Saturday, October 19, 2013

Meaning of life 7: the dark side

Meaning for an individual or a society does not necessarily need to be good, healthy, or beneficial meaning ; it can be bad meaning. This can be particularly so for an individual, a group or a subgroup of a population that begins embracing a negative framework of meaning. Meanings constructed around exclusivist, xenophobic, paranoid frames of reference can be extraordinarily damaging to the individual psyche as well as to the community and to wider society. Meanings generated from states of resentment, anger, arrogance, exploitation, are equally destructive to the soul and the community.

The construction of meaning is intimately involved in the construction of identity – both individual and collective. Groups which construct their shared meaning and personal and shared identity around such ideas as “everyone is going to hell but us,” or “nobody’s as good or as smart or as important, or as beautiful as us,” “nobody counts in the end but us,” are debilitating to the individuals, to the group and very difficult for the larger society which they impact.

The main shared component of these negative frameworks of meaning comes down to their separation of themselves from others and from the larger shared project and adventure of humanity as a whole. Any time we wall ourselves off from others, we begin to, consciously or unconsciously adopt a value scale with ourselves at the top and everyone else ranged lower and valued less.

Meanings which promote exclusivity or separation between ourselves and others are essentially non-productive to the human endeavor –to the natural flow of things. To self-identify in contrast and opposition to others instead of in connection and mutual respect, is a gateway to all sorts of awful behavior to one another.

It leads to exploitation of others – what I need from them is far more important than their comfort, needs, goals, purposes, pleasure. It generates disenfranchisement and marginalization of others. It doesn’t need to be extreme. Negatively skewed sets of meaning can be as simple as assessing the healthy as better than the unhealthy, the smart or educated as better than ignorant or uneducated, the fast as better than the slow. Value judgments which place others in hierarchical relation to ourselves and those like us are inherently negative frameworks of meaning.

Some see beauty only in those who look like themselves, some see truth only in those who share their ideas, perspectives, outlook. This sort of territorial exclusiveness of the mental sphere is debilitating not only to those who construct these meanings but brings harm to those who live around or come into contact with them in one form or another. It shrinks the humanity of those who frame their identity with these meanings.

At the far end, these negative frames of meaning can lead to demonization of the other, the making of those who are different into non-humans, soul-less. And that is when we begin to act in truly evil ways toward one another. We have done this again and again in our rough road to becoming human.

Seeing that our worst tendencies can come out of the same urge to create meaning that inspires our greatest human achievements is part of the mystery of our humanity.

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