Presenting a united front

“Whether we are Christians or Muslims or nationalists or agnostics or atheists, we must first learn to forget our differences. If we have differences, let us differ in the closet; when we come out in front, let us not have anything to argue about until we get finished arguing with the man.

That’s from a speech called The Ballot or the Bullet, given by Malcolm X in Cleveland in 1964. What Malcolm was essentially saying to those gathered, to those fighting for black rights, was this: present a united front. There can be internal debate, but let there be external solidarity when we face our enemy.

It’s a solid strategy. Think about any notable company. Do you ever hear about the political strife, the in-fighting, the debates and the fallouts that occur behind the walls? No, of course not. Such events are kept away from prying eyes. Instead, they present a united, consistent front. Groups, communities and organisations hold a public position, but determine that position in private. And as individuals, we try to do that too.

One of the funniest things I’ve discovered from the interviews I’ve conducted is that, often, we say what we don’t mean. In our quest to articulate our ideas, tell our stories and share our feelings, we mix up words and convey meanings we didn’t intend. That’s fine in regular conversation, but when you’re on record, it doesn’t look so good. See, we expect ourselves and others to be like organisations. We expect them to have one position and have all their actions and words align with it. But reality isn’t that pretty.

Look at it another way. In our minds, from the things we’ve done and said, we create narratives. We manufacture stories about ourselves, others and the world which fit with our philosophies, expectations and perceived experiences. The quality that ties all these different narratives together is consistency. They all make sense. They have to. Else we wouldn’t be able to interpret and process our lives. But our ability to create narratives, to create consistency, is both a gift and a curse.

It’s a gift because it allows us to detect patterns, to learn, to grow, to evolve, to communicate. But it’s a curse because it makes us think that our life must be consistent, that things must make sense, when a lot of the time, they don’t. After all, what is a narrative of life except words and actions retroactively fitted to a particular theme?

It’s this clash, this mismatch between reality and narrative, between the consistency and the inconsistency of our words and actions, that makes our existence interesting. Life is an irreconcilable conflict between what we do and what we intended to happen. Between what we say and what we mean.

I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with this realisation. We can’t stamp out the inconsistencies. Then we wouldn’t be human. But at the same time, we don’t want to be known as a walking bundle of contradiction. Perhaps the best strategy is the one that Malcolm advocates. To the rest of the world, do your best to present a united front, to forget your differences. But when you’re alone, inside your head, or when you’re with friends, air those differences. Examine them. Question them. Test them.