A Cure for Our Personal and Political Loathing: A New Outlook

We Need a New Outlook

In my last blog post, I argued that many people in the United States suffer with personal and political loathing and that this loathing can generate further problems of shame, unhappiness, feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, personal and interpersonal violence, inequality, and increasingly levels of political hopelessness. While these problems have a variety of causes, I argued that one of the primary causes is America’s historical and current emphasis on things rather than people. Rather than valuing people simply because they are people, American society measures the worth of people in terms of how much they produce or make (or in terms we believe are correlated with production such as fame, certain types of beauty, and certain types of talent). This emphasis engenders continual self-hatred because it teaches us that we are only worthy if we meet some arbitrary external standard. We can never fully meet this standard because someone always has more and because we can always make or do more, so there is no end-point or achievable goal.052651

This emphasis on things over people also engenders political hatred because a focus on things instead of people encourages us to adopt political policies that benefit us, with little regard to how they affect other people. We may also become threatened by policies that allow other people to gain more because we fear this means we will have less. We become locked into political power struggles, and we feel hopeless we can make our country better. This focus on things over people invades all areas of life, including our politics, our businesses, our interpersonal relationships, our educational systems, and even our religious institutions, and we often are unaware of the way it affects us. We need a new outlook.

How Do We Change Our Emphasis from Things to People?

If we are to change the ethos of our country, we need to have a new way of looking at life and going about things. Marcuse notes this when he writes that we need a new sensibility that is “no longer capable of tolerating the aggressiveness, brutality, and ugliness of the established way of life” and that allows humans to foster deeper levels of solidarity with one another and to create a society which liberates all human capacities for full development [1]. Such a new sensibility or outlook would enable us to prioritize people and human progress, rather than material and technological progress. Tracing out the various aspects of this new outlook is not the job of one person or blogger like myself. This is something we must develop in dialogue together. However, I would like to be a part of this dialogue, and that is the purpose of this post.

Whatever our new American outlook must be, it must have the characteristics of something I call “love-centered praxis”. Praxis is a word that I am drawing from the works of Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire.[2] Freire argues that praxis—our ability to reflect on the world, name what we see in it, and then act to transform it for greater justice, beauty and freedom—is the unique capacity of human beings.[3] Freire further argues that the purpose of praxis is to allow all of us to become more human together and to create a world that supports our freedom and flourishing. Since praxis is the right of every human being, Freire argues that we can only engage in authentic praxis together through dialogue and that to be committed to such a communal praxis is a work of love. He writes

Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself. It is thus necessarily the task of responsible Subjects and cannot exist in a relation of domination…because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is commitment to their cause—the cause of liberation. And this commitment, because it is loving, is dialogical. As an act of bravery, love cannot be sentimental; as an act of freedom, it must not serve as a pretext for manipulation. It must generate other acts of freedom; otherwise, it is not love.”[4] He adds further, “If I do not love the world—if I do not love life—If I do not love people—I cannot enter into dialogue”.[5]

This love-centered praxis is a type of sensibility, which contains thinking patterns and actions that lead to greater humanization and liberation for everyone. This is why I suggest that if we are to change the current ethos of our country, we need something like a love-centered praxis. A love-centered praxis emphasizes how society allows people to become more free and human together, rather than emphasizing how much money or economic value we have. It makes the happiness and flourishing of people the true hallmark of progress. I would now like to discuss five characteristics that I think such a love-centered praxis possesses. I will be developing each of these characteristics in future blog posts.

Self Love

Five Characteristics of Love-Centered Praxis

  1. Love-Centered Praxis Honors the “Divine” ( Dignity) in Ourselves

First, love-centered praxis honors the “divine” in ourselves, and it cultivates self-love. I have placed the word divine in quotes because it is important to note that people can honor the divine in themselves whether they are religious or not. Almost every religion recognizes the divine in each person and refers to it in different ways[6] such as the image of God in us, our light, our Buddha nature, our Atman.[7] However, non-religious humanitarians also have a way of speaking about the “divine” in us. They often speak of it, more or less, as our human dignity–our ability to use compassionate reason and creative rationality to pursue justice and liberation for everyone. For example, writing about the human capacity for moral flourishing, Immanuel Kant argues that every single human being is valuable as an end in herself or himself, and every single person is a bearer of the moral law. This moral center, Kant suggests, is the truest, freest, most rational, and most human part of everyone.[8]

In whatever way you refer to the divine or the dignity in yourself and others, it is important to realize that this divine light in you is the truest and most real thing about you,[9] and it has a limitless capacity for development and growth. It is your True Self[10], and it can never be lost, although we can forget it and cover it up. In your True Self right now, you are perfect, beautiful, and good (your True Self is pure being[11]). Your True Self is absolutely deserving of unconditional love and nurturing and because you can never lose it, this means that you are always absolutely deserving of unconditional love and nurturing at all times. In fact, the more you love and nurture yourself, the more your True Self grows. I am certainly not denying that we do bad and even heinous things as human beings. I am also not suggesting that we should love the bad things we do. The bad things we do proceed from us forgetting our True Selves, and they proceed from the fear, anger, and sadness we feel over forgetting who we are. When we forget our True Selves, we are cut off from love, and almost every bad and stupid thing we do is a misguided attempt to regain this love.[12] So the more we show ourselves love and honor our True Selves, the more healthy, loving, and peaceful we become.

