Big Think Interview With James Martin

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Question:\r\nHow does one become a Jesuit?

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James Martin:\r\nBecoming a Jesuit\r\nis kind of a long process.  You\r\nstart as a Jesuit novice, which is two years in a place called the Novitiate\r\nand you do a combination of prayer and working with the poor.  In the middle of all that two years you\r\ndo a thirty day silent retreat based on what are known as the spiritual\r\nexercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, which is kind of an imaginative placing\r\nyourself in the gospel scenes and sort of accompanying Jesus through the gospel\r\nscenes imaginatively.  After the\r\nNovitiate you take what are called your simple vows of poverty, chastity and\r\nobedience.  After that you do what is\r\ncalled first studies, which is a combination of philosophy and theology and\r\nthen following that you do three years of full time work, which is called in the\r\nJesuits, regency.  Most Jesuits\r\nlike to teach.  They’ll teach in a\r\nhigh school somewhere.  I worked\r\noverseas in the Jesuit refugee service helping refugees in East Africa start\r\nsmall businesses for themselves. \r\nSo after that three years is done you go to theology studies and three\r\nor four years of theology studies and if you’re a priest you get ordained at\r\nthe end.  There is Jesuit brother\r\nas well, people who are Jesuits, but are not called to the priesthood and then\r\nafter ordination you work full time for a couple of years.  I’m working at a Catholic\r\nmagazine.  And finally, at the end\r\nof probably five or six years after that you take what are called your final\r\nvows, so the whole process is pretty long.  It took me 21 years to become a Jesuit, which I think was a\r\nlittle too long for my taste, but that is pretty average.  It takes about 20 years to become a\r\nfull-fledged Jesuit.  I like to say\r\nit’s like being a made man in the mafia or getting tenure at a university or\r\nbecoming a partner.  You know\r\nyou’ve been in for a while, but you’re finally, finally fully accepted, so it’s\r\na pretty long process.

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Question:\r\nWhat is Jesuit poverty and how has it changed over the years?

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James Martin: Poverty is one of the three vows\r\nthat we take.  We take a vow of\r\npoverty, chastity and obedience. Initially Saint Ignatius Loyola when he had\r\nhis conversion experience he was injured in a battle and was taken home to recuperate\r\nand started to think about doing something else with his life.  He became very ascetical and gave up\r\neverything and really lived like a hermit, lived in a cave, let his fingernails\r\ngrow long, his hair grow long and ultimately he realized that this wasn’t\r\nreally doing him much good and he needed to moderate some of this.  He ended up going back to school to\r\nlearn and so he thought, well Jesuits should be free of material possessions,\r\nbut they don’t have to live you know like they’re hermits, like they’re living\r\nin a cave and eating twigs and things like that.  It’s not a complete poverty, so Jesuit poverty is really\r\nabout freedom.  It’s about the\r\nfreedom of not owning.  It’s about\r\nthe freedom of living simply and it’s also about the freedom to not let any\r\npossessions come in between you and God. \r\nAt the same time it’s supposed to help us identify with the poor.  We do a lot of work with the poor and\r\nwe’re supposed to try to live as close as possible to what Saint Ignatius calls\r\na family of slender means, you know people who don’t have a lot and also it’s\r\nsupposed to model Christ.  I mean\r\nJesus when he lived on the earth was living very simply as a very simple man\r\nand so those are the three things. \r\nIt frees us up for service. \r\nIt makes it so we don’t have a lot of possessions to tie us down.  It helps us identify with the poor and\r\nit’s an imitation of Christ.  It’s\r\nreally trying to follow Christ more closely.

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Question:\r\nIs chastity really possible?

