Fatal absolutist thinking | Inquirer Opinion
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Fatal absolutist thinking

/ 12:24 AM September 08, 2016

It is a human tendency to yearn for certainty in a world where there are only a few absolutes. We are itchy for explanations when confronted by the complex variables of life, only to find that our quest for absolute answers is futile.

In our ultimate search for meaning, we turn to the mysterious divine, on the teachings of which many among us exclusively base our actions and beliefs, seeing, most often, other religions as absurd.


When we were children, we became used to fairy tales where the characters are either heroes or villains, only to discover in our adolescence that there exist other, complicated, characters who can challenge our morals. Stereotypes, manifested in our quick judgments, bombard different aspects of our lives, such as culture, gender, race, schooling, and workplace.

We have all been guilty of thinking in absolutes.


We sometimes fail to see the finer gray hues—that we live in a pluralistic world—because thinking in shortcut is so much easier. According to psychologists, we human beings, regardless of race, religion, or culture, are likely to embrace absolutist thinking for it offers us a false sense of security. Absolutist thinking, to provide a working definition, is the tendency to limit our thinking to unitary or black-and-white terms.

This kind of thinking pervaded much of the discourse in social media during the election season, and even beyond it. You criticized then candidate Rodrigo Duterte and you were branded a lapdog of the “yellow camp”—tuta ng dilaw. You offered your two cents on the latest news in the campaign, and you were sure to be mocked as “feeling political analyst” if you are still below 18 and incapable of voting yet. You came out as a supporter of Mar Roxas and you were suddenly an “elitist.” You were either crazy or anti-yellow if you rooted for Bongbong Marcos.

Contradictions were condemned. You were obliged by “legitimate” critics to be also informed of other forms of injustice, albeit significantly different, aside from advocating feminism.

Now,  more than ever, the new administration has epitomized this dangerous absolutist thinking. Our country has morphed into what seems like a Kafkaesque world, where drug users and pushers are killed like pests. Drug addiction and criminality are seen by the new administration as the be-all and end-all of our country’s woes, not as manifestations of our larger systemic ills, such as poverty and corruption. Killing these “good for nothing” users and pushers is therefore the grand solution.

China’s seizure of portions of the West Philippine Sea is also a manifestation of absolutist thinking, or more specifically, of the xenocentric Chinese dream to take over the world. The worst mass shooting in the United States is inspired by a pure adherence to a religious law that deems homosexuality immoral.

Much of the world’s conflicts and injustices, such as war, sexism, racism, and hate, correlate to absolutism. Absolutist thinking pervades the different areas of our lives, manifesting in subtle and obvious forms. There is no absolute cure to absolutism; our tendency to think in absolute terms is indeed an eternal curse from which, of course, we cannot shield ourselves entirely. But if we are to live in a better world, the timeless values of empathy and tolerance should prevail.

Empathy and tolerance are values significant for a pluralistic world to thrive. To turn away from absolutist thinking, we need and must embrace these values.


Empathy helps us to identify with the feelings and perspectives of others, and to properly respond to differences. Being able to understand where others are coming from can help us arrive at fair judgments.

Empathy helps us to develop effective programs that will not only prevent crime but will also heal those affected by crime, including the offenders. To champion empathy in the realm of crime and punishment is to renounce the vengeful justice system that includes the death penalty, which is an indolent and short-sighted answer to criminality and expresses the absolute power of the state.

“Forbidding a man’s execution would amount to proclaiming publicly that society and the state are not absolute values…” Albert Camus once wrote. This statement is perhaps much needed by the new administration.

A culture of tolerance (or respect for diversity) and the ability to coexist with others whose opinions, practices, religion, nationality, and so on differ from one’s own, must be a collective endeavor. Tolerance might, at times, be an impractical choice in certain situations where tolerating intolerance is deemed unreasonable, but a necessary allegiance to intolerance is justifiable only in specific situations. It is our duty to maximize tolerance as much as possible.

If, as they say, “rights” was to the 20th century and “equality” was to the 19th century, then empathy and tolerance must be to the 21st century if we are to effect radical political and societal change and to contribute to human evolution. The advancement of radical movements such as the LGBT community in the 21st century is evidence that empathy and tolerance are winning; it is a recognition of a world of different hues, and is an unprecedented step away from the shackles of absolutist thinking.

Addie Pobre, 20, is a journalism student of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.

Stories from the young Filipino

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TAGS: absolutes, Elections 2016, Empathy, social media, South China Sea, tolerance
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