Oxymorons R US: Herding Cats is Easier than Herding Us

Harmony in love and society requires united diversity and realistic fantasy.

Posted Sep 10, 2019

These days many of us are wondering if there’s a way out of the messes we seem headed into, like folks on an express train trying to figure out how to avoid the fallen bridge ahead on the tracks.

It’s not a new question. People have long wondered how to navigate spaceship humankind through the obstacles in our path. It’s a good thing that it’s an old question. We can learn from past efforts to navigate – the ways they worked and didn’t.

Humans are diverse, more diverse than other critters thanks to our powers of language by which we’re exposed to way too much world. We have to be selective in what we attend to – selective in what we find significant.

Our perspectives are vastly more diverse than those of the world’s populations of housecats. Through language, we’re way more diverse and we’ve also got leverage. Our diverse perspectives can influence things farther afield than can house cats.

Compared to herding humans, herding cats is a cinch.

More diversity and influence poses a unique challenge for us humans, how to unite to keep from harming each other while still honoring the diversity.

There’s wishful thinking that it all just works out. You hear it in diverse win-win scenarios. The counter-culture said “we are all one” and “do your own thing” as though there wouldn’t be any conflict between those two ideas. Libertarians say the same: Anarchists unite! We all want freedom and we all want security so of course, we’d be tempted to pretend we all can have as much of both as we want. We’d rather not face that fact that in order to act as one, we’d have to compromise our freedom.

Unity through diversity – that’s an oxymoron. It’s even built into the oxymoronic name of our nation, the United States. Which are we, a united us or a diverse collection of states?

We each face that bind internally too. You experience a diverse range of emotional states and yet you have to unite them into a persona, a self that’s not all over the map, not shifting from one emotional state to another. Getting it together for public consumption can feel oppressive. Staying loose and going with your internal flow as your states change can be risky and ineffectual as we see in manic depressives.

We face the United States bind in partnership too. Romantic illusion, for example, keeping up a consistent “I adore you” can help people sustain harmonious coupledom but it can also feel oppressive. But then being totally honest with each other about your changing states always is risky too.

With too much world to contend with, we have to be selective about what we count as significant. No one can regard everything as equally significant. We pick and choose and by two standards, what’s likely and what’s likeable. We have to stay realistic or we get ourselves in trouble. But we can’t stay realistic. Reality is just too much for any of us. We dodge inconvenient truths. We gravitate toward self-reassuring illusions, another feature of language: too much world and us so capable of imagining happier alternatives, pretending threats away. With language we can rationalize anything we need in order to keep a sinking feeling away.

Some say that the best solution is for humanity to just wake up, face reality squarely and work together to save ourselves.

But reviewing our history, there’s not much hope of that. Not one of us lives on a strict diet of reality. It’s unrealistic to assume that people can be that realistic.

The alternative is to cultivate some cultural myth that isn’t completely realistic but motivates us to do the right thing. It’s sometimes called “the Noble Lie:” a falsehood that compels people to work together toward greater harmony. Christianity and Islam are both examples of such noble lies. Their defenders will often argue that taken on faith (not pure realism), the “sacred texts” make people nicer.

But reviewing humanity’s history, there’s reason to doubt that any practical fiction, any noble lie can sustain us. Noble lies tend to get corrupted over time, distorted, exploited not for harmony but tribal exceptionalism. People may embrace a myth for the harmony it promises but they’ll tend to stay because it enables them to prevail in conflict. Think of any ideology that started out generous but ended up selfish, any inspired culture that turned into a cult of tribal exceptionalism.

The bind we’re in boils down to this:

Reality is too dull or terrifying to hold our attention.

Fantasy is too alluring and dangerous to guide us to survival.

Here’s a dialog I wrote to expose various oxymorons, paradoxes or contradictions, two people talking about what it would take to avoid the oncoming obstacles. It has an application to saving the world and to saving relationships of all kinds, including our relationship with ourselves.