Because you have this divine dignity in you, you do not have to earn more, do more, or be more beautiful or thin or successful to be loveable. It is not a matter of doing more. It is just a matter of being who you already are. Your True Self already contains profound wisdom and will always guide you in the path of peace and joy if you let it.

The deepest and wisest thing

2. Loving Praxis Honors and Loves the Divine (Dignity) in Other People

Just as you need to honor and love the “divine” in yourself, you need to honor and love the divine in other people. From this point on, I will refer to the divine in us as our dignity. It does not matter if people are the same religion as you or the same political party as you. Everyone possesses this dignity, and it deserves to be honored and respected. Recognizing the dignity of everyone permits us to honor all people, even when we disagree with them, or even when they are acting badly. I must emphasize that honoring the dignity in everyone does not entail that we permit people to use or abuse us or others. It also does not require that we associate with everyone. When people are acting hatefully, abusively, disrespectfully, etc., they are acting in a dehumanizing[13] manner, and we have a right to demand that they stop and that they treat us (or others) with dignity. If they refuse, it is right to stop associating with them. For example, if a friend constantly belittles or attempts to control us, we have a right to limit our contact with that friend until he or she becomes more respectful (if this ever happens). We can hold out hope that the friend will change, and we can honor the person’s dignity from afar (perhaps through prayer or well wishes). Honoring the dignity in everyone requires that we practice hospitality and create a welcoming space for other people, even for those who are very different from us. This requires listening, dialogue, patience, humility, and courage, among other virtues. When we practice these virtues with one another, this is how we love and honor them. When we do this, we make it easier for them to find and honor their True Selves.

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3. Loving Praxis Confronts and Resists Dehumanization

If everyone has dignity, and if every human being has the right to praxis, this means that every human beings must be given the opportunity to engage in praxis, and they must be treated equally. When human beings are denied their praxis and when certain groups of people are treated as better than others, this is dehumanization. Some of the most common forms of dehumanization are slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, and segregation (all of these problems in some way deprive people of praxis, and they treat certain groups of peoples as better than other people). There are other, less overt forms of dehumanization. For instance, when we make jokes at other people’s expense, we dehumanize them. When we treat people as a means for getting what we want, we dehumanize them. When we consistently refuse to listen to people and groups when they tell us our actions are hurting them, we dehumanize them.  When we dismiss entire groups of people and talk about them rather than to them, we dehumanize them. These are just a few of the more common and less overt ways dehumanization may express itself in our ever day lives.

Although everyone has the right to engage in praxis, people may not use their praxis to destroy other people or crush their ability to engage in praxis. True and loving praxis only occurs when people dialogue together in order to use their praxis to create a more just and humane world. When we dialogue together in this way, theologian Paul Tillich suggests that we increase our power to be as a human species.[14] (I have written more about this here.) Following in this same train of thought, Freire suggests that dialogue is “an existential necessity”[15]. That is, dialogue is intimately tied to our ability to become more human together as a species.

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4. Love-Centered Praxis Has a Private Dimension

Loving and cultivating our True Selves has a private dimension of action. It requires us to spend time on a regular basis doing actual things that cultivate love and the divine in us (or help us remember our dignity). We may show love to ourselves by engaging in contemplative practices like contemplative silence or meditation or prayer or by reading literature and/or sacred texts that helps us to nurture ourselves. We may show love to ourselves by being a part of a spiritual or some other form of community. Human beings have various emotional, aesthetic, rational, and physical capacities. Therefore, loving and honoring ourselves invites us to nourish all of these aspects of ourselves by engaging in loving relationships, in creative expression, in activities that strengthen our thinking, and through various physical activities. Love nourishes our True Self through cultivating all of our human capacities. (I have written about nourishing different aspects of ourselves here, here, and here.)

photo

5. Love-Centered Praxis Has a Public Dimension

While we certainly have a private responsibility to honor the divine in us, we must also create social structures and practices that honor dignity and support its full flourishing. Humanity is not something we are born with fully developed; it is something we must achieve through our praxis, and it requires a public sphere with some material resources to achieve this.[16] It is in our public life together that we deliberate how we are going to manage our material resources and arrange society so that we treat people well. There is always a temptation to use resources and arrange society in a way that profits us or correlates with our view of the world without heeding how it affects other people. Because love-centered praxis honors the dignity in everyone, it works to bring as many people into this dialogue as possible, and it is willing to listen to other people, even when they hold very different views. It consistently creates and recreates social structures that support the full development, freedom, and equality of its citizens because human flourishing is its primary goal. In addition, love-centered praxis resists all partisan politics, toxic competition, culture wars, and all other forms of dehumanization.

