Let’s Go to the Banca

If you need money then go to the “banca.” In the 14th century, when capitalism was emerging through the work of a growing class of merchant bankers in Italy, these bankers exchanged money at the “river bank” where they met traveling merchants to exchange currency. Hence, the name “bank” is a reflection of a centuries old Italian “riverbank” financial exchange. We are surrounded by words, ideas and concepts whose origins have passed into memory and then into complete obscurity; we presume they’ve always existed in their current form (a form we’ve inherited) giving our worldview an unjustified veneer of sophistication, meaning and purpose.

This is one of the reasons why knowledge and literacy are so important: knowledge increases a person’s awareness of where things come from (increasing the possibility of change and improvement) while literacy provides a person with the means to continue unlearning the nonsense their well-intentioned parents, teachers and parent culture taught them.

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If You Seek Wisdom Drop Your Opinions

The Buddha observed that if you seek wisdom you should drop your opinions. Experience has taught me an additional truth: if you seek wisdom develop your capacity to empathize, perceive and see issues from someone else’s point of view. Specifically, just because an idea or issue isn’t important to you (or doesn’t affect you directly) this doesn’t mean that that idea isn’t worthy of consideration or that the issue isn’t important in principle.

Too many of us, without even realizing it, think and operate from a narrow position of egocentrism or self-interest; we think we’re informed, and we hold strong opinions, but–instead of seeing the 1s and 0s that make-up reality like Neo from The Matrix–we are ultimately just making things up as we go along. We are being arbitrary. This kind of thinking follows the formula: if I don’t personally approve of X, or if I don’t like X, I appeal to a combination of my dislike, and fundamental ignorance, as a sort of evidence in support of my opinion on X. The problem, though, is your like or dislike has absolutely nothing to do with anything whatsoever.

I’ll explain.

I make mistakes in reasoning all of the time. I know for a fact I reach conclusions without having all the necessary information or without taking time for proper consideration. So why, I wonder, should I ever hold an opinion or view so strongly I am unwilling to change my mind? Moreover, should my experience ever be the standard by which everything else and everyone else is measured? I’m thinking, no.  I understand people are going to form opinions (that’s inevitable). Yet, isn’t it possible to form more thoughtful, nuanced, and principled opinions? I think so. But we must practice more empathy and more humility. We have to drop some of our opinions.

Former American Vice-President Dick Cheney was an outspoken opponent of the LGBTQ community for decades. Then, suddenly, he changed his mind…when his daughter came out as a lesbian. Now he supports gay rights. Gay rights are human rights. Women’s rights are human rights. The rights of people of color are human rights. Rights don’t just belong to my tribe. Cheney should’ve supported gay people, not because his daughter is gay (and he is now personally affected), but because reasonable people should seek to operate from a consistent set of principles and beliefs. If you do otherwise, you are just making stuff up as you go and living incoherently (worse still you’re imposing your incoherence on others).

 

According to the Buddha, when we form opinions we are creating not discovering reality. We construct a narrative that both makes sense to us personally and which agrees with whatever political culture we just so happen to belong to by the accident of our birth. Arguably, we need to create meaning; doing so helps us navigate and make sense of the world; nevertheless, in the process of creating meaning we would do well to avoid becoming a sort Dr. Frankenstein giving life to a monster (an opinion) reflecting our vanity on to an unwitting world; rather, we have a certain ethical responsibility to ourselves and others to think and contemplate well; and, if you can, give life to opinions reflecting principles that are self-evidently true rather than to ones satisfying the need to win arguments or mock others. In the end, there’s more that links us than separates. Perhaps if we forget some of the things we were taught, or that we’ve taught ourselves, we can in principle work towards building better and happier communities.

My Credo

I personally identify as a book reading liberal in the 18th century sense of the word: I like my church and state separate; I prefer constitutions to kings and dictators; I favor the notion of morality not being dictated to me by some infallible priest. I also accept, without any qualification whatsoever, that I have a civic and ethical responsibility to respect my fellow citizens, their life choices, and to preserve a society which embraces diversity. I view social change as a good and not as some sort of disease to be eradicated. I also really, really like watermelon, chocolate, bananas, peanut butter, and music.