Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Blind Men and the Elephant

I recently assigned the story of The Blind Men and the Elephant to a writing class for interpretation. I gave them three versions to work from: the John Godfrey Saxe poem, a Buddhist version, and a Jain version written in India for children. The story is familiar to most people as a moral lesson. A number of blind men, usually six, each try to identify an elephant. Limited to touch, each one grabs a different part of the elephant and reaches a different conclusion about what the elephant is. The one touching the side concludes it’s like a wall, the one touching the tusk says it’s like a spear, and so on.

The three versions reach different conclusions about what the moral of the story is:

Saxe says:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The Buddhist version says:

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.

And, finally, the Jain version for children says:

The moral of the story is that there may be some truth to what someone says. Sometimes we can see that truth and sometimes not because they may have different perspective which we may not agree to. So, rather than arguing like the blind men, we should say, “Maybe you have your reasons.” This way we don’t get in arguments. In Jainism, it is explained that truth can be stated in seven different ways. So, you can see how broad our religion is. It teaches us to be tolerant towards others for their viewpoints. This allows us to live in harmony with the people of different thinking.

I read the three versions aloud, after passing them out, and then asked the students to write their understanding of the story from memory in three sections, concluding with the moral of the story. Here is the moral of the story as each of them saw it:

  1. Each thinks his view is universal. He should think again.
  2. Each opinion is true according to its reason. It is important to hear others and make harmony with them.
  3. All persons’ opinions are right and wrong at the same time. We need harmony and tolerance.
  4. Feelings are incredible things.
  5. We should see the other perspective before arguing. We should have tolerance for other viewpoints.
  6. Harmony is very important. It is important to have a wide view and terrible to be ignorant.
  7. We should consider things from another viewpoint.
  8. We should listen to other people and be tolerant. This allows us to live in harmony with other people instead of arguing like the blind men.
  9. They didn’t see the whole elephant. We should stop insisting on our own view and understand what each other means.
  10. Things have many aspects. We have to see from different viewpoints. We often cannot see the forest for the trees.
  11. There are many different aspects to an argument. We should see things from different viewpoints. Then we can live in harmony.
  12. Each was partly right, partly wrong, because they couldn’t see more than a part of the thing. We should admit this and admit each viewpoint. That will make the world more peaceful.

As I was reading the student papers, it struck me how often the word “harmony” popped up. It appears in five of the twelve responses. Since I don’t see the moral of the story in terms of harmony at all, I was astonished to find this degree of consensus – almost half the responses. I was about to conclude that students were reading something into the moral from their own moral training about harmony in Japan. But then I went back and saw that this was made explicit in the children’s version, and I would not be justified in claiming they were reading something that wasn’t there. I take that as a moral lesson for me personally – to check my facts before reaching conclusions.

The issue of whether we see harmony as a Japanese value, or a Jain value, aside, it still remains interesting that one should conclude harmony is the lesson we should draw from the story. Tolerance, yes, but harmony?

Some postmodernists argue that objectivity is not possible, that we can never see things coolly and unemotionally from an outside perspective, that we all allow our own experiences and feelings to color what we see. To them, there is no elephant, only one’s particular perspective on an elephant. I think, however, that as the story is presented one is not justified in concluding that this is its moral. After all, we the audience are allowed to see the entire elephant in our minds. We see what the blind men do not see, and we see that the way out of their dilemma is to share perspectives in order to build a truer collective image of an elephant than each is capable of building individually.

For me, the moral has to do with the nature of knowledge, and not harmony at all. When harmony is the goal, the strategy is too often simply to listen to others and say nothing. It leaves us stuck in our own isolation and ignorance. In real life, we are not always like these blind men whose only error is that they see only part of the truth. While it is arguable that none of us ever sees the whole truth, it is also true that sometimes people are not merely reflecting a limited perspective but are actually wrong about their facts. One thing we should learn from the moral lesson of The Blind Men and the Elephant is that The Blind Men and the Elephant is not the only moral lesson we should learn from life!

Sometimes seeking harmony is a way of making us blind. The Blind Men and the Elephant helps us to see the wisdom of tolerance, because in this case each person has part of the truth, but it does not tell us what to do when we are faced with other people who are actually wrong or people who lie about what they see. If we work collectively, we can overcome factual error and deceit, but we have to be willing to challenge others’ opinions and insist that they reveal to us how they have reached their conclusions. That challenge sometimes means we have to make harmony a lesser priority. The art of life lies in part in distinguishing between those times when we should seek harmony and those times when it is a barrier to understanding.

At least that’s the part of the elephant my hands are on at the moment.

April 30, 2005

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Evening the Pope Died

The evening the Pope died I was sitting around the dinner table with some friends and one of them said, "I’m glad that old son of a bitch is dead. Good riddance."

Hey, I said. I don’t like that. The thought didn’t sit well with me at all. And not because of the old conventional bit about not speaking ill of the dead. That’s one of those fine rules to live by, actually, but that’s not what bothered me about the remark. What bothered me was that I’ve always held a bit of admiration for the man.

Back in 1979, only a few months after this Polish man had taken over the reins of Mother Church, I was in a coffee shop with the Santa Cruz (California) contingent that had just marched in the San Francisco Gay Pride parade – about thirty of us. The topic of the new pope came up, and without giving it any thought I said, "I think he’s an interesting man."

