I often find myself going through periods of intense thought about a specific issue over a period of time. When this happens, the key point seem to be reflected in many of the events and discussions I live through. In this trip, these thoughts have even invaded my dreams. In this particular case, I've been intensely focused on my relationship to the "Other". By the "Other", I mean to say the fact that each and every person I meet is profoundly different from me and sees the world very differently.
For me this was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. You see, I've put a lot of my life into thinking about, creating, and lobbying for both grassroots (ie. somewhat anarchist in nature) organizations and democratic decision-making systems. My finger-prints are on the decision-making system of both the Green Party of Canada and Ontario. So what I wanted to do was get this fellow to admit that there are different types of democracies and anarchisms---which are all approximations of an ideal. Yet he was adamant in refusing to budge from a strict dictionary definition of each term, which meant that there really was no such thing in the world at all. Indeed, when I asked him what the USA is, if not a democracy, he said it was instead a "republic".
(Since the Google definition of "republic" is "a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch", I suppose I could have turned tables on him and said "how can you say that the supreme power is held by "the people" and not the elites. But that is a game that I didn't want to play.)
I could see that my dear sweet wife and one of her friends were appalled by the way this was spinning away from polite small talk into obnoxious argument, but I was helpless to stop myself from getting all pissy about it. After people left (on good terms I hope), Misha and I had a significant conversation about what had happened.
Misha tells me that like many big white men, I am oblivious to the privileges that I have had in life. Thinking about this exchange, I suspect that one of them is the feeling that I have a "right" to my own opinions and the ability to express them whenever I please. Women generally do not labour under this illusion because they have tended to be tasked with "social production" in our society. That is to say, that women tend to be the people who are responsible for holding families and communities together. They do this by smoothing ruffled feathers and performing the rituals (like the dinner party I mention above) that hold friends and communities together. I admit it too, that I went to her to discuss what had happened and she helped me work through the issues at hand. (Even though, I suspect that at least some of the time when she does this she'd rather use the time to do something else---even if only have some "alone" time to relax.)
One thing she says to me is "try to understand your audience". This is a very new and scary idea for me, as I have been trained to only focus on the ideas. In its bluntest terms, this means that if I think that I can show 1 +1 = 2, I should be appalled when someone says it equals 5. What Misha is saying, is that I should be willing to accept that for some people all they see is 5, and I should be trying to figure out why they see 5 instead of 2. This is not how people at university philosophy departments are trained to think, if only because it is difficult enough to figure out what 1 + 1 equals without having to find out why some people see 5.
And yet, she is obviously right.
There is no sense at all opening your mouth if you are not interested in having another person understand what you are saying. This is an important issue. The Dao De Jing says
When a superior person hears Tao,
He diligently practices it.
When a middling person hears Tao,
He hears it, he doesn't hear it.
When the inferior person hears Tao, he roars.
If Tao were not laughed at,
It would not be Tao.
Therefore, established sayings have it this way:
"The illuminating Tao appears dark,
The advancing Tao appears retreating,
The level Tao appears knotty.
High te appears like a valley,
Great whiteness appears spotted,
Expansive te appears insufficient,
Well-established te appears weak,
The genuine in substance appears hollow.
Great square has no corners,
Great vessel is late in completion,
Great voice has hardly any sound,
Great image is formless,
Tao is hidden and without name."
Yet it is Tao alone,
That is good in lending help and fulfilling all.
(Chapter 41, Ellen Chen trans.)
Looking at this chapter, what I see is that there second stanza says that it is hard to see the truth (ie: Dao) because it often isn't what you think it will be. I think that if I were just seeing the surface of this issue, I'd leave it at that and say that my friend (and he is a friend) was misunderstanding the Dao.
But don't stop there. Consider the following third stanza too. There is De, but there is also high De. It is true that there are facts---1 +1 = 2. But high De consists in understanding that everything we say and do is an approximation. It is a simplification of complex terms and contexts. 1(x-y) + 1(z/q), so it may be true that in most cases, or at least most of the cases that I have experienced, the answer is 2. But in some people's lives, the answer really does appear to be 5 and it would be dishonest to simply accept that it is 2. And just because someone cannot articulate their reasoning doesn't mean that they don't honestly believe it. (False acceptance is no acceptance at all.)
Is a discussion supposed to be a pissing match where people try to brow beat the other into shutting up? Or is it an attempt to really understand the other guy?
I think that it is possible to understand the fourth stanza as referring to this idea. There is a small petty truth. 1 + 1 = 2. But the Great square/vessel/voice/image is not concerned about just one thing. It is also involved in the personal complexities of the people in front of you. It also concerns itself with the context. Is a dinner party a philosophy seminar? Is Canada the same as the USA? Am I the same person as the fellow I was arguing with? We all bring different things
That's what the last stanza is all about: "---it is Tao alone, That is good in lending help and fulfilling all."
Remember to embrace the Void. I forgot to do so on my trip to St. Louis. I hope that I will do a better job in the future.