AN AGE-OLD CHOICE PRESENTS ITSELF AGAIN
It's an ancient urge to want to destroy those who don't believe what
you believe. People who think in strange ways seem even more dangerous
sometimes than people who cheat, steal, or kill. The latter merely threaten
your property or life. The former call into question your identity, your
purpose, your God, your whole world.
So history is full of violent upwellings against alien ideas, from the
persecution of the early Christians to the Spanish Inquisition to the Nazi
holocaust to the nuclear arms race.
But we can also see in history a slow progression toward
"civilization," which might be defined as the realization that force can
neither prove nor annihilate ideas. Civilized people don't blast their
opponents, they talk to them. "It's interesting that you see it that way.
Here's how I see it. Could we just let each other be? Might we come to a
larger way of seeing that incorporates both your partial vision and mine?"
Science is founded on the skill of respecting different ideas and
submitting them to objective test. Whoever turns out to be wrong admits it
graciously. Neither side practices ridicule or revenge (ideally, anyway).
Whatever the outcome, both sides know they have engaged in an honorable
In theory that's how democracy works too. The role of a citizen is to
respect different views, weigh them, vote for the ones that make the most
sense, and abide by majority rule while respecting minority rights. We may try
to sway each other by cogent argument, but not by lies, bribes, or threats
(again, ideally). So collectively we move toward truth.
Why then, at the end of the 20th century, does America, land of
science, home of democracy, appear to be regressing toward barbarity? The
media provide microphones to people who do nothing but ridicule the opposition.
A number of movements proudly make their points with defamation or violence.
Our leaders do not answer each others' arguments; they call each other
traitors. Democratic debate sinks from evidence to exaggeration, from reason
Some would say these incivilities have multiplied with the rise of the
far right, but the far left has been known to behave in much the same way. The
important word seems to be not "left" or "right," but "far." Those who turn
civilized discourse into shouting matches seem to be motivated less by the
content of what they believe than by the raging heat with which they believe
A psychologist named Arno Gruen, who escaped the Nazis and has been
studying them ever since, says that authoritarians of any stripe are driven
primarily by their hatred of the very point of view I have been expressing here
-- not only the assumption that we approach truth by reasoning together, but
the related assumption that people are basically decent, capable of working
together in community, sacrificing for the future, sharing the wealth, ruling
themselves by reason.
Why should anyone be allergic to that sunny idea? Because, Gruen says,
it cannot coexist with the conviction that people are mean and uncaring, that
we are each starkly alone, that we must fight for ourselves. Someone who has
come to see human nature as rotten at the core (probably in childhood, probably
not consciously, perhaps driven by a real terror) has to operate from suspicion
rather than trust, individualism rather than community, power rather than love.
That person can only despise those who see -- also probably by an accident of
childhood -- the better side of humanity.
The contest between love and power. The choice offered to Christ in the
wilderness, seized by the Nibelung to launch Wagner's Ring Cycle. A chilling
decision either way, but those who choose love at least have the reward (and
trap) of righteousness. Those who go for power have to live with no love from
others and no love for themselves.
In his book The Betrayal of the Self, Gruen says that most of us
waffle the choice. We negotiate between the extremes of saintliness and
hatefulness. Most democracies, most of the time, for better or worse, try
to balance community and individual, generosity and greed, tolerance and
intolerance, force and reason.
But when the old ways no longer work, when former enemies turn into
fallen giants, when old friends outcompete you, when you work hard and get
nowhere, when there is no certainty, then fear flares up.
Middle-of-the-road people run for security to the loudest, most
certain-sounding voice. Almost by definition, that will be a voice of
power. There are always some around. They resonate widely only when the
world seems to be wavering and ordinary folks search desperately for solid
We have seen it happen in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, places where power
plays on fear and civilization is darkened. South Africa, Northern
Ireland, and parts of the Middle East are finding their way back to the
light. Russia, having just escaped one dark age, is on the edge of
So, perhaps, is America. The voices of intolerance, cruelty, and
greed are increasingly fashionable. The voices of community and
compassion grow quieter and quieter. It takes courage to face the
ridicule that comes with speaking in public of reason, sharing, love and
In such a time, for the sake of civilization, we need not only
leaders, but ordinary folks by the millions to keep speaking in public of
reason, sharing, love and trust -- and meaning it, and acting on it.
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at