Under the influence of several friends who told me about the designed addictiveness of screens, I recently switched the color filter on my phone and laptop to black and white. I made this part of my observance of Lent, 40 days of simple, ascetic living observed by Christians in preparation for Easter.
If Lent involves ethical progress via analogy — refraining from indulging in sugar to train the same discipline that refrains from indulging in excessive criticism — then being more conscious of literal surfaces, like laptop screens, acts as one of several possible reminders to not take what is immediately before us as all there is. I’ve since realized two things: One, that relative detachment from my screen was in line with Lenten principles to remove distractions from what was important; two, that spending less time with surfaces like my screen and having faith in what might be beyond had implications beyond the private domain of religion, and extended into public domains like politics.
A secular description of faith by the psychoanalyst and nontheist Erich Fromm is, “a conviction which is rooted in one’s own experience,” or a belief in the value of pursuing data-informed visions of truth that eventually lead to scientific discoveries and social transformations — taking the surface, but daring to see beyond. This could be as practical as the environment and sustainability major disturbed by discouraging data on water pollution and flooding, but determined to study and someday apply the building of ditches. It could be interpersonally applied as the generosity of accommodating disagreeable behavior in a friend by considering that act in terms of their whole person. An over-attachment to surfaces — environmental data, disagreeable behavior, dominant narratives, immediate day-to-day responsibilities — can prevent us from realizing the real extent of our autonomy and can contribute to preserving the status quo against our better interests.
Public life in general, and politics in particular, are often characterized by these “surfaces,” from the reductionist self-advertisement of individuals on social media to necessary generalizations of individuals into politically-defined demographics and public narratives. And while individual morality can be developed in an integrated and holistic manner, the pursuit of public morality — in less abstract words, activism — necessarily emphasizes a single value or cause, especially in areas that are not universally agreed upon.
Focusing attention on a single cause is unquestionably important and — having grown up in a relatively apolitical Singapore — admirable, but there are times when this singular emphasis can seem excessive. An example less commonly discussed in liberal spaces is the American Catholic Church. The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops’ harsh statement on President Joe Biden’s inauguration emphasized their disapproval of his pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ politics — in a way that even the Vatican deemed excessive. Since then, the Conference has softened their stance with letters appreciating the administration’s decisive actions on migration and the environment, and more broadly by disbanding a working group against Biden. The Lenten timing of this has been noted by some in amusing ways, but nonetheless notes the effort to ensure that an emphasis on parts does not lose sight of the bigger picture.
As the American Catholic Church continues to struggle toward unity through this season, I wonder if its struggles are symptomatic of American political culture more broadly. The Catholic academic Massimo Faggioli, who observes American Catholicism from the outside as an Italian, has suggested that some of the Church’s cleavages stem simply from a tendency to see itself as the “center of the world” in its determination to push forward either progressive or conservative applications of Catholicism that exclude the other.
This unwillingness to listen to the political other is not unfamiliar to the climate of divisive bipartisan politics growing in America — one defined by often surface-level differences — especially in the last four years under former President Donald Trump. While ethical considerations in politics are important, applying them from a moral high ground is black and white and resists nuance. Listening to a perspective one disagrees with on a moral level is taxing and unfair to expect from anyone. But overattachment to moral thinking can make one miss the fact that not all difference is moral.
As an example, I have been asked how certain I am that my tiny, diplomacy-dependent Singapore did not “amass wealth exploiting other countries the way America did.” The person who asked this question was singularly invested in the question of American imperialism — they did not realize they were reading my country in terms of their own, and did not question the limits of how far their narrative could extend. Moralistic thinking makes it difficult to understand things on their own terms, and easy to reproduce dominant or existing readings. In this case, ironically, this misreading reproduced the imperialism it hoped earnestly to fight against. One of Lent’s central principles — fasting, or refraining from worldly goods — has in some ways been involuntarily imposed upon all of us through the forced asceticism of pandemic living. Across several Catholic platforms lies the sentiment: “Didn’t the past year feel like one, long season of Lent?” But if one effect of this asceticism and renunciation is faith — the faith it takes to see politics more humanly and humans more wholly — this season offers us the opportunity to read different systems and people in deeper ways, in terms other than our own.
Kristi Lim is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. What the Hell Is Water runs every other Tuesday this semester.