…safety, diversity, and empathy…

“A foolish [constancy] is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines.  With [constancy] a great soul has simply nothing to do.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yesterday’s post on insistence and acceptance, might have left you feeling unsettled.  I implied that conscience has no limit; that social veracity has no objective basis;  that interpretation is unbounded; that anything is possible.  And that’s partly correct.  But not entirely.

Cohesion and relational value do create a kind of boundary.  Cohesion is simply group identification. It is our need to be affiliated and committed to others.  We draw value from cohesion and the primary value we draw is safety.   The reciprocity of “I’ll watch your back, if you watch mine” is crucial to our feeling safe in the world.   It is also why groups hold so much power over us.  

I know it sounds heretical but freedom is not entirely without cost.  The practical reality is that freedom requires conformity and conformity has degrees of tolerance.  When we experience insecurity and doubt about a position,  we are brushing up against the boundary of our own “inconsistency intolerance.”  Our words and actions must fit who we are.  The relationships we hold must sustain the positions we take, otherwise our relationships become threatened and we feel threatened. 

This kind of cognitive dissonance makes altering our changing our social relationships difficult.   We define ourselves through action, but largely based on the limits of other people’s interpretations.  We conform to what they can tolerate.

One saving grace, however, is that we cannot repudiate or give up our freedom.  Relationship permeates everything, so freedom is inalienable even though it is bounded by convention.  A group may choose to exclude you, but there are other relationships that offer you freedom … no matter what. 

And diversity plays an interesting role here.  Were it not for the  diversity, society would have a considerably narrower range of convention.  Schools that issue “no tolerance zones”  intentionally limit expression for the sole purpose of insuring safety.  But there are always “other” considerations:  Freedom of speech, issues of privacy, constitutional due process.  All of these “complicate” the enforcement of convention; they force us to question the limits of acceptable tolerance. 

Gay marriage, inter-racial marriage, cross-cultural values and beliefs – these are all diversifying expressions which strengthen the location (or locus) of safety.  We become more responsible for ourselves as individuals and less responsible to social considerations.  But does that strengthen us?   If bio-diversity is an indicator, then the answer is “Yes!”   The strength of a biological system is based on the diversity of life it contains.  Diversity creates greater adaptability and flexibility.  But then, I’m sure many will disagree with me here. 

Another consideration is empathy.  There is a relationship between empathy, diversity, and convention.  If “inconsistency intolerance” limits convention, then empathy is limited.  We withhold empathy by becoming “self-attending” to our needs.   We withdraw cooperation and trust when diversity threatens the safety upon which we depend.  Empathy is realistically gated by convention. 

Keep in mind: empathy is our understanding and entering into another’s feelings; it is not the abandonment of our own.  So when confronted by inconsistency intolerance (and the need to self-affirm in the face of dis-confirmation) extending empathy can actually counteract our own inconsistency intolerance.  We can both be ourselves and be larger than ourselves.  And this is not a trick. We have a natural draw to life in all its forms, so it is not inconsistent to look favorably upon all forms of diversity.   

The problem of course is that it doesn’t help us to decide.   And that’s the reason conscience is like a mirror.  It holds us accountable for what we decide and it asks us to confirm our own choices – given reciprocity, social veracity, freedom, and trust – even when our behavior is situational and lacking in constancy.

Thanks for listening!


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