Let’s Talk About Manichaeism [Squirrel Dialogues 23]

In our latest episode, Squirrel, Carla, and friends discuss the pitfalls of the Manichaean worldview, otherwise known as black and white or dualistic thinking.

More Squirrel Dialogues. And on YouTube.

Show notes below the video.

Show Notes

This is the second episode with our new contributor, Carla Raccoon. The episode is inspired in part by the disturbing images and events of the Capitol Riot, and particularly the sad tale of Larry Brock, Jr. In this New Yorker article, Brock is described as having a “Manichean world view,” which was something I had to immediately Google.

Brock’s family members and his friend said that his service in the Air Force was central to his identity. Several of Brock’s e-mail addresses and social-media accounts featured his call sign and military nickname, Torch. One family member said that Brock derived “this weird sense of power” from his time as a military pilot, along with a Manichean world view. “He used to tell me that I only saw the world in shades of gray, and that the world was black and white,” the other family member said. “He doesn’t understand the fallout and the people he’s hurting. And I can’t imagine what he was doing there with zip ties, or what he thought he was going to accomplish.”

Manichaeism was a Persian religion that arose in the 3rd century AD (which put it in competition with early Christianity). Manichaeism was marked by a dualistic, light versus dark, (or good versus evil) philosophy.

Manichaeism is alive and well today in the harsh black and white thinking found throughout our society: Red and blue, good and bad, male and female, criminal and good citizen, & cetera, & cetera. It strikes me as a tragically antiquated way to view the world, yet one that is very much in vogue. Take American politics, where there is a broadly held idea that the US is divided into two opposing sides. I think it is striking that this feeling is expressed with equal intensity by both “sides.”

It troubles me because we have seen throughout human history where this mindset goes: Towards dehumanizing language and behavior, contempt, judgment, violence, and so on.

This dovetails with the problems around having a judgmental worldview, which Squirrel addressed with great gusto in Episode 7.

I talk about Nazis a lot because they tend to be a byword for evil people…And also I hope we have all learned in recent years that Nazism did not die when grandpa killed Hitler in 1945. The mindset is alive and well and takes many guises, including White Supremacy, White Nationalism, etc.

Nazis are also used as a conversational cudgel to bludgeon talk about compassion, nonviolence, nonjudgment, and so on. “What about Nazis,” as Worry Fox likes to ask. As if the specter of the Nazi invalidates all that is loving, altruistic, and kind in this world.

Let’s be clear: Nazism is very really and I think “evil” is a fitting term to describe Nazism. And we can and should condemn the actions of the followers of Nazism. But I dispute that Nazis exist in any real sense. No more than criminals, good guys, and so on. Again: Squirrel addresses this at length in Episode 7.

Why does this all matter? Because if we ever want peace we must first recognize each other’s humanity. Labeling or judging people, or dividing them into a Manichaean world, is a recipe for permanent conflict.

When we label someone a Nazi or a racist, why on earth would they want to come in from the cold? What’s the invitation? Hey Nazi, break bread with me? Hey racist, put your gun down and let’s talk? It’s a kind of handcuffs in language form. When we judge others we confine them with a label.

I’ll admit that our culture has not caught up. Even the language is clunky. Person with Nazi beliefs? Man who loves firearms? Human who prioritizes the accumulation of material wealth at the detriment of his neighbors? Human being who is addicted to methamphetamine?

Regardless, I maintain that words matter, and our thoughts matter. And the peacemaking that we so desperately need must start in our own hearts and minds. Discuss.

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