On Being Realistic

We are not here to be realistic. We are here to change reality.

Don’t be foolish: we aren’t going to end hunger by the end of the year. But don’t be overly cautious: we can end hunger someday, and we can do it by feeding one person at a time.

‘Being realistic’ is too often code for being too cautious, for backing off the big idea, for playing it safe. ‘Being realistic’ too often means: don’t take the risk; don’t dream big.

I wonder who the first person was to look at a plan to eradicate smallpox and say: be realistic.

I wonder if anyone replied: We’re not here to be realistic; we’re here to change reality.

Please Remember to Vote Tomorrow

This election – like all elections – matters.

I’m not going to take a public position on this election – though people who know me can probably guess who I voted for (I voted early) – because it’s important to me that this website be reasonably nonpartisan. But it’s also important to me that this website be Christian, and as a Christian I am asking other Christians to vote with Christ’s words in their heart:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

I know that it can be hard to decide which candidate comes closest to realizing that ideal. But please, take that call to bring good news to the poor seriously. And please remember to vote.

Bartolomé de las Casas… and Beyond

In honor of Indigenous Peoples Day (or Columbus Day), I link to this comic from The Oatmeal. It includes this great statement:

Bartolomé de las Casas started out a lot like Columbus.

He was a wealthy adventurer who traveled to the New World, where he owned a large plantation with many slaves.

Unlike Columbus, however, de las Casas underwent a radical transformation in his life. After witnessing the violent atrocities committed against the natives, he gave up his land, freed his slaves, became a priest, and spent the rest of his life fighting the brutal colonization of the New World… He is considered to be one of the first advocates for universal human rights.

Matthew Inman, the author of The Oatmeal uses a phrase: radical transformation. But what de las Cases did wasn’t just a transformation. He repented. He admitted that what he had done and how he had lived was wrong and then he lived differently. Inman includes a note on this after the comic, quoting de las Casas: “I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery… and I was not sure that my ignorance and good faith would secure me in the eyes of God.”

And if we’re going to celebrate de las Casas, I think there’s power in the fact that he repented. Let’s not remember de las Casas only for his work fighting for the equality of Native Americans, but for the fact that he admitted he was wrong and changed.

As Inman puts it: “Christopher Columbus left his home and found a new world. Bartolomé de las Casas left his home and discovered his humanity.”

But as important as de las Casas is, I’ll also link to this strong critique:

In suggesting that we should replace “Columbus Day” with a seemingly less problematic “Bartolome Day,” Inman misses the mark even more egregiously. As far as folks associated with the early Spanish Empire go, Bartolome de las Casas is as admirable a figure as they come. He was, after his conversion in 1514, a consistent opponent of European enslavement of Natives and their continued exploitation. The problem of shifting Columbus from the stage and subbing in Las Casas is that it continues to center the memory of the Columbian Exchange on European men. Trading one unsympathetic European for a more sympathetic one continues to obscure the history of the people most impacted by the Columbian Exchange and the “discovery” of America: aboriginal Americans. The post-1492 Americas were certainly a new world for Europeans but it was also a new world for Native Americans who saw their world reshaped by the largest ecological revolution in human history.

I’m not sure, but it’s possible that realizing that other people have stories – and taking the time to listen to and understand those stories – might be the first step on the road to repentance.

Against the Urge to Win

There was a time – when I was younger and had more free time – when I argued with people on the internet. A post or article or comment would touch a nerve and I would spend hours or days in an unproductive back-and-forth with friends, family members, and complete strangers.

Then, eventually, I stopped doing that. Things still touch a nerve, but more often than not I pause and think about whether that particular thing is worth spending time on. Sometimes it is, and I respond. Most of the time, though, it isn’t. I know that I won’t change the other person’s mind; I know they won’t change mine. And there’s no reason to start a conversation that isn’t going to end in a better relationship… and that will probably end in a worse one.

And I was wondering why it is that so many of conversations are so unfulfilling. Why is it difficult – for me as much as anyone – to have civil and transformative conversations… especially in online forums?

Here’s my sketch of a theory. In big conversations – conversations about important, complex topics – there are three things we want to be able to do: listen to other positions, articulate our own positions, and make a compelling case for our own positions.

Sometimes, we can do all of these things in a positive loop. We can listen to another person’s ideas and learn from them. We can articulate our own positions accurately. We can put forth a strong case for our positions and point out flaws in other positions. Then, we can repeat the loop, listening to another person’s critique of our positions and incorporating that critique into our own thinking.

In other words, we can revise and rework our own thinking in ways that make our positions stronger.

But in far too many conversations – especially when we’re able to publish instantly and passions flare – we focus on winning the debate over understanding what other people are saying or clearly articulating our own positions.

We start ascribing to others positions that they don’t actually hold, because they’re easier to argue against.

We start ascribing to ourselves positions that we don’t actually hold, because they’re easier to defend.

And, in the end, no one is convinced. No one changes.

So let’s suppress the urge to debate. Instead, let’s listen carefully to what others are saying and help them strengthen those arguments. Let’s carefully articulate what we believe and pay attention to criticism. Instead of trying to win, let’s try to understand together.