My Turn: We must listen to one another

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2003

Some see the world in black and white. Using deeply held beliefs and convictions, they divide everything into two categories. Whatever the issue, policy, object, or person, it is either good or it is bad. Such moral clarity is emotionally soothing and satisfying. However, the problem with this binary mode of thinking is that it ignores the reality that there is good and bad in almost everything. Call it the law of unintended consequences or Newton's First Law (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction).

I see this in my medical practice every day. For example, catching a cancer early with a simple test sounds good, right? But what if the cancer is not aggressive 95 percent of the time, you can't tell which patients are going to have the 5 percent of aggressive cancers and the treatments that we can use have a 40 percent complication rate? Then doing the test isn't necessarily such a good thing, is it?

I write all of this as a prelude to discussing the deep divisions that exist in our community, our nation, and the world. In one camp we have those who see the United States as the root cause of much of what is wrong in the world. They indict the U.S. for originating and perpetuating all of the evils of capitalism, globalism and neo-colonialism. Supporting their case is a long litany of shameful history (slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the imperial wars against Spain and Mexico, Vietnam, etc).

On the other side are those who see the United States as the cradle of liberty and democracy and the champion of freedom throughout the world. They remind us, for example, of how this nation stood up to and defeated the twin tyrannies of national socialism and communism during the past century.

How can we reconcile these two widely divergent world views? How can the same country be described as the cause of so much evil and oppression and as the champion of freedom and ally of oppressed peoples everywhere? The answer is that there is truth in both statements.

Since the nation's inception the people and our elected leaders have done things that we should be ashamed of and things that we should be immensely proud of. The continuation of slavery when the nation was created and the abolition of slavery during the Civil War are good counter-examples of our mixed history.

It is too early to tell how history will view the current war against the regime in Iraq. Those who think this conflict is all about oil, revenge and demonstrating America's hegemony to the world only envision negative outcomes; civilian casualties, increased instability, escalating terrorism. Those who see things from the president's viewpoint think the war will lead to the end of a dangerous regime, the freedom of the people of Iraq, and increased stability in the region. Both of these outcomes are possible. A mixed outcome seems most probable, e.g. the end of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, freedom for the Iraqis, decreased stability and increased terrorism. Given that good and bad have such an annoying tendency to travel together, it is very important that the pro-war and anti-war sides listen to each other. Closing our ears and our minds to those we disagree with (e.g. by only reading views we agree with) will only deepen the rifts in our society and the world. Demonizing others whose politics differ from our own (as we see so often on these pages) ill prepares us to sit down and make life's tough decisions together.

I guess the world is not black or white, but black and white at the same time. I picture the Yin-Yang symbol with black and white surrounding each other and flowing together. Spin the symbol and you will see gray.

Murray Buttner is a Juneau physician.

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