Sunday, July 19, 2009

The importance of being earnest

The English dictionary gives us three meanings of the word “earnest” and they all seem related: serious in intention, purpose or effort, showing depth and sincerity of feeling, and seriously important. These are three very important adjectives sorely missing today in public life and in our personal relations with others.

We could, for instance, say that it was for lack of earnest intention or effort on the part of the city government of Toronto to settle its differences with the striking union that the garbage situation in the city continues to stink as long as the garbage collectors are hell bent in prolonging their strike. Or it could be the reverse that the striking city employees are damn earnest about their labour demands that continuing their strike is important to them in order to put across their message. If all three connotations of being earnest are present in the life of our city, this is certainly not the kind of “earnestness” that we city denizens want, especially during these muggy days of summer.

Many times in our relations with others, we seem to forget about the importance of being earnest. We tend to sidestep the objective truth in favour of our emotions, which could be influenced by our proximity to those we usually interact with or favour with our personal biases. Sometimes our loyalty to our group or devotion to friends clouds our understanding of others or their intention behind the statements they make. It is easy for us to dismiss a contrary and unpopular stand on certain issues which we believe might tarnish the sanctity of our relations with like-minded friends. Thus, it is easier to go with the flow rather than to engage in an earnest dialogue for fear that doing so may disturb the comfort zone we have established with friends or colleagues.

Oscar Wilde, in the last play he wrote, The Importance of Being Earnest, was not just making a clever play on words. While the title of his play suggests honesty (or earnestness) should be the rule of the day, the plot really hinges on the telling of not-so- little-white lies. Written in 1895, Wilde’s “earnest” evoked a variety of complex associations which historians, sociologists and literary critics alike deemed as typifying the Victorian mindset. Wilde’s play offers a biting, although understated, criticism of the institutions and values at the end of the nineteenth century, at the time when Britain was the world’s greatest colonial power. Yet, it was the earnestness of the British exploitative class, industrial and colonial systems that enables the life of leisure portrayed by the play’s main characters. Jack Worthing, a character in the play, when asked about his politics, replies, “Well, I am afraid I really have none,” though the Liberal Unionist Party he supports defends the colonial status of Ireland.

This reminds me of the intense hatred of some individuals against any gathering that is politically motivated, or anything, even if only minimally, that would have the colour of provoking a discussion of both sides of an issue. As if relations in reality are neutral and dispossessed of conflict, yet the same people would be the first to jump and pounce on others espousing a difference in opinion. They would not accept that intellectual disagreement can be healthy, and quick to stamp their feet and object to what they perceive as challenges to their set of beliefs. It’s almost like saying they have no politics so long as everybody stays in line.

While tolerance could be the centrepiece of the liberal mind, strangely, it can also be its paradox. Liberalism enjoins tolerance of divergence of viewpoints, and leaves it to the democracy of ideas to decide which shall prevail. Ironically, the end-result is often the demise of toleration itself, because those who adhere to their hard principles and uncompromising views, whether in political, moral or religious respects always—if given the opportunity—silence liberals, for liberalism by its nature threatens the hegemony they wish to impose. The weight of a difference in opinion becomes heavier to bear when the majority is stacked against you.

Liberalism can turn some into zealots who would persecute others for not conforming to their way of thinking. If they think you have gone astray from the mainstream of their belief system, they would invite you to join the human race, not to save your soul but because they feel threatened. This is particularly true with bullying. It is the bully’s fear that begets intolerance, and intolerance in turn begets fear, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

A.C. Grayling wrote in The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life, “What underlies tolerance is the recognition that there is plenty of room in the world for alternatives to coexist, and that if one is offended by what others do, it is because one has to let it get under one’s skin. We tolerate others best when we know how to tolerate ourselves: learning how to do so is one aim of the civilized life.”

Being earnest in respecting others for their different views is becoming a lost art to many; quite incongruously, even in this modern age of high-speed communications. There could be tons of exchanges of opinions, but the static they create may still show an enormous amount of bigotry which is left to the privacy of individual judgments to process and expunge. It is more worrisome, however, when this display of narrow-mindedness is made in public, among chat groups for example, because through sheer majority of numbers alone, the articulation of a relevant but divergent viewpoint can easily be stamped out. Our own private system of intellectual censorship can weed out ideas our group instinctively detests and considers a threat to the dominance of our belief system.

As Lady Bracknell in Wilde’s play says, “[W]e live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces, in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.” That, sometimes is our natural predisposition as a people, to keep our frivolous appearances, and true to our foremost cultural tendency, to save our face, rather than engage and welcome views from the opposite side for fear of being unmasked.

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