Tag Archives: relativism

Autocracy Can Resolve Political Conflict!!!

The political divide in my country is greater than I’ve ever seen, the result of long-standing tensions that found expression in the election of Trump to the presidency.  There are many dimensions of this division but in my estimation the key issue is perspective on life itself.  Some conservatives are rigidly sure that there is only one way to view the world, the “right way,” and it “just happens” to be their way.  On the other hand, progressives are more open-minded, seeing the world as fluid and less rigidly defined.  This viewpoint also is often held very rigidly in spite of announced beliefs of open-mindedness, failing to appreciate the value of a conservative approach to life.  The conservative resistance to change and the progressive insistence on change are contrasting approaches to life, both of which are necessary for any group, i.e. “tribe”, to function.  When the tension between these two social impulses becomes to great violence can erupt if wise and astute leadership is not available in the tribe.

Perspective is merely a view of the world, best illustrated with the old image of, “Do you see the glass half empty or half full?”  This question is a simple illustration that what is going on in the depths of one’s heart can influence how he interprets even a simple thing like the fullness or a glass of water not to mention more weightier issues such as immigration or abortion.  The problem arises only when those who are “half fullers” become adamant in their position while “half-emptiers” are equally adamantine. In gridlock such as this, perspective has become a tyrant and it is tyranny of this sort that led to the Civil War in 1861.

A philosopher once noted, “You cannot have a perspective on your perspective without somehow escaping it.”  Implicit in this wisdom is the understanding that regardless of how certain one might be about his view of the world, it is possible to stand back a bit and mull over the possibility that someone might see things differently.  This involves respect for other people, for “the Other,” and if this respect is lacking conflict will emerge.  Sometimes the solution that arises to alleviate this conflict is tyranny as one side of the issue is able to manage political and social power to the point that the alternative viewpoint is squashed.  For this reason an autocratic regime systematically attempts to repress dissent.

A caveat is here in order.  I have here presented a perspective on a complicated matter, a perspective on perspective itself.  I bring the same “skewed” view of the world to everything I post here and to everything I think and say in my day-to-day life.  There are many good and wise people who do not have this view of the world.  The problem arises only when one “skewed” view of the world usurps power and attempts to squash other “skewed” views of the world.  If this power grab is successful, the result will be the aforementioned autocratic state.

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Emily Dickinson and the Imprisonment of Specious Truth

The subject of truth continues to fascinate me with the term “fake news” becoming synonymous with any viewpoint that does not fit with ours.  Truth appears increasingly to be very relative with no real standard being applicable.  Oh sure, I’m a “relativist” myself but then I continue to believe in some basic standard of veracity which, should I breach it, I would evoke some sense of shame and an attempt to apologize.

But the wonderful 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson knew that it was possible for the human soul to select its constituent elements and fashion a private, “society” that would be, “proof and bulwark” (borrowing a term from Shakespeare) against truth.  She was a keen observer of the human situation in her day and noted how people tended to create a very private reality for themselves, congregate with like-minded souls, and then repel any contrary viewpoint.  Here is how she put it:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

Note that Dickinson observed that after constructing this autistic shell of a world view, the individual would, “shut the door” and then assume a “Divine majority,” that is assuming a Divinity to which nothing could be “presented” any more.  She knew that at this point an individual had said, in the depths of his heart, “My mind is made up.  Don’t confuse me with facts.”

But often in this closed-minded world, Dickinson knew that Truth often visited and “kneeled at her low-gate,” bidding for admission.  But she had already pledged her troth to a particular viewpoint and “closed the valves of her attention like stone.”  The imagery of valves of attention, “closing like stone” is powerful, evoking an auditory image of the gates of attention clanging shut with finality.  When one has barricaded him/herself into a prison of specious certainty, and labeled it Truth, there is no way for those chariots that are always passing by to breach the force-field it faces.  The poison that results inside such a prison always makes me think of Westboro Baptist Church, David Koresh and his disciples, and Jim Jones and the Jonestown, South Africa disaster.

