Beyond contempt

I’ve been thinking of what to say about the recent UK riots. You’ll get clues to my more spontaneous responses in my twitter feed.

There’s been a fair bit of discussion around the value of seeing the riots through the lens of complexity… and the challenge to keep an open mind rather than simply seeing all events as merely further confirmation of our existing prejudices about society. It’s a tough gig being a human trying hard to maintain our rational dignity when much of our brain is more evolved for fight-or-flight responses.

I struggle with this: what do I do about the contempt I feel gripped by when judging those whose actions appear to be driven by contempt. Debates so easily slide into fights for status where we attempt to preserve our dignity by attacking that of others. The riots and what came before and after seem to be a series of cycles of such attacks on dignity.

Then I saw this analysis of Obama’s political style quoted on Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Whatever you may think of Obama at the moment, I find these principles cast some light for me on how not to get stuck in a contempt auction. Here’s a snippet:

Obama acts entirely within the tradition of mainstream African American political strategy and tactics. The epitome of that tradition was the non-violence of the Civil Rights Movement, but goes back much further in time. It recognizes the inequality of power between whites and blacks. Number one: maintain your dignity. Number two: call your adversaries to the highest principles they hold. Number three: Seize the moral high ground and Number four: Win by winning over your adversaries, by revealing the contradiction between their own ideals and their actions. It is one way that a oppressed people struggle.

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