Print Edition: March 7, 2012
I was on the internets recently, surfing the endless realms of belligerent, grammatical incoherent forum posts, when I discovered the following in the profile of one of my “real life” friends:
“I respect people’s rights to believe in whatever nonsense or sense they want to, as long as they don’t try to persuade or influence others on the basis of their unevidenced beliefs. You believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster?[*] Fine, no problem. You want to persuade me to believe it? Not fine, piss off.”
I was struck by this not because it’s a new perspective on a common problem, but because of how pervasive this belief has become in our society. All of us have encountered a variation of this statement, usually in the form of someone backpedaling from a potential religious or ideological argument. We are familiar with, and to a certain extent resonate with, the idea that everyone should be able to believe or do what they want as long as they don’t impose those beliefs and actions on others. Recently in Abbotsford we’ve seen this sentiment expressed in defense of both the cancelled/uncancelled Taboo Sex Show and the new Lingerie Football Team, and frankly I would defend its use in both cases.
Yet this perspective is based on a series of assumptions that I find problematic. It’s an easy, perhaps trite, response to the complicated problem of tolerance, and one that boxes systems of belief into defined containers in the closet of personality. It’s characteristic of what I would consider “the myth of the individual”; the belief that society is constructed of individuals whose actions or beliefs have little impact upon others or even upon their inherent selves.
There are two main myths which I think are propagated by this perspective:
A. What you believe does not affect who you are
I get the impression from statements such as the forum post above that people assume belief systems to be accessories which get pulled out during family reunions or important holidays as a matter of ceremony. An individual can thus turn on or off their beliefs, or even switch them to conform to different social settings.
Frankly this idea disturbs me because any system of beliefs that comes with an “on/off” isn’t really a system of beliefs at all. Belief dictates thought, and thought dictates action, and therefore any true belief will have a profound effect on both the perspective and life of the believer. This does not imply that anyone who believes anything is morally required to “persuade” everyone else of that belief, but it does mean that, consciously or subconsciously, they are generating influence. What you believe, if you truly believe it, is what you are.
B. What you believe has no affect on me
One of the great myths of our time is the idea that any action or belief is permissible as long as it has no tangible negative effect upon other people. Anybody who has stood at the intersection of Hastings and Main in Vancouver and seen the sociological impact of the struggles in that community will know that this statement simply isn’t true. All communities are organisms, and no single cell in an organism can completely buffer itself nor be buffered from the surrounding cells. The beliefs of our neighbours, our professors, even our classmates affect us, no matter how successfully or unsuccessfully they try to restrain them.
Once again, I affirm that there is much truth in the idea that a person’s private beliefs are their own business, and everyone has the right to believe in “whatever nonsense or sense they want to” in the vacuum of their individuality. But I would caution those who believe the discussion simply ends there, that this alone constitutes tolerance.
If anybody truly believes anything, then that person’s entire life is a subtle form of persuasion. We cannot attempt to deny this fact, just as we should not isolate ourselves to the point that the only persuasion or influence we recognize is our own.
*For those of who you have not yet encountered the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster I’d encourage you to visit http://www.venganza.org/ for a rather bizarre commentary on modern religious institutions. YES, these people claim to believe in the FSM (or at least the ideas behind it). NO, these people are not idiots, and YES they have funny posters.