Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Bundling of Ideas

There is a short cut we humans like to take when we need to classify patterns of thought which I call the bundling of ideas.

To highlight the concept I want to use an ancient example because it contains ideas most of us are not too familiar with. My example is from about 500AD in Byzantium when the Emperor Justinian ruled with his queen Theodora. In those days the selection of emperors was somewhat chaotic and Justinian came from left field. His wife was a courtesan or possibly a circus acrobat, not necessarily what you'd think of as queenly material. However these two made quite a pair. Justinian seriously expanded the empire which up until then had been in decline. Theodora caused some scandals partly because she favoured elaborate wigs and the clergy at the time believed good Christian women should cover their heads lest angels, looking down from above, be tempted to lust.

At the time there was a hot theological debate going on about the nature of Christ. No, this wasn't an ivory tower thing. There's an account by someone of the time who refers to going to buy some fish and getting into an argument with the fish monger. There were riots. Everyday people were passionate about this issue.

And the issue itself? It came down to whether Christ had two natures: human and divine or one nature: a combination of human and divine. Would that keep you awake at night? Me neither, and I'm Christian. The first view was called Duophytism and had been endorsed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The second view was called Monophytism and regarded as heresy, except in Egypt and parts of Syria where it was widely accepted. Most Christian churches today are at least nominally Duophyte but I'm not sure anyone cares that much.

The Empress Theodora seems to have been a Monophyte and her husband, Justinian, spent a lot of effort tryng to reconcile the two while holding firm on the position of the Council of Chalcedon. So people easily understood that Theodora was Monophysite and Justinian was Duophysite which was a little simpler than the truth.

Then there were the chariot races. These were the big sport of the time, everyone supported one of the four teams: Blue, Green, White and Red, though the last two were smaller and often teamed up with the others. So we can mostly consider the Greens and the Blues. Who you supported affected everything, including how you dressed and who you hung out with. And if you were Blue you were Monophysite, Green you were Duophysite, as well as a number of other political and military views. The people you knew well supported your team, your views, everything.

It probably wasn't quite that simple and there are always blurry edges to these things, but the factions were real. It meant that just by looking at someone, the way they were dressed, you could tell who their friends were, their position on a subtle theological question (which was really important) and whether they supported the Empress or the Emperor.

This is what I mean by the bundling of ideas.

We still do this today more often than we ought, and unbundling the ideas is like unpicking a stubborn knot. Take the notion of left and Right. By convention if you are left wing you support the following:
  • Gay marriage
  • Evolution
  • Worker's unions
  • State ownership
  • Lots of laws
If you are Right wing you support:
  • Traditional marriage
  • Creationism
  • Laissez-faire economics
  • Private enterprise
  • Fewer laws
Or do you? That's the problem with this bundling. People make assumptions. We have a minor party here in NZ which is right wing economically but has been left wing socially until fairly recently. Then, because it is a right wing party, it attracted other right wingers who were more socially right wing and shifted policies a bit to accommodate them. But those new people arguably only joined it because they assumed the bundling aligned with their own ideas. There is no real connection between social right wing ideas and economic ones that I can see.

In some parts of the world announcing you are Christian will label you as economically and socially right wing, anti abortion and pro gun ownership. In other parts of the world the same announcement will label you as a left wing radical, probably pro abortion and supporting gay marriage. You can see that, in these days of world wide communication over the internet, it is easy to say exactly the same thing to a lot of different people from different places and backgrounds and get very different results.

Sometimes people are more helpful. I saw an avatar yesterday that included a Bible, a gun and a US flag. There's a bundle that is probably fairly explicit, though I might have that very wrong. Do I really know this person's position on gay marriage? Abortion?

The answer is to be not too lazy about assumptions, try and be polite to everyone and try to make your own position clear without being too tedious about it. You might also ask yourself if you actually do hold the views you think you do, or did they just arrive in a bundle with something else?
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