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Where do We Go from Here?

In conclusion, I would like to say, once again, that changing the ethos of our nation is not the work of one person. It is something we must do in dialogue together, but I believe that something like the kind of love-centered praxis I have discussed in the post is the type of outlook we must adopt if we are to create a qualitatively better country and heal our personal and political loathing. Here are a few steps we could take to begin implement a love-centered praxis:

  1. All of us need to cultivate self-love. In a nation that values things over people and that measures people in terms of their economic value, unconditional self-love is a necessary and beautiful act of political rebellion. Spending time each day, even if it is only a minute, connecting with our True Self and honoring the divine in us is not waste or a luxury. It is necessary for political revolution.
  2. We need to practice honoring the dignity in everyone by building friendships with people who are different from us and by having honest, respectful dialogues. We must practice compassionate listening. Compassionate listening always searches for common ground and builds on those commonalities. If we only (or usually) talk to people who are the same religion, race, or political group, we are probably missing an important piece of the puzzle.
  3. We need to develop bi-partisan strategies and be open to creating new political parties and paradigms. We do not have to remain in political gridlock. We do not have to keep doing things the way we have always done them. We can have rational and productive hope. (I have written—and drawn—more about hope)
  4. We need to start learning from other countries. The United States is a wonderful country with so much potential, but we are not a perfect country. There are countries around the world that have significantly less inequality, lower incarceration rates (pretty much everyone has lower incarceration rates); much less gun violence; better education systems; and happier and healthier citizens. We can learn from them and become an even greater country than we already are.

We are a relatively young country and changing our ethos is not a pipe dream. We can do it. Let us do it together.

The light in me honors the light in you, Friends.

Note: I plan to write about all of these issues in greater depth in later posts, but if there is an issue in this post you would especially like to see addressed, please feel free to write me at shellypruittjohnson@gmail.com.

 

[1] Herbert Marcuse, pg. 9.

[2] This is a common word in all of his books, but it is especially prevalent in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

[3] This does not entail that people with disabilities that prevent them from speaking or acting in their full capacity are less human. Speaking and acting can take a wide variety of forms, and even when people are fully prevented from exercising these abilities in any way, they still possess divinity and dignity. In addition, this post is not meant to imply that non-human animals and other forms of life are unimportant. Love-centered praxis entails compassion and love towards all forms of life. Both of these topics are topics for another post.

[4] Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pg. 90.

[5] Ibid

[6] I suspect it is actually every religion, but I am primarily acquainted with several of the major ones: Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, so my reference to religions in this post will be referencing these religions.

[7] Because I am a Christian (raised in the Quaker tradition), I tend to think of the divine in us as the image of God and the light of his truth. As everyone and everything comes from God, everyone possesses this light. The Quakers refer to this as the Inner Light. It is the part in us that is always in contact with the truth and love of God and reflects God’s goodness and beauty.

[8] Although Kant is a Christian (a good German Lutheran), his moral philosophy focuses on the moral rationality every human being possesses no matter what country they are from and what religion they practice.

[9] I think this idea is beautifully captured in the New Testament in Ephesians 1:4 when the Apostle Paul writes, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” It is also captured beautifully in Genesis 1:27 and 31: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them…God saw all that he had made, and he saw that it was very good.”

[10] In this post, I am using the words divine, True Self, and dignity interchangeably, but I use different words at different points because I find that different words explain certain parts of love-centered praxis better than others.

[11] In his Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love, Augustine argues that evil has no being in itself. It is just a privation of the good. The good is real, and the real is good. Therefore (and this is my elaboration on Augustine), your True Self, which is pure goodness, is also pure being.

[12] To understand this better, it is helpful to think of a little child. Little children act out when they feel unsafe, unloved, or confused about who they are as individuals or who other people are. The more we love children and set appropriate boundaries that help them understand the dignity of all human beings the healthier and happier they are.

[13] See the next point for an explanation of dehumanizing behavior.

[14] Paul Tillich, pg. 56

[15] Paulo Freire, pg. 88

[16] Praxis requires reflecting on, naming, and acting on our world to transform it. If we have nothing or very little to reflect on, name, and transform, it is very difficult for us to fully express our humanity.

Works Cited

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  The Continuum International Publishing Group,

        Inc. New York, NY.  2006.

Marcuse, Herbert. An Essay on Liberation.  Beacon Press. Boston, MA: 1971.

 

Tillich, Paul. Love, Power, and Justice. Oxford University Press. New York: 1954

 

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