Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Curse of One-Lens-ism

I suffer from ism-itis.

Every day, I'm warned about a different Ism from one source or another. I should be terrified of Islamic extremism. If that won't kill me, other forms of religious extremism will. Or maybe secular humanism is a bigger threat, I've lost track. Cultural relativism is surely a threat. As are atheism, agnosticism... or, depending on how you look at it, Catholicism and Zionism.

Mind you, this disease extends far beyond religion, and not every Ism actually has an "-ism." But the suffix is more and more implied as it pertains to any specialized though domain.

Some fellow Notre Dame alumni and alumnae are lobbying to have President Obama disinvited from this year's commencement largely due to his views on the legality of abortion and stem cell research. Others thought the same when George W. Bush was invited years ago, mostly due to his views on capital punishment and his doctrine of preemptive war. (We throw around the term "special interests," but we really mean "any interest." There are people in Washington who lobby on behalf sugar beets, for crying out loud...)

This is the problem. If you're looking for a real Ism to blame for everything wrong in the world, it isn't any of these. The real enemy of thoughtful discourse and good decision-making--the real thing we should be protesting on every street corner--is One-Lens-Ism.

Yet this intellectual disease is only growing in popularity. Why?

Because it's easy, that's why.

There are economists who see their discipline only through the lens of, say, currency valuations. Others focus on inflation. Others, employment. Others, deficits. Unsurprisingly, they rarely agree on economic policy. Some see energy policy only through the lens of fossil fuels. Others, wind and solar. Others, nuclear. Still others, biofuels. Unsurprisingly, each thinks their silver bullet will solve all of our problems (partly because they don't even agree on the problems). I'm sure veganism is a healthier lifestyle, but if I looked at absolutely everything through only that lens, it would be a disaster. And of course, we have the people who look at politics only through the lens of taxes, and they sound like children.

Think for a second about how easy this all is. We give people credit for passion and consistency when they see the world through only one lens, fighting every day for their micro cause. But we shouldn't. In fact, we should shame them. These are the most dangerous people on earth. Imagine waking up tomorrow and deciding, "From this day forward, I will see the world only through the lens of x." (Let's say it's "sugar maple trees.") We need more sugar maple trees! Sugar maples provide habitats and shade. They're beautiful, and they sequester carbon. They're way better than those stupid oak trees... they grow faster and bigger. We need more sugar maples! We need to prevent evil people from chopping them down! In fact, if someone wants to build a high-speed rail through a field that includes even ONE sugar maple tree, damn the rail line! (Even if it will keep more cars off the roads, lead to fewer traffic deaths and lower the carbon footprint more effectively than the trees...). I'm passionate about sugar maple trees, dammit, and I won't back down!

Now that's an easy way to live. You know what's hard? Looking through multiple lenses. Seeing how things are interrelated, how one thing affects another. Looking at legal issues as conflicts of rights. Looking at environmental and economic factors together, rather than assuming they're always in conflict. Looking at how high fructose corn syrup increases weight affects kids' health increases diabetes spurs greater use of the health care system increases health care costs raises insurance premiums eats away at family budgets makes parents buy cheaper food leads to their kids eating more high fructose corn syrup.

That's reality. Someone who only wants to look at one part of that chain: lazy. Someone willing to look at everything in a complex, multi-dimensional way and still try to solve problems: a leader.

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