False Unity and Philosophical Catfishing
This article was featured in the Daily Post Athenian Newspaper.
We’re fast approaching another election season. The oft repeated calls for “unity” should start in the near future. It’s a common refrain in political rhetoric:
“I’m the candidate who can unify our (fill in appropriate political subdivision).”
“What we need now most is unity!”
One would be a fool to argue that we, as a society, aren’t grossly divided over a great many things. National politics have devolved into party-line votes, families are fighting, and church denominations are dividing quicker than that cell illustration we all learned about in high-school biology.
The fighting is, admittedly, getting old. Some good old-fashioned unity would certainly be nice right about now. Unity is a worthy goal, but it’s important to make sure we’re not buying into something that’s simply disguised as “unity”.
ODYSSEUS AND THE PROBLEMS WITH “UNITY”
Homer’s Odyssey relates the tale of the aptly named Odysseus. He was a good guy who just wanted to get back home to his wife and son after the fabled Trojan War. Odysseus hadn’t seen his family in years and wasn’t even sure if they’d recognize him. Moreover, there were a bunch of dudes hanging around the house, trying to talk his wife into declaring him dead and marrying one of them. His wife, Penelope, was a faithful gal who’d held out for a long time. She seems to have been fairly attractive as well. Her hand in marriage also came as a package deal with all of Odysseus’ land and property. This set of circumstances resulted in a pack of suitors camping out on the estate property, spending their days attempting to woo her. It’s understandable that Odysseus wanted to make it back home before some young fellow was raising his kid and lounging in his favorite recliner. Like any good hero, though, he had to go through a series of challenges to get there. Otherwise, this epic narrative would have simply been an early forerunner knockoff of The Bachelorette.
As if surviving the war wasn’t enough to earn his place back at the family table, the long-suffering Odysseus had to overcome one-eyed monsters, an encounter with a witch and the dangers of the sea itself.
Another challenge Odysseus and his crew had to overcome was navigating past the Island of the Sirens. Our hero knew that the island he’d be sailing near was inhabited by women who sang the most beautiful of songs. There was, in fact, something supernatural about their melodies. Sailors who heard the music would make a beeline toward its source. Unfortunately for them, they wouldn’t find an island full of fair maidens. Instead, they’d learn that the sirens were in fact half-woman, half-bird hybrids. We aren’t talking about angelic beauties who happen to have wings attached to an otherwise art-worthy figure. They weren’t the type of creatures you’d want to see cosplayed at Comicon. No, the sirens were more like ole buzzards with sharp claws and a woman’s head. By the time that the sailors realized they’d been had, it was too late to turn around. They’d inevitably crash their ships into the rocks around the sirens’ island. By some accounts, the sirens would eat them as well. Back before Tinder, E-Harmony, Bumble or OK-Cupid, the Sirens ran the original “catfishing” scheme.
Odysseus, though, was savvy enough to save his crew from this dastardly fate. He had them plug their ears with wax as they went by the island, and eventually made it home to his family.
All too often, calls for unity are a siren’s cry. Like the sailors in Homer’s Odyssey, we’ll follow them only to find our principles smashed on the rocks. We’ll very quickly learn that the beautiful concepts we thought we were pursuing are in fact a half-human, half-fowl concoction that really wasn’t worth wrecking our only way home over. That type of “unity” is an abomination. Like the sirens, false unity is beautiful from afar but nasty and vicious up close. Just like the sailors of old, we’re likely to find it’s too late to save ourselves once we get close enough to realize what we’re really dealing with.
So, is unity a bad thing? Most certainly not. While early Americans trudged down the path to independence, Benjamin Franklin said “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” It must have been incredible to watch thirteen distinct colonies come together and compose a Dear John Letter to the most powerful empire on earth.
But the word “unity” is actually somewhat amoral. It means oneness or all being together on something. It can, then, be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what we’re unifying around.
To accomplish anything, we must unify on specific goals and issues. Anyone who was alive in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks certainly remembers the sense of unity, around a common cause, that rose from the ashes of those atrocities. In a far different setting, much of the world united around the cause of defeating Nazism during WW II. Those are good things. It was a true unity, a good unity.
It is also entirely possible to be generally unified while still disagreeing on some things. Our nation was built on this very principle. The concept of federalism calls for some very specific things (like national defense) to be handled by a central government, while the states were left free to reach their own conclusions on things not enumerated in the Constitution.
That type of unity is good. We should seek true unity. We should always be on the lookout for ways to establish common ground. We should strive for it. But we should never do so at the expense of truth or compromise of conscience. “Unity” at the cost of truth isn’t really unity at all.
Unity is a generally a good thing, and that’s what makes it so prone to misuse. When someone builds an argument around the concept, it’s hard to dispute. It’s like arguing against baseball, apple pie or puppies. That’s what makes it so important to realize when someone is trying to twist the concept of unity.
ARE THOSE ROCKS AHEAD?
There are different kinds of fake unity; the kind that sound really attractive but end up being a bad idea when you get up close.
