Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Good, the Bad, the Gray

As we grow and navigate the murky waters of this sea that is the development of our personal morality, we frequently take short cuts, divert our journey, and just plain get lost. Who we grow up to be, what causes we support, what values we stand for, and how we conduct ourselves as human beings is determined by a wide array of factors. From the beginning we are flooded by the influence of our parents, then religion, school, friends, and the media, all of which usually pull us in various directions as conflicts arise and dissonance sets in. It's all we can do to keep our heads above the surface, let alone swim through the crashing waves of the expectations of others. Everyone has an idea of who we should be, others try to control it, but where and when do we find that for ourselves?

Sometimes we look to others for guidance: mentors or role models. Some of us are fortunate to find these people in our everyday lives. Some of us end up looking to public figures for such support and rely on superficial personas filtered through magazines and television to help us find the right path. Unfortunately, instead of gracing worthy figures like Mother Teresa or Archbishop Desmond Tutu with our quiet reverie, sometimes we mistakenly bestow our admiration upon the likes of ill-fated Disney Channel starlets and foul-mouthed shock-seeking rappers. In our young and impressionable ages, we follow whatever example they've set and find ourselves wandering aimlessly once we've matured enough to realize the folly of our ways. Then it's time to set out on our own journey.

With any luck, one might sit down and sift through the grit and bullshit we're fed and critically evaluate the options presented for multiple issues of life and the world at large. Through careful analysis and self-reflection, we can determine what's truly important to us, what really doesn't matter so much and why, and then set out to take a stance on either side of the argument. Comparative research may be conducted, or we might fall into the clutches of some fear mongering propaganda machine and make a knee-jerk decision with more emotion than rationale. Wherever we may land initially, it's a stepping stone in the right direction once we decide to follow our own minds and begin to develop our own moral dichotomy of what's right and wrong.

The most frequent pitfall I've seen of morality development, however, is intense conviction stemming from emotional decisions fueled by propaganda. This is how extremists are born. Individuals find a cause, attach themselves to it like leeches, and rarely waiver in the face of adversity or just plain common sense. They fall victim to their own confirmation bias, shutting out any facts that contradict their viewpoint and embracing whatever information supports it, no matter how illogical it may be. In open debate, they argue in circles, pull out baseless statistics, and eventually resort to ad hominem attacks when they have nothing left to give. These are the people we need to worry about the most, because people who swallow and follow are falling victim to the same process that created religious extremism and the Nazi Party. Having a sense of morals and values is critical, but so is the process of how one builds those ideas.

While it's important to have a strong sense of who you are and what you believe in, it's also important to note that our systems need to remain permeable. Ideas, thoughts, beliefs could change over time as information changes and emerges. Centuries ago, someone said the Earth was flat. Had we resigned to that explanation without question, without exploration, we would still believe this today (some people still do). We always need to be questioning and debating and our positions evolving. Nothing should be set in stone. Some beliefs may never change, others may find you swaying to the polar opposite opinion, but the person who makes up their mind and closes the case is usually the draconian bastard that rots the collective intelligence of humanity.

I've found as I've gotten older, gained a better sense of how the world operates and how it relates to me as an individual, that my once extremist views on various issues have relaxed and fallen to the happy medium. Rather than once imposing my beliefs on others, as my church would have had me do years ago, I've slipped into a comfortable "live and let live" approach to people in the world. Rather than falling victim to propaganda, I find myself researching more and weighing the facts with critical analysis. Rather than allowing others to determine who I should be, I've taken their advice and the examples they've set and I've incorporated what I find valuable into my own system. And more recently, I've learned that things are not black and white. Finding myself in what I will aptly refer to as a Robin Hood Dilemma, I found myself violating some ethics and compromising my personal integrity (which I hold dear) in order to benefit a larger cause and help people who would otherwise be lost without it. Okay, so I'm still struggling to rationalize the last one to myself, but a minor lesson altered my viewpoints on life; exceptions must be made, lines must be blurred, and there is always a gray area that is never easy to land in or get out of.

A friend once asked "would you rather die young knowing your convictions or live to be 80 but always questioning who you are and what you believe in?" As an individual who has shed and rebuilt several convictions as epiphanies, information, and common sense arose, I can guarantee that being stripped of everything you once held dear and then trying to develop a new belief system and a sense of morality can be a dark and confusing time that leaves you blind and unsure of yourself. It's a hell no one should be condemned to, especially not for a lifetime. However, in this day and age when it seems society is polarizing to either lack of values or intense convictions, it seems to be a rare gift to have a comfortable, sound belief system, especially for young people. But morals and values, even on an individually subjective basis, is the backbone of society and the cornerstone for one's personal integrity. So get cooking, find what you stand for with a sprinkle of influence, a dash of common sense, a computer for research, and some bullshit repellent.

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