied when able to dominate other human beings. In “the thrill of victory,” for many, half that thrill is reducing the Other to “the agony of defeat.”

And so, reluctantly, against my burrowing, bookish, retiring badger nature, I find myself this already difficult winter season enjoined in a battle I never chose. I am part of the Other, because almost every public good I hold dear is under fire – environmental protection, public education, equality, workers’ rights and protections, freedom of speech and assembly, legal precedent. The very idea of a common good is held in disdain.
And I am not going to “get over it,” not going to shut up and retreat and listen and watch quietly from a corner while the values I love and dismantled and the country I love rebuilt to an ugly blueprint I never thought I’d see here. 

If I did not stand up against what’s going on now, how could I claim to be for anything at all?

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