Good to be Unreasonable?

By Robert Bernstein   |   May 9, 2023

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” This quote by George Bernard Shaw provided the title of a wonderful film about the heroic life of Ralph Nader, An Unreasonable Man.

How do you respond when you see an injustice? Are you inspired to action? Or do you just try to adapt to it?

I have had the privilege of meeting Nader several times and seeing him speak about a wide range of topics. His upbringing was very similar to my own: in a Semitic family in rural central Connecticut. His family was Lebanese; ours was Jewish. For both of us, family dinner conversation revolved around world events and what could be done to make things better.

I just assumed this was normal for everyone. Why isn’t it?

Most people are raised with a belief that life is unfair. But there will be an afterlife where justice will be served. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” Just endure the current suffering and injustice and all will be made right by the sky god. This actually comes from Psalm 37:11 in the Jewish Bible, referring to justice on Earth, not in an afterlife.

But the unreasonable person is not going to wait for an imaginary sky god to make things right. They work to make things right here and now. This does not mean that all will be perfect here and now. It may take generations of organizing and building to achieve justice and sustainability. But the work begins right now.

Most people become activists because something makes them angry. Someone wants to tear down a nearby forest to build a new Amazon warehouse. Or they lose their job to automation. Or their son is being sent off to a pointless war. Or they discover that their reproductive rights have been taken away. They fight hard over that one issue.

But the determined unreasonable person sees beyond that one issue to larger principles. At best, this can lead to a “movement.”

Many people proudly say they are “independent” and avoid “taking sides.” Would you say that in a time of war? Right now, millions of Russians oppose Putin’s war against the people of Ukraine. Unfortunately, Ukraine has to fight for its survival against all of Russia, even though many Russians are on their side.

“Taking sides” is the only way change ever happens. The question is how expansively to draw a “side.” If you are upset about women losing reproductive rights, do you put on blinders and just focus on that one issue? Or do you see how this issue is connected to a wide range of other issues that form a complete ideology?

The same side that is taking away reproductive rights also wants to destroy what little we have of a social support system in terms of health care, nutrition, and housing. They want to force children to be born, but not provide any support for them. Where does that come from?

Linguist George Lakoff has noted that it comes from a “strong father” mindset. That women should live under a strong father or strong husband. If the government provides social services, then this undermines the coercive power of the strong father figure.

This same “strong father” mindset causes that side to want to support authoritarian dictatorships that align with their authoritarian ideology. Can you see how these single issues in fact form an ideological web?

You might say that this “taking sides” idea will increase polarization. I would argue that the polarization is already there. It is naive to pretend that you can stay “independent” and just focus on the one issue that made you angry.

It is good that one injustice woke you up to the point of taking action, rather than just adapting. But it is even better if you can join forces with others in a web of connected issues. It is also important not to get distracted by other issues that may be worthy, but really are irrelevant.

Most Americans really do want universal health care, reproductive choice, free public college, worker empowerment through unions, and sustainable transportation and energy. The bad guys distract us with wedge issues. But if we remember what side we are on, we can win.  


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