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James Martin:  Chastity is the most difficult thing to explain about\r\nreligious life.  I mean most people\r\nthink it’s crazy or unhealthy or unnatural.  After the sex crisis did people think that the sex abuse\r\ncrisis from chastity or from celibacy? \r\nBut it’s really as I see it a different way to love.  It’s certainly not for everybody.  I mean clearly you know most people are\r\nin romantic love and married lives and having children, but for some of us it\r\nworks and really what it is it’s loving many people freely and deeply.  You’re not attached to just one person.  You don’t have an exclusive\r\nrelationship, so you’re free to love many people, which is not to say that\r\npeople who are married or are in a romantic relationship can’t love many\r\npeople.  It’s just to say that this\r\nis what works best for people in religious orders and I find it very\r\nfreeing.  I find people can be\r\nfreer with me in a sense.  When I\r\nbecome close friends with somebody they’re not wondering is he becoming friends\r\nbecause of sex.  Does he have an\r\nulterior motive, something like that? \r\nMen and women can feel comfortable with you and really in a practical\r\nlevel it makes you a lot more mobile. \r\nYou’re not in a sense worried about what your wife or husband is going\r\nto be thinking about your moving or taking a new job, so it can be very\r\nfreeing, but it really freaks people out. \r\nChastity, in a culture that values sex, and rightly so, it really\r\ndisturbs people, but I think for those people who are called to it, it can work\r\nvery well if you live it in a healthy way, meaning if you have friends and have\r\nhealthy work and a healthy prayer life, so I’m all for it, but it’s not for\r\neverybody. 

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Question:\r\nWhat made you switch from the corporate to the religious world?

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James Martin: I worked for GE for six years and I had studied at the\r\nWharton School of Business before entering GE and after about six years I\r\nstarted to realize that this really wasn’t for me.  Business was a real vocation as it were for a lot of my\r\nfriends and I just got more and more miserable.  The workload got more difficult.  As anyone who works in the corporate world knows it can be really\r\nstressful and I saw some friends of mine really enjoying the work while I just\r\nseemed to get bored by it.  At the\r\nsame time I was getting all these stomach problems and sort of stress related\r\nillnesses.  One night I came home\r\ndead tired after this long day of work and I sort of plopped down on our couch\r\nand turned on the TV and there was the PBS documentary about a guy name Thomas\r\nMerton who was a Trappist monk, a cloistered monk and I had never heard of him\r\nand the documentary really just captivated me.  The look on his face just spoke this great sense of joy and\r\npeace and calm and consolation and it really called out to me and that was so\r\ninteresting that one documentary that I went out and purchased his autobiography,\r\n“The Seven Storey Mountain,” which is pretty well known in Catholic\r\ncircles.  I had never heard of\r\nit.  I devoured it.  I read it in a couple of nights and I\r\nreally couldn’t get it out of my mind that that’s what I wanted to do,\r\nsomething like what he did. I wasn’t particularly religious.  I was Catholic, but I wasn’t super\r\nCatholic.  I had never thought of\r\nanything like that before and I read a lot about Thomas Merton and one day I\r\nwent up to my parish priest and I said: I think I’d be interested in being a\r\npriest, which was kind of weird because he had never even met me before. And he\r\nsaid, “Well you know you should talk to the local diocese and you might want to\r\ntalk to the Jesuits who are up the street at Fairfield University.”  In Connecticut that was the only\r\nconnection I had to the Jesuits. 

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So I visited\r\nthe Jesuits at Fairfield.  They\r\ngave me some vocational literature, kind of promotional literature about the\r\nJesuits and I read it and I thought this is crazy.  I actually ripped it up, threw it away and thought this is insane,\r\nthis is not who I am, but I read some more and continued to read.  Around the same time I started to go to\r\na psychologist because of all these stress related stomach problems as a result\r\nof work. So I’m reading and thinking and going the psychologist at the same\r\ntime and finally one day he said to me, “Well you know you’re in this business\r\nworld and you don’t seem very happy, so what would you do if you could do\r\nanything you wanted to do?”  And I\r\nthought for a moment and I said I’d be a Jesuit priest and he said, “Well why\r\ndon’t you?”  And I thought yeah,\r\nwhy don’t I?  So it made sense and\r\nI felt, well this is really something that I’m actually interested in.  Why am I doing something that I\r\ndislike?  So I called the Jesuits\r\nand they didn’t know who I was and I said I’m ready to enter and they were nice\r\nenough to sort of start me on the application process, which took a couple\r\nmonths, but a couple months later I was in, so it was pretty rushed, but I have\r\nto say looking back on it, it was probably, well it was the best decision I’ve\r\never made. 

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Question:\r\nWhich saint stands out as influencing your life the most?

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James Martin:  Well I have to say Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder\r\nof the Jesuits who lived from 1491 to 1556.  You know his spirituality, which can be summarized as\r\nfinding God in all things or being a contemplate of an action, a person who has\r\na sense of awareness in the midst of a very busy world, has really changed the\r\nway I live my life.  I think you know\r\nfor me Saint Ignatius is kind of the model for all Jesuits, but I don’t just\r\nlike Jesuit saints.  I also like\r\nSaint Thérèse of Lisieux, who was a nineteenth century\r\nCarmelite nun, who lived what she called her little way, which was basically\r\ndoing small things with great love for God.  I love Blessed John the 23rd, who was pope from\r\n1958 to 1963 because he was so funny basically.  One joke from John the 23rd: a journalist asked\r\nhim once how many people work in the Vatican and he said about half of\r\nthem.  He shows you can be someone\r\nwith a sense of humor and be a saint. \r\nAnd then finally Thomas Merton, the fellow whose book I read who kind of\r\ngot me started on religious life, so those are my I’d say top four.

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Question:\r\nDo you need to believe in God to find Saint Ignatius’ insights useful?

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James Martin:  You don’t need to believe in God to find his insights\r\nuseful.  It helps to understand the\r\ntotality of his message because Jesuit spirituality without God or without\r\nJesus you know will only make partial sense, but that being said Saint Ignatius\r\nknew that people were on different paths in their life you know to God and\r\ndifferent paths in general and so some of the insights are really useful to\r\npeople who are not only devout believers, but even doubtful seekers, people who\r\nare agnostic or atheist.  For\r\nexample, he talks about how to make decisions, living freely, how to be a good\r\nfriend, how to work well, how to be in a healthy relationship with somebody. So\r\nthere is a lot of things that you can take from the way of Saint Ignatius that\r\nare applicable to anybody, but really to understand it in its totality you have\r\nto see it as sort of a path to God, so I like to say that anyone can benefit\r\nfrom the way of Saint Ignatius, but to get to the final end you really do have\r\nto keep your eyes focused on God. 

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Question:\r\nWhat is spiritual about loving your vocation?

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James Martin:  Well a lot of Ignatian spirituality talks about desire and\r\nthat is sort of a bad word in some spiritual circles because some people equate\r\nit with just selfish wants, like I want a new car, I want a new iPhone, I want\r\na new PC, something like that. Or they think of it as sexual desire, which is: oh\r\nmy gosh, God forbid we should talk about sexual desire.  I mean that’s healthy, right?  But desire on an even deeper level is\r\nthe desire that we have to be who we are, to be our true selves and the desire\r\nfor God. There are also desires that lead us to our vocations and what we want\r\nto do in life. For example, a married couple might discover their vocations\r\nthrough desire, so the desire for sexual intimacy, for emotional intimacy, for\r\na sort of connectiveness.  I mean\r\nthat brings that together.  People\r\nunderstand that in terms of desire. \r\nDesire works the same way in terms of our jobs and our vocations.  Someone who is interested in video might\r\nbe interested in it because they feel this attraction to it.  It’s really interesting.  They feel this desire for it.  Someone who is a doctor might find\r\ntalking about medicine and the body and things like that just really\r\nattractive, so desire is a really important thing to pay attention to and\r\nultimately our desires I believe our deepest desires are God’s desires for us\r\nreally and the deepest desires we have to be our true self, to really live out\r\nwho we’re meant to be and what we’re meant to do are the ways that God has of\r\ndrawing us to happiness and also ways that God has of drawing I think to\r\nfulfill God’s desires for the world, so I don’t think we should be too ardent\r\non desire in the spiritual life or in any part of life. 

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Question:\r\nDo you believe true happiness exists?

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James Martin:\r\nI don’t think we\r\ncan find true happiness this side of life.  There is always going to be certain suffering and\r\nstruggles.  Everybody has problems\r\nin their life, but I think you can obtain a great sense of joy and peace if\r\nyour life is centered on God.  Now\r\nthat sounds really cheesy.  What\r\ndoes that mean?  It means in the\r\nIgnatian way of looking at things, the Jesuit way of looking at things a lot of\r\nfreedom and detachment from things that keep you from being connected to\r\nGod.  It means being grateful for\r\nthe things that are blessings in your life.  It means as a contemplate of action being aware of all the\r\nblessings you have in life, but a certain amount of suffering is inevitable in\r\nanyone’s life.  I think any\r\nreligion, any really healthy religion will tell you that, so full joy I think\r\nis only achieved with God you know in the afterlife God willing, but I think\r\nyou can experience a lot of joy in your life today on earth.  Thank God. 

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Question:\r\nWhat’s it like being a regular on The Colbert Report?

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James Martin:\r\nSometimes you’re on\r\nshows where people are aggressive or are confrontational and it’s important to\r\nremember to always to be charitable because you know when I’m talking it’s not\r\njust representing me or talking about my book.  I’m also for better or worse representing the church and so\r\nif I come off as being argumentative or mean or snappish or whatever then\r\npeople will say look, the Catholic church you know once again you know they’re\r\nbeing whatever, so charity is the first thing and I sometimes get nervous about\r\nthe topics that people choose to bring up.  You never know what they’re going to bring up, but on\r\nColbert it’s a lot of fun.  I mean\r\nhe himself is a Catholic, so I know that he understands what I’m talking\r\nabout.  He is funny.  One of the great challenges of being on\r\nthat show is just not laughing.  I\r\nmean he is so outrageous sometimes and so unpredictable that the things he says\r\njust make me laugh.  One time I was\r\non and we were talking about the recession and how people find God in the midst\r\nof difficult times and I said that we’re sometimes more open to God’s activity\r\nin our lives when we’re more vulnerable, which is true because you know when\r\nour defenses are down we can let God in more easily, which happens when people\r\nare sick or when they’re you know going through difficult times and he said,\r\n“You make God sound like an opportunistic disease.”  And I thought I guess I do, but it was hard not to laugh\r\nbecause it was so silly, but yeah, I really enjoy being on the show. 

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Question:\r\nWhy do you believe we have an anti-Catholicism problem in the entertainment\r\nindustry?

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James Martin:\r\nOn the one hand are\r\npeople who say that anti-Catholicism is just as bad and anti-Semitism or\r\nhomophobia or racism.  It’s not clearly.  It’s not as virile and not as\r\nprevalent.  On the other hand are\r\npeople that say it doesn’t exist at all, but it does basically.  I think a lot of portrayals of nuns and\r\npriests on TV and in the movies are stereotypical.  You know post sex abuse crisis frequently when you see a\r\npriest show up on a TV cop show you know he is usually a pedophile.  Nuns are usually portrayed as like\r\nninnies basically or stupid.  I\r\nmean I would say here are women who kind of built the Catholic healthcare\r\nsystem in the United States and ran universities and but when they come on TV\r\nthey’re portrayed as being idiots basically, so there are some subtle\r\nanti-Catholicism in that.  I think\r\nyou know you hear people taking potshots at priests for being celibate or being\r\npedophiles or being insane or whatever, so I think there is a lot of stuff that\r\nslides by you know on TV and in the movies that would never be allowed to\r\nhappen with other groups.  You know\r\nif you portrayed a rabbi or an Imam like that people would rightfully complain,\r\nbut in a way I think because we live in a largely Protestant culture I think\r\nbecause of the sex abuse crisis and I think because of you know some suspicion\r\nabout the Vatican and Catholic theology in a sense, anti-Catholicism is more\r\nacceptable.  In fact, one person\r\nonce called it the last acceptable prejudice, so it’s there, but I think we\r\nneed to keep in sort of a context exactly what that means.  It’s not a virile as some other\r\nstereotypes are, but it is present.

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Question:\r\nHas it gotten better or worse over the past decade?

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James Martin:  I think it has gotten worse because of the sex abuse\r\ncrisis.  I think things are said\r\nabout priests and celibacy which are stereotypes, so you take a very small\r\npopulation of priests who have committed these crimes then you magnify it and\r\nyou say well that applies to all priests and you know I read stuff in\r\nmainstream newspapers and on TV and you hear jokes and things like that. As\r\npriest myself who keeps his vows, it’s offensive. And I often say to people:\r\nwould you say this about rabbis? Would you say this about Imams? The answer is\r\nno, but somehow people think because of the sex abuse crisis it’s okay to\r\nstereotype all Catholics.  All\r\nCatholics are like this, all Bishops are like this, all priests are like this--\r\nwhich would never fly for any other religious group, so I just think it’s\r\nbasically unfair. 

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Question:\r\nHas the pope done enough to address the abuse scandal?

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James Martin:\r\nI think he has\r\nreally started to do some really important things. His visit to the United\r\nStates was historic and really unprecedented.  I think though there is always more that can be done for the\r\nsex abuse crisis.  In 2002 the US\r\nbishops met in Dallas to formulate their zero tolerance policy, which I think\r\nwas necessary, but I think that the clerical culture that gave rise to that. The\r\nsex abuse crisis, which is essentially a few very sick men who were moved around\r\nfrom parish to parish by some bishops for fear of quote, unquote, causing\r\nscandal--that’s more of a cultural type thing.  I think that needs to be addressed, so I think what the\r\nchurch needs to do is to have a culture of much more transparency. Frankly when\r\nthese guys do these things they need to kicked out. And in the United States\r\nthat has already happened, so I don’t think you’ll see it in the United\r\nStates.  You might hear reports of\r\nones that happened in the 60s and 70s, but going ahead there is this zero\r\ntolerance policy.  I think other\r\ncountries are starting to realize now what needs to be done.  It really needs to be just sort of\r\ntaken out root and branch and blamed on the right sources.  It has nothing to do with\r\ncelibacy.  It has nothing to do\r\nwith gay clergy, anything like that. \r\nNeither of those two things lead to pedophilia.  It has to do I think with this culture\r\nof secrecy and the wrongheaded notion that we shouldn’t quote, unquote, cause\r\nscandal by revealing some of these things, so I hope the Catholic church really\r\ntakes the lead in showing other organizations about this because you know I\r\nmean most sex abuse takes place in families.  You know there is sex abuse in schools.  There is sex abuse in children’s\r\norganizations like the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, so I think that the\r\nCatholic Church has an opportunity here to really take the lead and be in the vanguard\r\nof preventing children from being abused.

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Question:\r\nWhat is your problem with Glenn Beck?

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James Martin:\r\nGlenn Beck’s\r\ncomment really betrayed a fundamental understanding of the gospel. Jesus in the\r\n25th chapter of the Gospel of\r\nMatthew basically says that the litmus test for how we’re going to be\r\njudged at the end of our lives is not what church we pray in, how we pray, even\r\nhow often we go to church.  It’s\r\nhow we treat the poor.  I mean it’s\r\npretty cut and dry.  If you want to\r\nenter to heaven, treat the poor well. \r\nNow social justice is a way of looking at what keeps people poor and as\r\nthe church in its 2,000 year history has reflected on Jesus’ commandment to\r\nserve the poor and love the poor it has realized that we need to look at what\r\nkeeps them poor.  It’s not enough\r\nto give someone a handout. It’s important to look at what keeps the people\r\npoor, so someone told me the other day the gospel story of the good Samaritan\r\nwhere the guy sees someone by the side of the road who has been beaten and he\r\ntakes care of him.  He brings him\r\nback to an inn.  He dresses his wounds.  He gives him money for staying\r\novernight in the inn.  Someone said\r\nto me today we’d also be looking at why that road is dangerous.  What is it that makes that road\r\ndangerous?  How can we fix the\r\nsituations that lead for crime and things like that?  So that is what social justice is.  It’s basically working for a just society.  Now how anybody can be against that is\r\nbeyond me frankly.  He compared\r\npeople who support social justice to Stalin and Hitler and I just found that\r\nfrankly, outrageous.

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There have been\r\npeople other than me that have talked about this and he has responded by\r\nsaying, “Well I didn’t mean this.” \r\n“What I meant was this.”  “I\r\nmeant that charity is okay as long as it’s not sponsored by the\r\ngovernment.”  But once again, how\r\nelse does the community respond socially other than through governmental\r\npolicies?  You can do things\r\nindividually.  You can do things in\r\nchurch, but I mean we have all sorts of public works in terms of social\r\nsecurity and Medicare and Medicaid and public transportation. That, in a sense,\r\nis providing for the common good, so I still think he basically just doesn’t like\r\nthe idea of helping the poor. I think often times this critique of social\r\njustice is really just a thinly veiled excuse for not wanting to deal with the\r\npoor and a lot of people find the poor as Pope John Paul said, irksome\r\nintruders into our comfortable life. But what good is the gospel if it doesn’t\r\ndisturb you?  It’s supposed to\r\ndisturb you.

