Sunday 30 December 2012

Mindset that generates intolerance

Mo Chaudhury

Binary mindset and intolerance

December 29, 2012

Photo: Reuters

What is the common defining element of extremism, polarization, either or, anything but, and my way or high way? The answer is that they are all binary or digital (zero/one) in nature since they define things in terms of two disjoint and inherently adversarial alternatives. This is what I refer to as the binary mindset. My thesis is that the binary mindset is the boson (God Particle) of intolerance.

Intolerance is much like the corner solution of economic theory where, for example, a consumer chooses either to buy as much food as she can afford or rent the biggest possible residence, meaning that either she does not have a place to live or she goes hungry. Intriguingly, such extreme consumption choices are optimal when the consumer is obsessed with a commodity and never gets tired of consuming more and more of it. In real life, rarely we observe such extreme consumption preference and behavior. Instead we find interior solutions to be prevalent meaning that most consumers spend their income on food as well as housing. The powerful message is that amalgams, mixtures, combinations, unions, and diversity represent moderate and balanced outcomes, and very importantly they result from mindsets that are not binary, and are tolerant or inclusive of alternatives.

Let us consider the thorniest and most divisive matter in the known history of mankind, namely religion. By definition, each religion/faith starts with the blind belief that only their version of the Creator and Creation is the "truth". By implication or divine instruction then, the followers of a given religion are to view all other religions as wrong and their followers as being misguided. This binary mindset of a believer irreconcilably bifurcates the humanity into fellow believers of the same "true" faith and the astray or the believers of other faiths and the people of no faith. This is precisely where religious intolerance is rooted and the process of blinding vision starts. This is because it is nearly impossible to accept or even see any merit in the view of another person believing that person to be absolutely wrong at the core. Importantly, it is not belief in the Creator, it is rather the imputed claim of exclusivity of a specific faith being the truth that procreates blinding vision and breeds intolerance.

Everyday thousands of children are born worldwide into families practicing numerous religions. And this has been going on for millions of years now. Clearly, to a believer, it is solely the Creator's decision as to what parental religion, if there is any, a child is born into. Then, it does not seem reasonable for the compassionate Creator to make truth seeking more burdensome for the newborns born into supposedly misguided parents. Stepping out of the binary mindset, however, leads to a more tenable and clearly harmonious premise that the divine messages to all religions at all times are, have always been and will always remain the same. The self-inculcated binary mindset of those believers who are "religious" about their religion prevents them from seeing this necessary logical commonality in all divine messages. What else could explain as to why the more "religious" people become about their faith, the more they litigate the untruth about others?

Arguably, the binary mindset with respect to religion has proven to be one of the most controversial influences in the governance of modern nation states. While a blanketing influence of religion is observed in some states, e.g., Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel (de facto), the role of religion in state governance is primarily reflected in the ideological lenience of the political parties in most democracies. While occasionally parties with strong religious ideology do come to power (e.g., most recently in Egypt), the governance ideologies of mainstream parties in most democracies effectively differ in terms of the extent of secularism.

In practical terms, secularism as a state principle (enshrined in constitution or not) avoids legislating, implementing or adjudicating state policies that seek rationalization from or promote a specific religion or belief system including atheism. It is interesting to note that the ultra-secular people and parties (that subscribe to the highest degree of secularism) share an important characteristic with the religious right at the opposite end of the spectrum, namely a binary mindset. The binary mindset of the ultra-seculars views any accommodation of religion in public domain as an undesirable infiltration, meaning that religious guidance for governance can only be bad for the society. While the intolerant views of the religious right are overt, it is seldom recognized that often the ultra-seculars are quite intolerant of expression of religion in public sphere. For example, in USA and Canada, the ultra-seculars vigorously protest and sometimes litigate even the exhibition of religious replicas (like a Cross) or greetings (like Merry Christmas) in government buildings and venues. The intolerance of the ultra-seculars can and did (historically) reach extremes. Turkey once banned the wearing of hijab, and Egypt's religious right party, the Muslim Brotherhood, was banned as a political party for many years. In Bangladesh, even very recently, the ultra-seculars demanded banning of the parties with religious ideologies. In other words, while the religious right is "religious" about religion, the ultra-seculars are "religious" about non-religion, both being intolerant of each other.

The truth of the matter is that religion is an integral part of the life and values of many citizens, practicing or not. Hence a democratic society cannot afford to totally de-legitimize religion (of the majority) as a source of guidance for laws and public policies for too long without creating alienation, a sense of reverse discrimination and ultimately a backlash that might set back the secular progress over many decades. Similarly, it cannot also afford to govern its citizens into believing and practicing the divine codes of the majority without weakening the belief itself. This is because belief is a very personal voyage of our mind to explore divinity, ungoverned by human codes and unencumbered even by our own physique. Further, since belief is not observable and verifiable, enforcing the observable practices by way of governance risks increasing the incidence of fake observance that can degenerate into loss of belief altogether. Therefore, the key to simultaneously preserving the apparently competing but inherently congruous religious belief systems and the secular democratic societies that permit maximum attainable and most tolerant freedom of choice is to motivate the religious right and the ultra-seculars to break out of their binary mindsets. It is hoped that the above discussion is a small step toward convincing them that their respective corner solutions are too intolerant to be long term tenable and would ultimately sentence them to politically desolate corners.

While the impact of binary mindset is illustrated here using religion and secularism, the intolerance effect of a binary mindset arises in numerous other circumstances and dimensions of our lives. The more "religious" we are about anything, the more blinded and intolerant we become of competing views. Gradually but surely we, as individuals or as a collection, enter a phase of endless conflict with the "not-me" and "not-us" compartments of our fellow human beings. Life being a collection of countably finite moments, isn't it worthwhile to use those precious ticks to seek union instead?

Mo Chaudhury is a Professor of Practice in Finance at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

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