Harmony isn't what is used to be
By Bro. David Weinberg
"Harmony" or, more often used, "Peace and Harmony," has become one of the important mantras or memes of North American Freemasonry. Our meetings - stated and called communications - open with some variant of the above statement, and close with some variant of "peace and harmony prevailing." But, what is this harmony we hold dear? What does it mean, this harmony we speak of? More importantly, how is it used?
To the non-mason, harmony appears as a worthy goal. As the dictionary definition reads, why would an emphasis on harmony be a bad thing? After all, it is defined thusly:
har-mo-ny: Agreement in feeling or opinion; accord: live in harmony.
In such glittering generalities, yes, harmony can be a good thing. When referred to in such nebulous, roundabout ways, the ideal of having all agreement and having an accord of opinion is most difficult to argue against. After all, no one wants a problem, few if any want serious disagreements occurring amongst the membership - so anyone who would take up the cause that harmony may not be such a panacea is looked at with suspicion. However, this is the view of harmony which has become "Masonic Harmony." The view that any dissention or difference of opinion would (or could) cause such a rift within the membership that any such dissent should be silenced is the prevailing one of "Masonic Harmony." This, observably, is not 'harmony' in the sense that such agreement or accord was reached from within, after discussion or deliberation, but imposed from outside or above, that agreement with and acquiescence to the will of those holding power within the organization is "harmony;" opposing viewpoints, no matter how valid, are "disharmony," "unmasonic," or otherwise is a condition which should not, under any circumstances be condoned.
There are certain subjects within American Masonry which attracts this draconian form of "harmony," but these subjects are not the sole places where it is imposed. One need simply log on to a number of the various Masonic forums to see this in action. Granted, some level of control of a forum must be maintained by those who created such or are tasked with its maintenance, but even amongst the users of such systems a pecking order of "harmonious conduct" emerges.
In its history, Masonry, both internationally and in America, has been the home to notable "great thinkers." Go to any boastful Masonic website, and a list of them, great and small, can be had. In perusing such lists, a theme arises: most of these "greats" are from a bygone era, and most are renown for their accomplishments outside of Masonry. Another commonality can be seen - that the accomplishments these great thinkers are known for did not come simply by staying within what would now be dictated by today's "Masonic Harmony." These men challenged establishments, whether in the political arena, theological, or philosophical. Masonic Communications these lights attended were not the quiet business meetings (save when dues increases are discussed) so prevalent today. In the dry meetings of today, intellectual pursuits are distained, not only because to engage in them would appear "elitist" - but also that the heart of discussion and debate is not an echo chamber, but disagreement. Disagreement within a Masonic Lodge (again, other than on the subject of dues increases) is such an anathema as could scarcely be contemplated by the majority of Worshipful Masters as a force for positive development. Rather, Harmony - in reality, the status quo of bills and minutes-reading - must prevail! After all, the Secretary states such at the close of the minutes: "Peace and Harmony Prevailing, the lodge was closed..." What is missed in that statement is that after the differences in viewpoints, after the debates have been held, then the lodge returned to "harmony" to close.
The other form of "Masonic Harmony" is an aggressive sort. Since, as outlined above, "peace and harmony" are to prevail among Masons, what easier way is there to 'win' a disagreement not by dissecting the other side's arguments, but instead by undercutting the Mason himself, calling him "unmasonic" for causing such "disharmony" in disagreeing. And, while some may wish to believe that such offensive (in many senses) use of the claim to harmony would not occur, it has been observed innumerable times. The typical use of this form of claim to harmony is almost exclusively by the one creating the disharmony in the first place. However, rather than creating disharmony from a fringe perspective, the firebrand instead chooses a subject where at least the plurality of opinion, if not an outright majority, favors him. Armed with the knowledge that the orthodoxy would support his position, such person would then assert the position, not in a calm manner, but in a belligerent one. In some areas where there is sizeable support for a minority (to American Freemasonry norms) position, forceful assertion of the majority position isn't a harmonious act, but spoiling for an argument; the provocation of disharmony. When such a challenge is answered, or when the provocateur is reminded of the need to act harmoniously, the claim the responder - or the one making the admonition - is breaking the disharmony of the lodge or gathering is made. Instantly, those who were not paying attention to the initial exchange now are focused intently on the disturbance, and, as the provocateur intended, viewing the agitator as the injured, aggrieved party. The original subject matter is forgotten; rather than a discussion based upon the merits of the arguments, the responder must fend off charges of breaking the "peace and harmony" while the original rabble-rouser skulks off, his positions, as he intended, unchallenged.
A variation of the aggressive use of "Masonic Harmony" to stifle debate arises in the few areas where American Masonry's performance is less than stellar - equality, both sexual and racial. So heated these discussions become that they are "best left unmentioned" lest battle lines are drawn. In these instances, "harmony" is a two-edged sword; those who favor the status-quo are not necessarily favoring discrimination or segregation, nor are those favoring other outcomes necessarily advocating complete integration along all lines in all organizations. What is worth noting in this situation is who makes the first accusation of "disharmony" - and for what reasons. Unfortunately, the call that someone has been disharmonious is nearing to the conditions found in the Internet's "Godwin's Law": the longer a Masonic subject requires rational thought, the faster the proponents of the status-quo will label those supporting the other side as disharmonious.
The difficulty arises in that Freemasonry, regardless of the institutions involved, should be promoting harmony, that is, promoting the atmosphere where such discussions can occur without resorting to personal attacks or non-sequitur derailments simply because the other side does not have an intellectual response. "Peace and Harmony" should prevail, in the sense that whether or not an agreement on the issues discussed is reached, the option to agree to disagree amicably should remain.
- Source: Knights of the North Masonic Dictionary