Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Ugly Canadian

I just got back from my annual Yule visit to St. Louis, where I visit with my dear, sweet, beloved Significant Other, Misha.


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.

One of the events that caught my eye about this was a "long read" opinion piece that I read in bed one lazy morning off my smart phone. Titled "The White Man Pathology: Inside the Fandom of Sanders and Trump", I started off thinking that the essay was interesting and insightful, but ended up thinking it was silly and facile. Written by a Canadian from Toronto, it describes his travel from groovy, multicultural Toronto, to the blighted, racist hinterland of Iowa where he interacted with racist rednecks in a bar and goofy conservatives and liberals at campaign rallies. 

What set my teeth on edge was the fact that I found in the piece some very unsettling resonances with the way I see the USA. Primarily, my experience in the 'states is to see what seems to be to me a profoundly racist society that treats working class people of all races very badly, and, which seems to consist of nothing except crumbling inner cities surrounded by obscenely car-dependent suburbs---which are designed to separate the upper classes from having to have anything at all to do with the rest of the population. This sets my teeth on edge and I find myself routinely contrasting this state of affairs with my hip, environmentally-friendly, "walkable" downtown community in Guelph, Ontario.

I don't keep this to myself, and I have developed a tendency to make pompous, self-righteous comments about the difference between my country and the USA. I say my country is better---which is bad enough---but I also tend to suggest that the reason why it is better is because it's people are more socially and politically engaged. I opine, for example, that Canadians fought to preserve their unions instead of sitting idly by and letting them be dismantled. I have also said that people have to sometimes beat up scabs and sabotage workplaces in order to keep their union rights, which horrifies my American friends who think that any sort of violence is abhorrent. 


When I go through one of these "awakening" moments in my life, I find my consciousness sometimes splitting into different parts. That is, I find myself manifesting a specific type of behaviour, but at the same time a part of my consciousness is passively watching the train wreck while it happens. This recently happened at a dinner party where I got into a discussion with a friend who had significantly different opinions about politics. We were talking about "anarchism" and "democracy", and he took the tack of saying that the only thing we could talk about were his strict definitions of these terms. Since "anarchism" is defined on-line as "belief in the abolition of all government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion", he decided that there really was no such thing as what people call "anarchism". Instead, what they are talking about is just various different types of democratic societies or hopelessly utopian ideas that just degenerate into dictatorships or authoritarian regimes of one form or another. As for "democracy", since it is defined as "majority rule", it is very simple to understand and not really worth discussing either.

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 from to the table. But the point is that we are at a table. We are attempting to be friends and negotiate the delusional world that we inhabit.

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. 


Conveyance Doctor said...

How I wish I had read this post about 30 years ago! I am a know-it-all. I have believed that I have a duty to correct the incorrectness in other people's thought process and resultant beliefs. Only in the past few years have I attempted to balance the tension of the opposites. Thanks for the reminder.

Tǔ Qiú said...

Thank you for this post.
All too often, I find myself in a debate with someone, refusing to give ground or look from a new perspective. I've been learning this lesson a lot lately, I hope it will take hold soon.

Also, I wanted to say that I appreciate your blog in general as a new Daoist.
It is not easy to find more experienced Daoists to learn from, and your blog here is like an oasis in the wasteland of the Arizona desert.


The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Thanks for both generous comments. I bow to fellow travellors on the Way.