The Thinker

Squishy vs. Non-Squishy: Some Thoughts on the 2nd Anniversary of Sept. 11th

Right before the latest Iraq war started I posted an entry castigating George W. Bush for substituting ideology for critical thinking. It seemed clear to me that he viewed the war on terror as a war of good vs. evil. I don’t know anyone, including virtually all Republicans, who would seriously dispute my analysis. Bush himself said as much many times. “You are either with us or against us” on the war on terrorism, was one of his more memorable post 9/11 quotes.

But I’ll cut Bush a little slack today because I believe that anyone who truly follows an ideology shares the same fatal flaw. I hope I am not ideological although I am aware that I tend to follow certain principles that may be seen as ideological. I find the whole notion of good vs. bad as simplistic and broad brush painting. Except, possibly, I have come to believe that following any ideology is, by itself, a form of evil. It may be the only form of evil.

This begs the question of what I mean by “evil”. The dictionary is not too much help because it can’t provide an objective definition. “Morally bad or wrong; wicked” is the first definition that I find. Almost everyone would say that terrorism is evil, but there are lots of disagreements about whether, say, abortion is evil. My definition won’t be any more objective. In this case I am asserting that a closed mind is evil because it narrows the list of options for dealing with a situation. It is my belief that in most human endeavors flexibility is a good thing because ambiguity is always present.

The Iraq quagmire could have been handled better. An impartial assessment of the facts, rather than a biased assessment, would have informed our leaders that Saddam was a bad man but at best a small threat to our national security. From this information a leader truly concerned about our national security would realize that perhaps our resources on the war on terrorism were better directed elsewhere. In any event ideology tightly constrained the list of available options for dealing with Saddam. It tied our own hands.

Now there are some advantages to an ideology that are pretty compelling. For one, it simplifies choices. We have all had that experience of going to the store for, say, a frozen pizza, and felt overwhelmed by the variety and variants of pizzas. This can make it hard to figure out what you want because you have to look at all the pizzas and all the options and pick the pizza that will seem to make you happiest. Life would be much simpler if there were only one kind of frozen pizza, it was good, and it came in plain, pepperoni or supreme. Instead I have to think about lots of options like: do I care about total calories, saturated fat levels, texture, type of cheese, etc. But in general, Americans seem to embrace choice. I doubt we would be happier if we were all living in drab Soviet era type apartment complexes. It would, however, be simpler.

Another advantage to ideology is it eliminates ambiguity. You don’t have to sit and dwell upon your options for hours, days or weeks. You can take immediate action because you know the path that you must traverse. This worked, apparently, for George W. Bush. The choice in Iraq was apparently clear more than six months before we invaded, because that’s when our forces started assembling in Kuwait. There was no need to dither and wring our hands about what to do. Pick Plan A. There was no Plan B.

I may be doing some broad brush painting myself but in trying to understand human behavior I find it easier to categorize people into two types: those who can deal with ambiguity and those who can’t. Squishy people vs. non-squishy people. On a macro level it seems that in our society the quest to dominate in the realm of human values comes down to whether the squishy or the non-squishy people are in charge. Currently with Congress and the White House in Republican hands, the non-squishies are in charge.

Non-squishies tend to be absolutists and linear thinkers. They don’t have to be conservative or Republican; we just see a lot of these types lately. Marx and Lenin were certainly non-squishies, just on the extreme left side of the house. One sign of a non-squishy type is when it becomes hard sometimes to distinguish someone on the extreme left from the extreme right. I realized recently that no less than Dennis Kucinich and Pat Buchanan were on the same side: they both want NAFTA repealed. Some liberals on the far end of the spectrum are so politically correct they will repress the speech of those who cannot be politically correct. In that sense they are not that removed from John Ashcroft, who recently made some statements suggesting that if you didn’t believe in the Patriot Act you were un-American and aiding and abetting terrorists.

Non-squishies also can have the tendency to believe two or more completely contradictory ideas. It is most obvious, I think, in religion. A truly devout Catholic, for example, believes that the consecrated host is both bread AND the real physical body of Jesus at the same time. In politics many Republicans believe tax cuts will solve the federal government’s balanced budget problem.

Clearly I find myself in the squishy side. We squishies are comfortable with ambiguity. That’s not to say we embrace ambiguity, we can just deal with it. I, for example, realize that Saddam Hussein is a very evil guy. But at the same time I refuse to say he is completely evil. In Saddam’s Iraq women had opportunities that had been denied to them for generations by less secular governments, and most likely will disappear with whatever eventually emerges in a new government. Benito Mussolini was a fascist but he also got the trains to run on time, something appreciated by the average Italian. We squishies usually see shades of grey where non-squishies see either black or white. We are cognizant that the reality of something or someone depends on how you view it. In general we want to look at it from a variety of perspectives before coming to a conclusion, and our conclusions are often tentative, and subject to change as events unfold.

It’s not always easy being a squishy though. We are often seen as weak kneed and pansies, people with no backbone and indecisive. We don’t think that is the case. We just see lots of complex systems around us. We realize actions have lots of unanticipated consequences and that before actions are taken we need to carefully anticipate these consequences and be prepared for the consequences. Consequently I was warning about the dangers of Iraq, and feeling like a lone voice in the wilderness, back in February and March. Sometimes we squishies do get it wrong. Sometimes we overanalyze a situation to the point of paralysis. Sometimes following your instinct is the smartest approach.

But following an instinct and following an ideology are two different things. An instinct is an authentic feeling you have that often cannot be expressed on the basis of evidence. If your spouse is cheating on you, you can often pick up the vibes although you cannot point to anything particular. When you follow an ideology you are essentially following a pack. “Jane down the street thinks we should invade Iraq. I like and respect Jane. I think we should invade Iraq too!”

To me it’s a no brainer that as our population increases issues become more complex because there are more participants. Behavioral possibilities can grow exponentially with the number of participants. So I think it’s important that we evolve to become better at being squishy people, because it helps us behave better to the reality of our world and society.

I often feel like I am at war with the non-squishies. I don’t hate them, I just want them to see the light. I suspect they feel the same way about me. I hope that recent events will convince more non-squishies to embrace their squishy side, particularly today, on the second anniversary of 9/11. I would hope we are learning from our war on terrorism that there are things we can do to change our own behavior which make it less likely we will suffer these sort of tragedies again. I know that terrorists often have their own bizarre and non-squishy rationale for killing innocent people. But I also think somewhere in that terrorist propaganda are a few valid points. For example, maybe our society is a bit too commercial and capitalistic, and we all need to be more spiritual in our own way and less consumptive. And perhaps that will make us less of a target, and take us some place where we need to go.

One trying aspect of being a squishy is to try real hard to be open to listening to other points of view. I can’t claim to have completely mastered this virtue. I have a particularly hard time listening to non-squishy points of view, perhaps because I hear them constantly and the rationale never changes. But I do try. I would hope that some day the non-squishes could also learn to listen better to us squishies too.

 

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