In many ways, it would seem that we are a world of reformers now. Thanks in large part to the power of social media, everybody has a platform to say whatever they like regardless of how accurate, intelligent or worthy their thoughts may be. Some people like to troll and cause conflict while others simply like to demolish the ideas and people that they disagree with.
One of the problems with this platform in our current context is that most people who are posting status update after status update, using their agenda as a polemic, seem to have forgotten the basic laws of logic and reason. What has taken their place, you ask? Emotions, opinions, and half thought through arguments.
In order to be a true reformer one must understand the scope of the thing that they wish to reform before they destroy it. Many go about reform the way history tells us Cortés burnt his ships in the harbor. While there was no going back for Cortés, sometimes we burn the ships before we have reasoned through such actions.
Today we are in the midst of cultural reform. Facebook has proven to be the new “speakers corner” as people pontificate, throw in a meme or two that agrees with their viewpoint, erroneously thinking that the picture and soundbite alone should end all other disagreement.
People are unfriended when they disagree, or perhaps more to the point, when they become belligerent concerning their topic.
The problem with the new reformers is that too often they have not thought through fully the reasons that something existed before. They have not entered into the “whys” of the thing they wish to eliminate or change. Some areas of reform seem easy such as ending human trafficking or eliminating global poverty. Some areas of current reform seem less clear to the populace such as gun rights and same-sex marriage. While boats are being burned, and status updates are flying, the conversations that are needed are being ignored in lieu of trying to determine who is right…who is wrong.
When emotions rule the day, we don’t ask the deeper questions, we simply want everyone to agree with our position. These are not easy issues, and before we tear down the things that have been in place for a while, we need to understand why they existed in the first place. Maybe they do need to be changed, maybe they don’t. Until we can clearly understand why something has existed, we don’t have the clarity yet to remove it.
G.K Chesterton spoke profoundly to this:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.
Dialog is needed today on so many issues from global economics to civil rights. It would be my hope that we could engage the issues with honest reflection, being compassionate about the other person, even if we disagree on some issue.
But before we keep tearing down fences, lets make sure we know why the fence was put there in the first place.