Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why We Need a Big Mouth

Barriers to Removing Corruption

Part II in a Series on Corruption in Panorthosia

Corruption is at the root of just about every world problem you can shake a stick at. Let us start shaking.

Worried about global warming? Powerful, wealthy forces routinely corrupt the media and governments to see to it that we never go beyond impotent jawing.

Jumpy about terrorism? There are strict laws controlling the chemicals we rub into our hair and smear on our faces but the religious groups that steer our hearts are rarely even self-regulated; religious leaders spew hate speech with impunity and routinely produce cults, bigots and suicide bombers.

Nervous about war? Munitions manufacturers have their hands deep in the pockets of research, industry and, of course, government. Military ways and tools infect the young, especially boys, from the earliest age, no matter what their parents believe and teach them (my son at ten years old is already an expert on tactics and weaponry, albeit mostly out of science fiction).

Wondering whether something is safe to use or swallow? Scientists, like prostitutes and soldiers of fortune, put themselves up for sale to the highest bidder; the most dubious food, drug or policy can hire researchers ready to amass a mountain of one-sided, dubious evidence to bolster their arguments.

Getting sick from pollution in the air you breath or the water you drink? Do not look for help from politicians, unless you happen to be willing to finance their election campaign with more millions than the factory down the road has been contributing.

Are you feeling hopeful about the ability of next generation to change things? Forget it, by the time young people graduate they are so deep in hock to the banks that it will be ten or twenty years before they can say boo their employers.

Well, forget about mega-projects and major policy changes for a better world. How about something really simple and easy? What could be easier than eating less meat? That is beyond dispute the best thing you can do for both your health and the environment. For almost five years it has been known that meat production is a far worse a contributor to greenhouse gases than transportation. Yet do you hear leaders of thought advising people to become vegetarians? Not a chance.

The reason for all this dilly-dallying with issues of survival is rank corruption, starting with corrupt thinking in our brains, passing through venal pockets and spreading virally into every group and institution of society.

How can we fight such a deep rooted problem?

I have never come across a thinker who gave as much thought to removing this crucial stumbling block as John Amos Comenius. In this series I am going over what he had to say about it in Panorthosia, or Universal Reform. The entire sixth chapter of Panorthosia is devoted to the removal of corruption, being called "Barriers to Universal Reform." It starts off with this resolution:

"Let us begin to examine the hindrances to Reform, considering first those which bind us from within and render us incapable of undertaking any reform whatsoever. This is the true root of all our corruption and failure to accept reform. Let us inquire into this and investigate it thoroughly." (Panorthosia II, Chapter 6, Paragraph 1, p. 99)

Comenius then cites the Roman philosopher Seneca (5 BCE to 65 CE),

"It is mankind's most important attribute that we should not flock along the track of those who are ahead of us, going not in the right direction but where the going takes us."

This Baha'is will recognize as our first principle, the search for truth, which implies avoiding the corruptive influence of imitation and borrowed opinion. This Abdu'l-Baha considered to be a new feature of the Baha'i Faith, not in any narrow sense of Baha'is being the first and only to investigate reality, but rather qua world religion. That is, the Baha'i Faith is the first major Faith to place independent search and avoidance of imitation front and center as a duty for every believer, a fundamental social as well as spiritual principle.

Comenius explains the three main factors blocking personal reform, and the three ways to remove them.

"Three factors contribute to this habit of inwardly accepting the evils into which we have fallen, namely:

I. carelessness and stupidity;

II. prejudice concerning the true and the good already possessed; thence producing indifference;

III. lastly, the most pernicious jealousy for one's own affairs and hatred for those of others.

"These three hindrances must be completely removed and replaced by their direct opposites, namely

I. urgent attention to all current affairs;

II anxious concern for truer knowledge of affairs;

III. readiness and enthusiasm to adopt improvements.

(Panorthosia II, Para 3, pp. 99-100)

This way of extirpating corruption is, in terms of the Baha'i principles, the removal of prejudice. Prejudice is a form of inner neglect, where a person takes an unexamined opinion and takes it to be a fundamental. One replaces prejudices with an attitude of tentative enquiry, a desire to learn by disprove what is false about what we already have. The wording of Comenius sheds light on one of Baha'u'llah's most important pronouncements:

"The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy. Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements." (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings, CVI, p. 213)

I recently heard a beautiful explanation of this principle of seeking reality and rejecting prejudices on a TVO podcast by a logic professor from the University of Toronto (Steve Joordens, You Can Lead Students to Knowledge, But How Do You Make Them Think?, He said that music students at his school are encouraged to have "big ears," that is, to listen to all types and styles of music and look for what is elegant about it, never to reject it out of hand because of something we may not approve of about it. In the same way, we need to have "big ears" in matters of opinion. We should seek out arguments that challenge our presuppositions and lead to growth in our learning. He said that also need to have "big mouths," in that we express our opinions in the hope that they will be refuted, and then replaced by something closer to reality.

Of course, in dealing with corruption being called a "big mouth" is surely going to be the least of our worries.


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