Wednesday, February 8, 2012

sacred demons

Last night, I watched Bill Moyers (one of my favorite guys) interview Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist from the University of West Virginia. The show was archived on the Internet. It's not entirely clear to me what a social psychologist is in business for, but Haidt seemed to be doing a thriving business by explaining everything to everyone.

He was attractive and bright and perhaps (I couldn't quite tell) a bit glib, though it may have been that he was trying to explain everything within a truncated interview time slot. Haidt has written a book whose title may give some sense of his interests ... of the ground on which he has chosen to make a living: "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion." Talk about pressing human buttons! When I worked in the book publishing industry, there was a joke that if you wanted to write a best seller, you might be well-advised to entitle it "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog" and thereby tap into three enormously popular subjects. I thought Haidt's title tapped into a similar, book-selling spring.

Haidt touched on a variety of topics -- war, desegregation, Democrats, Republicans, women's rights, a Tinker Toy version of 'karma' -- and laid down a template for how and why people often ended up at each other's throats.

One of the propositions that interested me was the potato chip of the "sacred" -- that when people get together in a good cause (desegregation, for example), the cause may be a good cause, but the tendency is to elevate that cause to a sacred realm -- a realm that no longer allows for dissent or even questioning. This struck me as very human and as good an explanation as any of why I am poorly equipped to join applauding groups.

It led me to think that "sacredness" was a good warning signal ... for the individual. I don't care about the broad-brush 'everybody' assessments.

Where the sacred arises, there is the place in which demons are bound to frolic. This is not to disdain or despair of what is agreeably sacred. It is to suggest that demon and deity are all of a piece. Desegregation or Israel or women's rights or universal health care or social psychology or spiritual endeavor may be good ideas, but to suggest that they are immune from the capacity for idiocy and error is both erroneous and idiotic. Agreement and applause or refutation and catcalls are not sufficient to the truth.

An individual or collective sense of sacredness may advance good causes or thought processes in a good way. But to shut out any sense of flaw or failure is to fail the very cause that is described as 'good.' The short version of this -- one that is hardly a money-maker but may serve anyone well -- is "Everyone's an asshole and I've got one too."

Like the profane, the sacred builds boundaries in a life that does not.

If a good idea seems like a good idea ... go ahead. But leave off the sacred trappings. Sacred trappings simply separate the inseparable and what kind of idiot pastime is that? Some Zen teacher once pointed things out without resorting to sacred harmonies: "Do good. Refrain from evil. And purify this mind."

1 comment: