Terms of Adjustment
by Philip Damon
Philip Damon taught writing and literature at the University of Hawaii for 34 years, and his fiction, non-fiction and social commentaries have been published widely. Among the mystic and holistic traditions, he has followed many practices. His ‘Sacred Democracy’ columns are archived at readthedirt.org.
The opening caveat to last month’s column was that I’d submitted it on deadline, days before the previous month’s elections. Thus there I was, writing a column in October about an election in November, to be read in December. It seemed metaphorical for what I had to say in that column: that it didn’t really matter whether I knew the outcome or not.
If there was any truth to the theme I’ve been hammering on for almost a year, the corporations had the appearance of being in total control — yet out of it too, if you get my drift. Meanwhile, their henchmen the Republicans appeared to have a vertical monopoly over the electoral process, even if they lost a seat or two in November. Well, turned out they didn’t, and we can expect the effects of corporate influence that much sooner.
The opening caveat to this month’s column, then, is that it will be the last from me for a while. I’ve become involved in another project, which increasingly requires my undivided attention. This hiatus will be of indeterminate length, though it could well be interrupted on occasion. I’m bothering you about it here only because, since this will be it for now, I’ll be deviating slightly from the usual monthly essay commenting on a current topic from the “just thinking” point of view. I’d like to do some reflecting here instead.
For a year and a half, I’ve been writing these columns under this title, and people I speak to seem to get the play on words there. Yet I also hope they get the superiority of the justice side of “Just Thinking” over the merely side. While mental humility provides a critical foundation of any just-thinking process, it is one’s overall fair-mindedness that is the essential mental attitude. Fairness leads justice, like a partner in a dance of harmony.
(Over the months, I’ve explored “just thinking” in various ways that it isn’t. I’ve looked at it as being not “cynical,” as being not characterized by “cognitive dissonance,” and increasingly over the last year as being not “polarizable.” I’ve presented these human tendencies as targets of the “trickle-down” campaign of the rightwing cult: to inflame the minds of certain kinds of thinkers with fear by pejorative label. Polarizing labels arouse the ancient, us-versus-them tribal instincts separating humans everywhere from their own highest yearnings — to be part of a peaceful citizenry, of a democratic society, in a home of the free, in a land of the brave.)
So yes, a case can be made that one’s sense of fairness is predicated on a capacity for a humble outlook. We can recall ourselves as children, when what seemed fair to us was how we wanted it to be. There was no other way we could see it. Such is why we have age requirements for voting and driving privileges, since as “adults” our sense of fairness is more fully developed. Yet we’ve learned in recent decades that every adult harbors an “inner child,” some of which love to steal the show by forcing a tilted version of childish fairness onto the adult in charge. Pity the democracy with an electorate of adults whose un-outgrown demons are being cruelly manipulated by a powerful few.
Only that wouldn’t be a democracy then, would it? By anyone’s sense of justice?
In earlier columns I’ve emphasized irony and self-irony. One is a hard fact of life (opposites are true, inescapably); the other is a tool to cope with that fact of life, when it comes to what we believe, how we behave and how we view ourselves. Self-irony and an ironic perspective overall are correctives to unbalanced “sentimentalisms” requiring easily-labeled and simplistic realities. These lead to cynicism, mental states of cognitive dissonance and a willingness to be polarized to a degree that we see only virtue in our fellows, but only vice in those who believe differently than we ourselves were conditioned.
“Just thinking” assumes there to be ironies involved in whatever comes across our thresholds of perception. It knows that there is no justice without a spirit of fairness — no matter how badly an angry inner child defines justice as resentment, revenge, payback, blowback or an eye for an eye. Justice often means punishment to us, as in “bringing to justice;” what does it say then that our justice system is nowhere most believers in justice wish to come anywhere close to? Like with another word I recall unpleasantly from my boyhood, “discipline,” it’s easy to see the ironies of the distorted definitions around the word “justice.” Meanwhile, isn’t it the most basic standard of a functioning democracy?
One could call it a form of mental discipline, too — thinking in a spirit of justice — not to mention the moral tone of an entire nation, from its citizenry to its highest offices. So how is it we have a Department of Justice in the president’s cabinet in the first place, when the very meaning of the nature of the organizational system of governance that we call a democratic republic is justice? Every department should be a department of justice.
But then that’s another question. Or is it? The amount of injustice Americans countenance is beyond belief much of the time, and our self-irony tells us that each one of us isn’t just allowing but contributing to the imbalance, in ways usually unbeknownst to us. (What’s more self-ironic than the inner reminder, “There but for fortune…?”) If we are blessed with compassion and an empathic nature, our powerlessness to influence outcomes will plague our feelings. On a geopolitical scale, injustices are euphemistically-labeled acts of justice — to save nations, keep citizens safe and secure, create gobs of jobs. On a smaller scale maybe it’s you or I, reaping the benefits of a legal loophole. But then: what if a law we break is unjust? What if it was unjustly conceived and cynically passed?
Well, aren’t they all, to a lawbreaker? Criminals are grownups lacking self-irony and with entitled inner children who deem it unfair that anyone has things they don’t. (How is it criminal to steal? Aren’t I deserving?) “Justice” often tilts in favor of oneself or one’s own, especially with political parties and factions. Yet our capacity for just thinking can enable us to know whether it is us, or the law, whose thinking is unjust. Ourselves we can more easily correct. Thus we may not be better off, but we are better.
Certain things are acts of justice, yet in unalloyed form are more likely as intentions. When it comes to actions, irony prevails. Solomon proved we can’t divide the baby, but most things we can, or could, and should. This simply means that there is always going to be both yin and yang to things, and if we insist on seeing them all one way or the other, we are plunged into that sentimental state of mind that is an attitude far from just thinking. It may seem harmless to be there, even vacation-like at times. But the question remains: is it fair?
Because if it isn’t fair, it just can’t be just. And while we may not be able to do much to rectify the world’s injustices, we can darn well know what’s just and what isn’t. The quality of our thinking depends on it, not to mention our feelings and our actions.
So I’d just like to leave you, for a while, with some hopeful words and phrases:
Adjust. We can do that.
Adjustable. We can be that.
Adjustment. We can make that.
Once things are finally said and done, they’ll have been adjusted and re-adjusted until they’re brought into adjustment. Because what’s “just” is their natural alignment.