I recently took a break from philosophical speculations, after completing the FQXi essay Faith is Fundamental, to focus on issues of more immediate concern. This work includes my role as a member of the Board of Directors of Promoting Enduring Peace (see: PEP Talks), and my growing role in securing speakers for the Long Now Boston Community Conversations (see: Long Now Boston).
But another set of issues has also been bothering me. Specifically, how should a thoughtful person interested in science, faith and philosophy, respond to compelling social controversies such as those raised by #METOO, a movement driven by cascading disclosures of male sexual abuse, and #NEVERAGAIN, the gun control movement launched by survivors of the Parkland, Florida high school shootings.
Emmanuel Swedenborg gives us an important and relevant lesson. He points out that the truth is meaningless if it is not put to a good use. Truth and rational arguments can, in fact, be easily misused. Someone can tell only a part of the truth, or tell the truth in a particular way, in order to manipulate or mislead others. This is a particularly significant temptation for priests, according to Swedenborg, and I think we would agree it is also a problem for politicians. Truth misused for deceit in this way can be as dangerous and as damaging as outright lies.
I believe that #NEVERAGAIN has become the vanguard of a movement to expose manipulations of truth by a small subset of society at the expense of the broader public. The victims of this manipulation include school children killed or traumatized in preventable gun shooting events. It is so very sad that igniting this movement required another terrible tragedy, the death of 17 people in a high school in Florida.
It is also the case that the failure to speak the truth because of a fear of the consequences is dangerous and damaging. This, it seems to me, is the lesson at the heart of the #METOO movement. Millions of women have risked their reputations, their employment and their physical safety by confronting and challenging the sexual, physical and emotional abuse that has been hidden for so long. That takes courage, and the recognition that each victim is not alone.
Wisdom Demands Action
As I said in the very first post on Spiral Inquiry, the purpose of philosophy is to increase wisdom, the goal of which is to live a life that is right and good. But living a life that is right and good cannot be done sitting down. Sometimes, we have to stand up. We have to recognize that what we know as true is empty unless we work to put it to a useful purpose. This does not always mean we are right – the truth as we understand it will always be incomplete and may be incorrect. The quest for wisdom is, after all, a spiral inquiry. But knowing something is true imposes an obligation to work for it with effort and action, if we are to live a life that is right and good.
What follows this post will be two companion posts, speaking to the issues of #METOO and #NEVERAGAIN. I share them in Spiral Inquiry in the hope that the changes these movements have been inspiring will continue and grow. I believe in positive social change and the long-term betterment of human civilization. Unfortunately, the process required to achieve these goals can be painful.
Here are the links: