Friday, February 11, 2011

The Reasonable Response

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
- George Bernard Shaw

The E-Kvetcher at Search for Emes has this in his profile. (I found his blog through a link to this post about Karaite architecture; I'm doing some research on the Karaites, so it caught my attention.)

I enjoy Shaw's quotation, and agreed with it for the first 2/3. Then I read the kicker.

Strangely, I think I would agree with both sentences individually. Progress depends on the unreasonable man? Check; many times the path forwards seems entirely unreasonable, and only dogged persistence in the face of massive resistance can enact change (Egypt parallels not intended, but timely). It is reasonable to adapt the self to the world, rather than expect the world to change for you? Check; it's the difference between pushing on the mountain until it gets out of your way, and finding a path to walk around it.

Combine the two, though, and I must part ways with Shaw and the Kvetcher. The problem is defining the person that seeks progress as one who expects the world to change, rather than to adapt.

This is a personal point of differentiation, and I could easily argue either way. Science, after all, is creating change, and every major civil rights leader seeks to "change the world". Except that is not quite how it works. Science does not change the world, it uncovers information about how the world already works, and adapts existing technology to take advantage of this new knowledge. Social justice does not seek to change the world, but to remove artificial barriers created by society such as racial inequality, heterosexual-only marriage, and class boundaries.

I also approached this quotation from the position of the individual, not the society. Expecting the world to change to meet an individual's needs gives rise to the delusional and the dangerous. We cannot control the world; we can only control our reaction to it. Focus strongly enough on changing yourself and that change will spread into the world around you. (I'll see your Shaw, and raise you a Gandhi!)

I also view adaptation as a larger issue. It involves changing plans and tactics to meet changing conditions, and experimentation to find a way that works. It's not conforming, resigning, and accepting the world the way it is. But it also means not continually charging ahead with the same tactic, either because it used to work or because it might if you just keep trying.

Furthermore, putting this quotation in the context of religion worries me because, in my experience and perception, the only way for religion to survive and be an enduring benefit to its adherents is to adapt to meet changing times. Shaw's "unreasonable man" evokes for me images of the Ultra-Orthodox that say everything from after 1800 is unnecessary and evil, and who seek to create isolated enclaves where the modern world no longer exists.


This post is now much longer than I originally expected, and rambles horribly from point to point. But that's the nice thing about not doing a blog professionally; I don't need to worry about "quality". I can just share things I find interesting, and pontificate as I see fit. In fact, I don't even need proper

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