W. H. Auden offered relevant wisdom, “And Truth met him, and held out Her hand. And he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

Post-modernism and Consciousness

Hamlet lamented in a famous soliloquy, “Thus conscience (i.e. consciousness) doeth make cowards of us all.” Shakespeare demonstrated in his plays and sonnets a profound grasp of the human condition and beautifully illustrated our foibles in various characters such as the Prince of Denmark.  Hamlet, as well as many Shakespearean characters, portray for us a soul tortured by consciousness and Hamlet noted in this same soliloquy that such “awareness” can stymie one into inaction.  In clinical lore of recent decades, I have often run across the “Hamlet Syndrome,” the plague of many young men…usually not women…who are so conflicted they have trouble making decisions, thus their many dreams and fancies, “lose the name of action.”

Another theme of Shakespeare was madness and his understanding of this common human malady was not unrelated to his insights about consciousness.  For, there is a “common-sense” consciousness that one is given by his community and one’s lot is to be immersed in it fully; and to step outside of this comfort zone for even a moment and become aware of “consciousness” is not unrelated to madness. Asking one to take this meta-cognitive leap is like asking a fish to see water. For this leap into meta-cognition for someone who has never doubted his way of looking at the world, i.e. his conscious grasp of the world, will find the sudden dawn of a perspective on his perspective frightening.  As philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted, “To have a perspective on one’s perspective is to somehow escape it” and this escape, or even its temptation is terrifying.  The terror of this leap is so threatening that most people live their entire life comfortably ensconced in the narrow view of the world they were given by their tribe, usually deemed as decreed valid by the gods/God.

But, awareness of this issue does not relieve one from the onslaught of unconscious influences. Consciousness flows from the depths of the heart and to be conscious is to realize that the depths of the heart are endless so that one can never bask in the comfort of thinking he has arrived with a wholly “conscious” grasp of the world.  The best one hope of doing is to own a very skewed view of the world and hope that as he continues to age his “skewing” might be more amenable to other viewpoints, leaving one free of the hubris of “objectivity.”

But damn it, it was so much easier in my youth when I mindlessly and dutifully imbibed of what the Apostle Paul described as “the wisdom of this world.”  Yes, in my case doubt was always there nagging at me but I always returned to my script and just doubled-down on unexamined truth, not yet willing to acknowledge that I was merely demonstrating the “bad faith” noted by Jean Paul Sartre. But this post-modern view of the world is, and will continue to be, totally incomprehensible to those who are still comfortably ensconced in a linear view of the world.  I grew up in that linear world and remember viewing askance what was then labeled as “relativism”, often affirming brazenly, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

But most of the people who still live in that mind-set are not bad people nor is their view of the world.  I’m sure an equal number of “bad people” see the world as I do.  “Badness” is not a function of our world view but of how much we are under its tyranny.  The more rigidly certain that our way is the “right way” the more liberty will we feel that to impose our will upon other people, even under the name of God!

Opening up the “Closed Canon”

One of the bedrocks of the conservative faith of my youth was the “closed canon.” This meant that the Bible was the “final” word of God and must be taken completely and used as a rule book. This gave rise to a popular bromide, “God said it, believe it, that settles it.”  This mind set left no room for heart felt, intuitive interpretation of the scripture as the Bible was not seen as literature but as “fact.” This approach to “the Word” was static, allowing no dynamic flow of spirit to take place and preventing the Pauline “Word” which is “quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

This belief presents a Word which is only a word, a mere “object” and not a dynamic process. Furthermore, it reflects the belief in a static, objectified god who is not really a “God” but a mere “thing” among other “things.” This belief also reflects the materialistic drift of our culture for the past few hundred years in which mankind sees himself as separate and distinct from the world, not realizing that in this uncritical approach to his faith he is seeing and experiencing himself as separate and distinct from God. “God” is not a “thing”. I am not a “thing.” I am a process and even here, at this moment, I am merely discoursing about another “process” which I prefer to describe as a “Process.” As W. H. Auden noted, individually and collectively, we are but a “process in a process in a field that never closes.”

But, alas and alack, I suddenly find myself up to my halo in still another blasphemy—relativism! When you begin to see the Word of God as a dynamic process that can never be “closed”, you have opened Pandora’s box and various dimensions of “uncertainty” make their escape. The doubt, anxiety, and vulnerability that begins to seep into the heart explains why the certainty was so rigid. It kept the “demons” at bay. But, until these “demons” are released, they live in the hidden recesses of our heart and inevitably lead to projections onto the outside world. Our beliefs reveal as much about our own heart as anything else. When you see a “true believer”, you are face to face with a scared little child who is terrorized by the fragility of his little life. He has glommed onto dogma and can never let it go without experiencing some of that terror which predicates his existence in the world.

