For the Sake of Unity: Forget it!
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
I've for some years been at permanent odds with myself since I heard of the passage of the Bhagavad Gita in which the great warrior Arjun stands over a glittering battlefield, and sees across the way – on the other side – a rival army which includes teachers, family, and people of honor known personally to the warrior. He despairs of having been tasked with leading his own capable army in battle, which will surely lead to the destruction of these beloved people. He summons his intellectual skills and makes many forms of the same argument to the great god Krishna – who has ordained for the battle to commence – that he ought not to fight at all. What good, he wonders, could come of such a battle, where enemies and allies are mingled and sacrificed as one?
To this, Krishna dismisses Arjun's concerns in a familiarly godlike manner. As God advised Job to “gird up your loins” and forget about knowing the unknowable, so does Krishna suggest that only a human-all-too-human lack of understanding could support Arjun's distress. It's folly to attach one's affections to something which is bound to pass. Krishna suggests – briefly changing technique – that there is no death anyway. In spite of the passing of the flesh, the soul remains immortal, and in death, nothing essential is ever lost. In any event, he insists, it is well to reflect on one's limited place in the world. Arjun, by fighting or not fighting, will not change the outcome of this most holy battle. “These warriors,” he insists – one cannot say reassures - “that you see in the battlefield, they stand already slain by me...Therefore, O ambidextrous one, in this war you be merely an instrument; rise above the dualities that exist in this universe, and, therefore fight, with peace in thy soul.”
As with many religious texts – particularly eastern ones – my modern mind can't help but shudder a little at what, at the bottom of it all, seems very much like a message of nihilism. What atrocity cannot be condoned, then, if instead of a reason you only need to find a god to 'ordain' it? And yet as with many religious texts – particularly eastern ones – there is also a kind of straightforward and brutal wisdom. Particularly as a metaphor for the battle internally or the mastering of the self, the dialogue of Arjun and Krishna reminds us that achieving and maintaining progress does require the dismantling of ideas, notions, and beliefs which we hold dear. We foolishly suppose that by giving up on beliefs we have identified with for a long time, that necessarily means belief in general is gone. Or by retooling our moral understanding of the world, we would have to forget about morality altogether. These things, we ought to see, are eternal concepts, or at least will go on living in their own way well after any individual has succumbed to death.
There is a looming battle that has for most of us, and so far, been merely an intellectual matter. During the election of 2016 – a Choose Your Own Adventure novel without the mercy of getting to reset a poor decision – the separate ideological differences among us have come sharply into focus. And now this week they seem to have started to boil over. Marches and countermarches. Facts and alternative facts. One citizen's plea for sanity is another's insane and rabid yelping. And without irony an argument ends with either interlocutor grumbling over the thin-skinned-ness of the other. Amid all of this noise – and I again remind the Fortunate that, for us, it is still an intellectual, not physical or even all that real matter – there is also a call for unity. And in fact we hear this call on – to use the most odious two-word phrase of the past year – 'both sides.' What really needs to be done is to come together, to put aside our differences. When will we ever learn that these dangerous divisions are what is hurting our country? Why are we acting like petulant children when we could be uniting as citizens of one nation?
Questions no doubt earnestly asked and felt – at some time or other – by everyone. There is a problem lurking behind this call for unity, however. And it is that the question is always asked with a sense of exasperation over the intractability of the opposing side. Trump supporters just can't understand why it is we aren't all uniting around the new president now that the election is over. And those who feel (know) that Trump is comically unfit for his new role are shocked by their adversaries' refusal to see what is plain. Trump is the centerpiece for this, but any of the familiar 'culture-war' or foreign policy issues revolve around him like satellites and are individually treated in the same way. We expect unity in the way that WE want it, never in the way that someone else wants it.
So let's just face it, shall we? We cannot unify around the idea of unity. That's like being proud of pride. In the service of something clear and worthy, it's a beautiful human feature. But on it's own there isn't anything more hollow. And in the service of an unworthy thing it's positively monstrous. With this in mind we all ought to begin a regular practice: when tempted to call on an opponent to 'get over it,' or 'come together on this,' first imagine oneself being asked to do the same. This is not a technique to stop arguments; it's just a way to show ourselves the reality of the mountain we expect others to climb.
There is one other method that I am trying to institute in my own arguments in print and in person, a kind of violence of spirit and politeness of form. There is some tradition here, which I am not yet very knowledgeable of, that is connected with the practices and thinking of classical liberalism. In times of political turmoil, it is pointless to wish for an untroubled spirit or internal peace. No one may choose what they feel strongly about. But within our abilities is a kind of civic politeness toward our adversaries, not for their own sake exactly, but in the hope that more constructive ideas and fuller understanding will flourish. A lot can be learned simply enough by reading the journals, letters, and essays of men and women of the Enlightenment era. Even during times of extreme duress they mostly seemed to endeavor towards decency in their writing and speech. I don't think this should be chalked up to some mere archaic formality. It certainly didn't prevent them from having rivalries, participating in duels, revolutions or wars. Nor should it have. It just seemed to maximize the potential for mutual understanding in civic life. At the very least it made the impolite outbursts all the more memorable and important.
My hope is, has really always been, not an end to the struggle between people – which as an idea is meaningless – but the hope of us being happy warriors about it. Remembering we are one atom in an ocean of experience and thought. I do fear that these pseudo-spiritual metaphors may cause some to find argument and struggle pointless. On the contrary, knowing that I am only a trifling part of a long historical argument that encompasses all civilization affords me the freedom to struggle with renewed energy, as well as a desire to learn what's true. That is the one thing the contemplative religions seem to invariably get right; in spite of the many spirited struggles with governments, with law, with others, the only real struggle forever is with oneself.