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Question:\r\nWhy is it hip to be spiritual these days without being religious?

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James Martin:  It’s very hip to be spiritual, but not religious.  Almost everybody I know says they’re\r\nspiritual.  Now that is good.  I mean spiritual is good.  Spiritual means that you have a\r\nrelationship with God.  Spiritual\r\nmeans that you connect with God, that spirituality is an important part of your\r\nlife.  You try to lead a good\r\nlife.  You try to be in concert\r\nwith what your relationship with God tells you, which is terrific.  You have to have that.  Religious on the other hand in current\r\nparlance is bad because that seems to say that oh, I believe in this\r\norganization that has all these hidebound dogmas and beliefs and I would never be\r\nable to belong to an organization that tells me what to think.  The problem with being spiritual, but\r\nnot religious is that you’re not part of a community in a sense and so there is\r\nno one to bump up against to tell you when you might be a little off\r\ntrack.  As well, you’re not really\r\nable to connect in your spiritual life with other people.  There is a great saying from Isaac\r\nHecker who is a nineteenth century American priest and he said, “Religion\r\nenables us to connect and correct.” \r\nSo we connect with other people. \r\nWe’re naturally social animals and we like to worship in common.  That makes sense.  We connect with one another and we’re\r\ncorrected.  If I have a direct line\r\nto God that means that by definition anything I think or say is from God,\r\nright?  And that’s as we know a\r\nproblem, so being spiritual without being religious means that you’re lacking the\r\nwisdom of the community as well as the support of the community when you’re struggling.  Being religious without being spiritual\r\nis just as bad.  Being religious\r\nwithout being spiritual just means all you’re doing is following rules.  You’re just following rules.  You’re just listening to the community\r\nand you’re not reflecting on things yourself.  So the one thing is what Jesus was warning against, being\r\nreligious without being spiritual you know to some of the religious authorities\r\nof his day.  What I’m warning\r\nagainst is being spiritual without being religious, which is much more common\r\ntoday, so I think it’s not an either or. 

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Question:\r\nWhat’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?

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James Martin:  The worst career advice I’ve ever had was when I was at\r\nthe Wharton School studying business. I went to my faculty adviser. Wharton\r\nstudents are supposed to be focused really on the business and I said that I\r\nwould be interested in taking an American poetry class and he said, “That is\r\nthe stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” \r\nHe said, “Don’t take an American poetry class.”  “It’s a waste of time.”  “No one will care if you ever studied\r\nAmerican poetry when you want to get a job at GE, so I would strongly advise\r\nyou not to do that unless you want to be thought you know not serious about\r\nyour job.”  So fortunately I didn’t\r\ntake his advice and it’s one of the few courses I remember very well from\r\nschool.  The best career advice\r\nI’ve ever gotten was from the psychologist who said, “What would you do if you\r\ncould do anything you wanted to do?” \r\nI think that’s a question I ask a lot of people and it’s very clarifying\r\nfor people because we frequently have these expectations put on us by family,\r\nby friends about what you should do. \r\nA friend of mine called that shoulding all over yourself,\r\ns-h-o-u-l-d-i-n-g, rather than saying, “What are my desires?”  “What do I like?”  “What gets me excited?”  And I tend to think that you will do\r\nbetter at things that you’re really interested in because you’re going to spend\r\nmore time with it.  You’re going to\r\nread about it outside of work and you’ll be enthusiastic about it, so when I\r\nwas at GE working in business I realized that the people who were going to do\r\nwell were the people who loved it. \r\nYou know my friends would read The Wall Street Journal and say, “This is\r\nfascinating.”  And I would say,\r\n“How can you read that stuff?”  And\r\nthey’d say, “This is fantastic.” \r\n“How can you not read it?” \r\nAnd so this notion of you know following you desires is really\r\nimportant. What would you do if you could do anything you wanted to do is\r\nprobably the best career advice or the best question I’ve ever been asked about\r\ncareer.  

Recorded on March 24, 2010

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A conversation with the Jesuit priest and author of "The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything."

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.