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We can help build a better world

Written By vibykhmer on Tuesday, September 22, 2009 | 11:05 PM


September 23, 2009
A. Gaffar Peang-Meth
Pacific Daily News (Guam)


Across national boundaries and cultures, humans appear nowadays to be entrenched on a destructive course of intolerance, characterized by a lack of civility. People of strong viewpoints, particularly political/ideological ones, come into conflict. The level of insult and the tendency to demonize opponents has increased.

Three years ago I wrote in this space about Emory University researchers, who found political discourse to be nasty because, during such debates, the unconscious emotional part of the brain takes over the rational part. In other words, a discussion deteriorates from hearing and understanding this "other guy" to personal attacks as the rational brain shuts down and the non-thinking part takes over.

Humility -- to be considerate and respectful of others and their viewpoints, their dignity and their worth -- a virtue preached by the world's major religions, is lacking in many individual persons.

Some 2,500 years ago, Chinese thinker K'ung-fu-tzu (Confucius), whose teachings have influenced the thought and the life of Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and many others, advised: "To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; To put the nation in order, we must put the family in order; To put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life; And to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right."

World peace and world order begin with individual persons. Religious teachings, high values and strong beliefs are meaningless unless humans practice them in their life journeys. It's worth reminding, ad infinitum, that humans are capable of learning (Lord Buddha's teachings), unlearning (the harmful), and relearning (channeling the energy of hope in the building of a better future), and that what stands in their way is a lack of belief that they can, and a lack of will to take the first step.

Some people know a lot but have no will to apply their knowledge -- creatures of habit, they talk rather than walk the talk, and they imprison themselves in patterns and blame karma.

Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, acclaimed as "one of the world's foremost authorities" on positive psychology and moral psychology, says in his book, "The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom," that each of us must find "ways to overcome our natural self-righteousness." The chapter begins with two quotes from Jesus and Buddha about human eyes that see failings in others when looking outward, but see not the same when looking inward.

Matthew 7:3-5: "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? ... You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye."

Buddha: "It is easy to see the faults of others, but difficult to see one's own faults. One shows the faults of others like chaff winnowed in the wind, but one conceals one's own faults as a cunning gambler conceals his dice."

And Haidt quoted a Japanese proverb: "Though you see the seven defects of others, we do not see our own 10 defects."

Thus, in 2007, Haidt organized an interdisciplinary workshop, sponsored by the Princeton University Center for Human Values. As a summary of "goals" of the workshop, Haidt referenced the eighth-century Zen master Sent-Ts'an's poem: "The Perfect Way is only difficult for those who pick and choose; Do not like, do not dislike; all will then be clear. ... The struggle between 'for' and 'against' is the mind's worst disease."

As Haidt sees the poem, humans in all cultures possess this "excessive and self-righteous tendency to see the world in terms of good versus evil," or "moralism," which "blinds people to the truth," making agreement and compromise difficult.

On his own home page, Haidt says his research focuses on "the moral foundations of politics, and on ways to transcend the 'culture wars' by using recent discoveries in moral psychology to foster more civil forms of politics." Advances in moral psychology and other fields, says Haidt," provide "new hope for understanding moralism and for finding ways to overcome it."

"We must respect and even learn from those whose morality differs from our own," says Haidt who, on his Web site CivilPolitics.org, writes how political leaders, political parties and media outlets have become, over the last 20 years, "more polarized, strident and moralistic (i.e., excessively concerned with morality, and certain about their own virtue)."

"When political opponents are demonized rather than debated, compromise and cooperation become moral failings and people begin to believe that their righteous ends justify the use of any means," the Web site reads. Haidt says the "goal is to promote 'civil politics,' by which we mean politics in which power and ideas are hotly contested but opponents are respected as fellow citizens who are assumed to be sincere in their beliefs."

Haidt's efforts are the more admirable in today's world in which, among many things, recent polls say, people are generally ruder than they were 20 or 30 years ago, and one poll says nearly one in five speaks "rudely to someone" if he or she wasn't served effectively; and a study shows "road rage" by "angry, horn-blasting tailgaters" to be evidence of what doctors called "intermittent explosive disorder," or IED, which affects up to 16 million drivers in the United States.

Confucius's advice "to cultivate our personal life, ... set our hearts right" needs to be followed so we can build a better world.

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. Write him at peangmeth@yahoo.com.

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