I have been in Physician Assistant school for a few months now, and so far have not failed out or caused a catastrophic loss of rapport with the academic establishment. That second point is actually a bit surprising considering that I experienced a mild case of culture shock when I overheard a classmate calling himself a “liberal.”
Yes, that’s right. He called himself a liberal, voluntarily; even casually, with not the least bit of pretention or defensiveness. It was as if he considered “liberal” a good thing to be and took it for granted that everyone else felt that way as well.
It was the casualness of the statement and the matter-of-course agreement of everyone around me that made me pause and think, “Whoah! I am not in Kansas anymore, Toto!” Having spent my entire life up to my ears in the conservative milieu, it was a bit of a surprise to hear liberalism so taken for granted. Even those committed liberals who talk about their liberalism in such circles usually do so with the chip-on-the-shoulder, defensive attitude common to all out-numbered and beleaguered minorities. In this new circle the situation was reversed and it was the self-described liberals talking about conservatives with mild, condescending pity, just like I had always heard conservatives talk about liberals.
It was rather like being in Thailand and inviting a Thai colleague to join us for pizza, only to watch his face glaze over with a look of polite disinterest, and to realize that he thought of pizza the way we think about steamed rice and sum tam. Of course we know on some level that it might be “soul food” to people who grew up on it, but deep down we kind of assume that it was probably because they never knew anything better. Wonder of wonders, they think the same about us.
I didn’t take it personally of course. If I had to describe myself politically I would probably call myself a socially liberal-minded moral conservative of the disenfranchised and slightly cynical variety. These days it seems to me that a lot of young Catholics I grew up with, particularly those who have mixed with the world but not lost their faith, are going the same route, with varying degrees of cynicism.
Anyway, that experience of culture shock is a valuable one because it shows me an unconscious assumption which I would actively have denied on a conscious level. (Again, this is not a surprise to me. I am nothing like “fully smoothed out and blue” yet).
Show me an “ism,” any “ism” you name, and I guarantee there is a crowd of people who oppose that ism fully, vocally, passionately with every fiber of their being. The irony of our current political situation is in large part that we tend to define ourselves at least as much in terms of what we oppose as what we stand for.
Resting on what we oppose rather than on what we support leads to “at least” syndrome, the habit of saying, “Well at least I’m not…” So much of the public discourse over the course of the last few elections has been conducted on the level of “Oh, yeah? Well, at least my head doesn’t look like a butt.”
When we say that it gives us permission to ignore our own shortcomings, or at least to give them a pass as something we are “working on.” It also gives rise to the humanist lie, which is that we can save the world. If the other side is just the worst, and their ideas are all wrong, then how could they hold those ideas without being stupid, ignorant or evil? And if they are stupid, ignorant or evil, then it seems likely that all our problems are their fault. And if all our problems are their fault, then if we outsmart/beat/get-rid-of them we will solve al our problems.
This is the humanist lie, that there is a human solution to human problems. It is endemic in our binary, polarized discussions of nearly everything. It doesn’t matter which side of the debate we sit on, we must always be conscious of this tendency towards thinking that there is a final solution to human problems. There is not. There never has been. Throughout the long history of human suffering, no government or other organization has ever been successful in eliminating it. The best we have ever been able to do is to relieve some of it. Most of the time we are doing well if we do not increase it.
If we realize this we can be freed from the urgency of feeling like we must solve problems, and be more comfortable with the idea of simply ameliorating them. We can be more comfortable with admitting that all social problems are more complex than a single point of view can encompass, and by corollary we can give those we disagree with the benefit of the doubt. We can at least entertain the possibility that perhaps the other person is not stupid, ignorant or evil. Perhaps the reason that they disagree with us is that they see the opposite side of the same problem we are concerned with. Perhaps, then, we might even seek union and cooperation instead of a competition.
This is all my long-winded way of saying, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man, for there is no help in them.”