My “Objective” Observations about Objectivity

I’m one of those people who look at things from more than one perspective. Yes, at times I fear I catch myself looking at things from many, many different perspectives a tendency which, if carried too far, is merely an effort to be God and know everything! The “normal” thing to do is to look at life through the narrow little prism that one is accustomed to and never worry about “diversity.” Life is pretty simple to that person but I was never blessed with that simplicity.

Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who has demonstrated a similar penchant for looking at things from multiple perspectives. He has made very astute observations about the political spectrum in our country and how that conservatives and liberals could learn from each other if they could ever lay aside their pig-headed assuredness that they are “right.” I include here a link to a review of one of his books last year which you might find worthwhile if the subject interests you. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/the-righteous-mind-by-jonathan-haidt.html?_r=0)

I’d like to share another observation on the subject of “objectivity” from the philosopher Karl Jaspers about the human tendency to absolutize himself, disregarding his finitude and the subjective nature of his grasp of the world:

If we think we have seized upon the total historic process as an object of knowledge, if we thank that thus we have visualized wherein and whereby we exist, we have lost the sense of the encompassing source from which we live…Whenever an observer thinks he knows what man is, what history is, what the self is as a whole, he loses his touch with the encompassing and thus is cut off from his origin and his essence

Rumi on the “Faculty of Judgment”

Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there

Rumi was addressing what the philosophers call the “faculty of judgment”, that human ability to carve the world up into categories so that he can have the illusion of controlling it. And, I think Rumi knew this cognitive apparatus was an essential part of being a human and actually allowed him to create his world. But Rumi saw that it was necessary to not be confined by this conceptual prison and had learned that it was possible to occasionally lay aside this whirligig and meet someone out “there.”

To approach the matter clinically, Rumi was speaking of “object-separateness.” He saw that the whole of the world, and especially other humans, lay beyond the grasp of our thoughts about them. He knew that we tend to “live in the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which lies the darkness,” the “darkness” being a boundary that we must venture into if we are to ever go “out there” and meet someone. And this is essentially a spiritual enterprise.

In this brief poem, Rumi addressed one particular bifurcation of the world that we are familiar with, that compulsive need to label some people “right” and some people “wrong.” (And, what a coincidence that I so often happen to fall into the “right” category????) Certainly, “right” and “wrong” are valid labels in this world and Rumi knew that. What he was saying is that we don’t need to wield the distinction like a weapon and can, on occasion, give it a rest, perhaps offering someone who we first want to label ‘wrong” a little bit of grace. The best example I can think Jesus offering forgiveness to the Samaritan woman at the well when he was legally required to condemn her and stone her to death.

Rumi knew there was a karmic law that is written in the universe—when one has a compulsive need to be right, he will create wrong.

Oscar Wilde “Playing” with Reality

I am currently reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. I have seen the movie years ago and loved it; but the novel itself has so much more to offer. Wilde has an as astute grasp of human culture in the 19th century and could eloquently convey which way the winds were blowing. He, and other astute individuals, certainly had some insight into what was going to unfold in the 20th century.

For example, modern science was toying with human culture at the time and leaving it in the throes of relativism, ambivalence, and uncertainty. Truth, and even reality itself, came to be seen as paradoxical, leading Wilde to declare in this novel, “The way of paradoxes is the way of Truth. To test reality, we must see it on the tight rope. When the verities become acrobats, we can judge them.” T. S. Eliot would later echo this perspective on truth, declaring that to know truth, or reality, we must “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain, and therefore the fittest for renunciation.” (The Four Quartets)

So, today, a century plus from Wilde’s death, we live in the tumult of what he, “modern” science of his day, and literary license would produce. We wrestle with the question of, “What is real and what is unreal?” In my country (the United States) I feel that this is the essential issue that divides the country, that is wreaking havoc on our political system, and even spreading confusion within the erstwhile hermetically sealed “safe” confines of the Republican party.

And, ultimately I feel we must discover that “Real” is apprehended only by faith and once apprehended, we have to realize that we don’t actually “apprehend” it at all. We only intuit it, “faith” it, and hope for it. But, that does not diminish the power of its Presence. It merely humbles us, reminding us of the wisdom of the Apostle Paul, “We see through a glass darkly.” But this Presence is with us, and in us, each day as we seek to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”