Absolutes

There are people who believe that there are things that must not be doubted or questioned, and that adherence to declared norms is the only way to behave. These people come from all levels of society and are often a bane in the lives of others, especially if they hold positions of authority or power. In some cases, they drastically force others into situations that have traumatic effects, sometimes leading to mental and physical illness and, in the worst cases, violent death. We have seen these people cause discord, fights, and wars, send droves of people to their deaths or have them punished for perceived dissidence.

The convictions of dissenting people were sometimes just a doubt of certainty, concerned with the absoluteness of an opinion, point of view, dogma, or policy, overlooking the fact that truth depends on context. How often have we heard statements that seemed correct at a certain time, but which we later reviewed with horror? How often have we ourselves said things that, when repeated, seem to us as if they could not have passed our lips? It is this experience that makes it particularly doubtful when a “truth” is taken as absolute, as if it were one thing and not part of an ongoing process of which we are all a part.

The two areas of life where this seems to have been most effective, often to the detriment of humanity, are politics and religion. It can be said, however, that every argument succeeds in evoking a contradiction that is often set as absolute as that which has evoked it. The “real” truth, it is said, lies between such positions, but it corresponds to the context and process it addresses. It is not absolute, but often situational and can be wrong the next moment. Therefore, we need to interact in a way that provides a space for clarification of intention, debate, and the presentation of perspectives.

Proposing policies to solve problems in our society needs this space, as does religious debate. The tendency to build walls or threaten each other only shows our belief that our view is absolute and that no other view can be true. This is also the current situation in the world, where competing ideologies are fighting for supremacy, claiming that there can be only one. Whether it is liberalism or authoritarianism, individualism or collectivism, Christianity, or Islam, it is a struggle for the supremacy of one ideal. It excludes the idea of perspective and the coexistence of ideas.

Sports are also a struggle for dominion, but there are rules to follow. They may not necessarily guarantee a fair fight, especially given the financial divide in professional sports, but at least there are rules. We can see, however, that the issue of prestige is not just an attribute of sport, although it is particularly evident here. The systematic doping of some nations suggests that the prestige of politics is intruding into sporting competitions.

Undoubtedly, there are situations where a decision must be made and one course of action is preferred over another, and such situations may arise spontaneously and require a quick solution, but most situations can be prepared for. Unfortunately, the bigger decisions are not prepared for and there is too little time for planning, so we increasingly seem to stumble from one disaster to the next. This suggests that we have our priorities wrong, and that the underlying philosophy is not up to the task.

Above I mentioned that space is needed to clarify intentions, which is often an effective way to distinguish between proposed truths. Understanding people’s intentions is critical to coexistence. We are often fooled by stated intentions, whether in political campaigns or religious proselytizing. George Orwell came to a surprising realization when he found that many socialists he knew did not care about poor people, but only disliked the rich even more. In the 1980s, at the suggestion of community members, I went out into the streets to find older people who would enjoy the company of a peer. I, too, was surprised to find that community members did not intend to visit them, but to have them come to their meetings. It is amazing how ideals like charity can be construed as indoctrination with one’s own views.

Thus, we have conflicting views on Christian doctrine, with one extreme seeing in the teachings of the Gospel a morality that would make the world a better place, and another group completely rejecting such intentions and wanting to bring about Armageddon and the end of the world. Of course, there are opposing views among atheists as well, with some saying that morality is possible without religion and others saying that everything is pointless anyway. Diversity of opinion is the normal state, but it is the absolutization of one’s views that causes so much hostility. In fact, it was the Church that gave birth to Satanism, which merely turned the symbolism of Christianity on its head and caricatured Latin expressions. The opposition to the absolutism of the Church was a simple inversion of its doctrine.

History has provided us with a multitude of examples where absolutism has been shown to destroy even the best of intentions, so it must be time to reconsider our path. This does not mean that there is no truth or that everything is a social construct, but it does mean that we are processual beings who are becoming what we will be, and that truth is similar. We need to get as close to the truth as possible, consider context and perspective, and recognize that there may be a better way of doing things tomorrow.