The Distracting Call for Unity
There’s the distracting call for unity. When a politician in the middle of a scandal
calls for unity, it’s code for “don’t look, there’s nothing to see here” or “stop
investigating what we’ve been doing.”
In churches, governments or other organizations, people will often call out issues or
point to the need for change. Confronting problems is always hard. It might mean
that powerful individuals are going to be held accountable for bad things they’re
doing. The call to a false unity is a go-to way to combat this.
Pointing out the need for unity (and that investigating an issue gets everyone upset
at one another) is a great way to distract from the actual issue. Calling for unity, in
this use, is simply another way of saying “let’s not deal with this.” In this case, the
person pointing out the wrongdoing may even be villainized. While everyone else
just wants “unity”, the finger-pointer or whistle-blower is causing trouble and
stirring the proverbial pot.
The Comfort Call for Unity
A close cousin to the Distracting Call for Unity, the Comfort Call for Unity has a
more general use. It doesn’t require a specific scandal to distract from. The main
difference lies in the motive of the person calling for unity. A person using the
Distracting Call for Unity is purposely trying to keep an issue from being addressed.
A person using the Comfort Call for Unity honestly just wants everyone to get
along. The former wants to win an argument, while the latter doesn’t want an
argument to take place at all.
Humans like comfort, and change is always uncomfortable. It’s messy. Someone
who gives the Comfort Call for Unity is willing to compromise or ignore truth
because they’ve made the mistaken assumption that disagreement is always bad.
Just as in the Distracting Call for Unity, The Comfort Call for Unity brands those
who disagree as troublemakers who are upsetting everyone by rocking the
This type of call for false unity isn’t new. Patrick Henry’s speech from The
Revolutionary War is known for its crescendo: “…give me liberty or give me
death!” But earlier in the speech he discusses the issue of a false hope for peace:
“…They tell us, sir, that we are weak... But when shall we be stronger? Shall it be
the next week, or the next year?... Gentlemen may cry Peace, Peace -- but there is
Henry’s speech wasn’t a rallying cry to troops. It was given in a meeting of the
Virginia legislature. He was trying to convince the Virginia government to join the
coming fight against the British. The context of the speech makes it clear that
there was a great deal of arguing against the idea of shaking things up. Many
people didn’t want the hassle of change that would come with challenging the
British. They didn’t want to leave the comfort of the status quo. Thus, they called
for “peace”. One can only imagine the flack that some of our founding fathers
must have taken from their friends and neighbors as they called for independence.
The Embrace-My-Truth Call for Unity
Finally, there’s the Embrace-My-Truth Call for Unity. This one is most visible right
after a big election. The people who were railing against the government just a
few months ago are suddenly pro-establishment (now that “their side” is in power).
They vehemently declare the need for peace and togetherness.
This type of false unity doesn’t just have to happen in politics. At its root, it’s just
someone saying, “let’s do things my way, and anyone who argues with it must be a
bad person”. It’s a sort of trump card that lets someone win an argument without
debating the actual facts of a situation. As with the other types of false unity, the
person who disagrees will be chastised as a troublemaker for not agreeing.
If someone calls for everyone to blindly believe the same things as them, they
aren’t really calling for unity. They’re seeking power. This type of so-called unity
leads to a world where people aren’t allowed to ask questions or think differently.
It culminates in things like ostentatious military parades and far-too-powerful
governments. You wake up to find that your drive to work is decorated with
billboards telling you to turn in your neighbor for dissidence. Before you know it,
you’re giving feigned thanks for mediocre medical care and pretending to fawn
over shirtless leaders on horseback.
When a person (or group) in power calls for unity, it’s often code for “Let’s unify
around what I want. Let me win and consolidate my power. If you disagree with
me, you must be an evil troublemaker.” Rarely is the person whose view is not the
status quo the one who is calling for “unity”.
WHEN IS “UNITY” A SIREN’S CRY?
Unity (true unity) isn’t a bad thing. We should absolutely want peace when possible. We should strive for common ground with our fellow man, be it in our governments, churches or just around the dinner table at Thanksgiving. So how do we know when a call for unity is false?
CS Lewis famously stated:
“Seek Unity and you will find neither Unity nor Truth. Seek the light of truth, and you will find Unity and Truth.”
Truth, then, should be our guide. If someone’s call for unity conflicts with what we know to be true, it is a siren’s call. It will almost certainly be made with ulterior motives. If someone’s call for unity requires us to ignore the truth, it too is a siren’s call. If it requires us to embrace something that is contrary to our conscience, it is unwise to do so. If embracing unity requires us to lie (either to ourselves or to others), it is a false unity. If we find that we’re only embracing someone’s call for “unity” because we’re scared of being ostracized for rocking the boat, it’s probably not true unity.
Unity is a noble goal, but it should never be sought at the expense of truth. When we make that compromise, we sail toward dangerous waters. Its song makes us believe we’re working toward something beautiful, and it promises respite from the wearisome conflict that constitutes this life. In the end, though, unity without truth is a false unity. By the time we realize the deception, we’re crashing on some rocks and staring down a proverbial siren that took way too many liberties with its online dating profile. If someone asks us to compromise truth in the name of unity, we should run (or swim) the other way.