There’s a moment in Clerks, Kevin Smith’s first movie and triumph in exploring the banality of work, where the characters get into a debate about Star Wars. One character said that when Luke blew up the Death Star, he was justified. It had destroyed Alderaan; it was going to kill many more people. It was a military installation.
But the second time, in Return of the Jedi, when the rebels destroyed the Death Star, it was a different story. The weapon was in construction. There were scaffolds and likely contractors. Folks who, ostensibly, hopped in their space shuttles and returned to their families at the end of a workday. These are innocent women and children, the argument went, caught up in something they didn’t want to begin with.
Michel Foucault was a prolific French historian and philosopher who published a number of works in the 60s and 70s. In his seminal work, “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,” he details how environments can impact the soul — how the architectural constraints we have around us impact our very sense of being. For example, painting the walls of a prison pink affects the aggressiveness of the inmates. Painting murals on the walls would increase creativity. And on and on.
The argument that our environments affect our perceptions of self and our being, was built upon by the social scientists James Wilson (no relation) and George Kelling, in their “The Broken Windows Theory.” They detailed how the environment and self can be cyclical. One broken window in a neighborhood left unattended will indicate to the members of that community that it’s unimportant. A child growing up in that community, then, may feel it’s OK to break another window, to cross the street without looking to stay out late… What starts as a broken window then becomes two broken windows becomes three broken windows becomes a broken neighborhood.
It’s almost fatalistic to say that bad neighborhoods have a tendency to get worse. And, even if it’s arbitrary, having people who care about a neighborhood or environment keeps the community from degrading — communities are simply batches of people, after all. But perhaps the most important part of Foucault for my argument is his point that our reactions to our environments are binary. While a soul can conform to its environment, it can also rebel. In fact, Foucault posited that it does both. With a large enough sample size, we could show prisoners who became much deeper thinkers, stronger advocates for progressive causes and, even, changed the world (Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela come to mind). We could also show kids who came out of bad neighborhoods to go to Ivy League schools or become doctors and lawyers. Perhaps in those cases, their reaction to broken windows fueled their desire to get an education and begin to accumulate wealth.
The theory that we have binary reactions to our circumstances, our constraints and our environments rings true in a fundamental way. We can react positively or negatively to any outside stimuli. And, as the life-hacker Tim Ferriss describes stoicism, we get a moment to choose our response, even in the grips of emotion.
But the yes or no, reaction or not, feels far too simplistic for creatures as complex as humans. And it is. Because we can choose not only how to react to something, but what aspect of something to react to. For example, the sentence “How are you doing?” Could be taken an almost infinite number of ways. If I choose to focus on “you” or “doing” or ignore it altogether, my reaction changes. Inflammatory statements such as “You are a dirtbag,” could be received as a joke, confusion, contempt or frustration, depending on any number of variables, such as my definition of “self,” “dirtbag” or “to be.”
All of this can begin to feel startlingly reductionistic. But there’s an incredibly empowering thing within the banality of it all. Our reactions are infinite. Any situation can be hysterical or tragic or loving or destructive. I mean this in a literal way.
For example, look at the political parties. They react to one another constantly, and often they assume the worst of one another. After decades of believing the other side is out to destroy the country, it’s no surprise that they can no longer talk to one another.
It’s the intention that’s important for the actor, and the environment that’s important to the receiver. If the actor intends malice, then he or she can be considered malicious or misunderstood as anything else. If the actor intends a joke, then he or she could be a fool or comedian. If the environment is a stage then the receiver is far more likely to give the benefit of the doubt and assume the best about the speaker.
Because make no mistake, in everyday interactions with others, we’re constantly assuming something about one another. They have my best interests in mind, they like me, they don’t like cheese. Whatever it is, we’re forced on a daily basis to assume another’s intent. It is why 40 percent of the country can ardently love Donald Trump, while 40 percent can viscerally hate him. The underlying difference is what we assume about his intent.
In the past, our shared story, our culture, was stronger. It provided a much more substantial basis for what it meant to be an American. JFK, in his Rice University speech, where he outlined his plans to go to the moon, said:
Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.
He was rallying a nation to lead, to surpass the USSR and to overcome the technical challenges of sending a man to the moon. He was creating a shared narrative to rally Americans.
I can’t help but read the Rice University speech and believe that we’ve lost something as a country. We’ve lost our unifying narrative — our culture. The basis for our shared assumptions about one another’s intent. Today, our arguments are about what someone said and the implications of meaning, even when it’s videotaped and photographed and shared over a million times. These are not arguments about the actual words, rather they are arguments about the very soul of America, how we should reply to the constraints we’re under, how we should think of ourselves as Americans.
It’s challenging to believe that the Evil Empire employed innocent contractors, who had no interest in destroying planets. We’ve been taught to believe something different. It’s worse still, for some Trumpian Republicans, to think that Liberals aren’t about to take away all their guns to put everybody into socialist internment camps with incessant state-run propaganda that has made Bert and Ernie into a homosexual couple. Or, for some Liberals, to not think that we’re mere seconds away from the president declaring martial law and putting all minorities into those same internment camps before he uses the constitution as literal toilet paper.
But ultimately, we desperately as a country need to insist upon the opposite — to assume the best of intentions of our fellow Americans, even when we disagree with them. I’m not advocating for a loss of protest or docility, in fact, the opposite. Assuming the best in the other side would enable much more substantial and important conversations to take place. It would allow us to get past the shallow, back and forth quarrels that devolve so quickly. It would allow us to restore a shared story and community.
It would allow us to find the moderates in the Death Star and the rebellion, and, though it’s not nearly as interesting to watch, to achieve some kind of peace.