That’s the word I used – interesting. Not wonderful, not saintly, nothing more than that English word probably most devoid of content. It was as if I had picked my nose and asked people to look at it. If there had been a chute available to send me to hell, this crowd would have all rushed for the lever.

"No," I said, not knowing when to shut up. "I mean look. He was a drama student!" – trying to appeal to this bank of queens without being too obvious. "And how many of us would have stood up to the Nazis like he did?"

They were not listening anymore. I was done with this group. For good, it turns out. I never saw these guys again without reading in their eyes, "Oh, it’s you! The asshole who likes the pope."

This event came immediately to mind the other night when I found myself across the table from two very important people in my life. "You’ve got to separate the man from his ideas!" I insisted. But again, these guys, not coincidentally gay also, were not having any of it. "Not this guy. This guy’s ideas were dangerous and he pushed them aggressively."

I wonder about this. I am persuaded that if you can’t separate a person from his ideas you can’t get anywhere. No persuasion, no negotiation. No education is possible.

I watched a movie last night called "The Last Supper." A not-even-B-grade movie with a brilliant premise – a bunch of liberals sit around a dinner table poisoning conservatives one by one whom they invite to dinner to reveal their obnoxious points of view. At one point in the story they raise the moral question, "If you had run into Adolf Hitler when he was still young, would you kill him?"

These moral dilemmas are the stuff of my ethics seminars, and I eat them up. I waited to see how they would deal with the question. Obviously, if you buy into the premise that you can time travel and carry knowledge of the future with you, you might well conclude the answer ought to be "Damn straight I would kill this guy! Anything else would make you responsible for the misery he came to cause."

The twist in the story, though, came when one of the guys they most wanted to finish off said, "No, I wouldn’t. I would try to talk to him, befriend him, become an influence in his life and turn it around."

Another powerful idea in the movie was the charge – the fact the movie was made ten years ago makes the point even more poignant – that liberals just sit around and talk while conservatives get their act together and make things happen.

With the recent coming to power of Karl Rove and his skill at "firming up the base" and making it possible for corporations to surge out ahead of individuals, for warmongers to make peacemakers sound silly and irrelevant again, we get to see the difference between "the power of ideas" (as liberals like to construct the notion) and "the ideas of the powerful" (the version that comes across when radical conservatives are in charge.)

I’ve got a job that keeps me liberal. I walk into a classroom several days each week and look into the eyes of a bunch of bright fresh faces of people in their early twenties and talk about ideas.

Yesterday I started my new ethics seminar off with the topic of torture. Seven guys, five of whom I’ve already got a good relationship with, launched into the question of whether there are times when torture is acceptable.

"Yes," they all said. If somebody has kidnapped your three-year-old little girl and is hiding her with people who are likely to abuse her, torture is the right thing to do.

"You mean poke their eyes out? Stick chopsticks in their ears and break their eardrums?" I asked.

They didn’t like that. "Let’s keep this discussion on a rational basis," one of them said. "Do you approve of torture or don’t you?" I asked.

Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard hotshot lawyer who’s always making news, has come up with an idea. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have brought to our awareness that Americans, like anybody else, can and do torture people. It’s time, he says, to come out of the closet on this issue, admit that it’s done, and try to control it. Sort of like the liberal argument about teenage sex.

Dershowitz wants us to put in place a system in which agents of the state have to get a "torture warrant" from a judge, as they do with search warrants. They would have to specify who and when and why they want to torture, give convincing cause, and then use only one method – sterilized steel needles under the fingernails.

Suddenly the magnificent seven – they were all men, as it happened – turned back into sweet little boys. What machismo and swagger there was went right out the window. "Oh, God," said one of them. "That’s just too much!"

The new semester was off to a good start. In the very first hour of the seminar we had taken an idea, kicked it around from yes to torture to no, not really, to well, if you put it that way, to if we can follow these guidelines, to but is torture efficient? to do we really have to talk about this, to I guess I don’t know what to say about this topic anymore.

They left the room drained. I left the room thinking, "Damn, I love my job."
It’s all about ideas. Any idea. Every idea. Keep ‘em coming and let me hear what you really think. No bad ideas, only undeveloped ones. Everybody has got the right to say what they think, right?

Well, what about the pope? Does he have the right to tell us God wants us to hang onto the notion that women are subordinate to men and not in charge of their own bodies? That you’re not supposed to act on your sexual feelings unless you are married and making new little souls? That you’re not supposed to think you are right with God unless your soul is soldered fast to the Holy Roman way of life?

Liberals say of course he has the right to hold these ideas, bullcrap though they may be. But does he really if he is this powerful? Wishing him dead, or rejoicing in his passing is saying no, he doesn’t have the right. Unlike ordinary mortals, this man has too much power. You can separate a person from his ideas when you are in the insulated isolated ivory tower, but in the real world powerful men are their ideas and bad ideas kill and maim.

I still insist that Karol Wojtyla was an interesting man. In fact, I think he was a good man. I find it not all that hard to wrap my mind around the notion that a good man can hurt me. Karol Wojtyla hurt me when he spread the idea that homosexuality is wrong. I would have no fear if he and I were lost on a desert island together that he would hurt me – in fact, I think being in the presence of this kindly old soul would likely be a thrilling experience, certainly an educative one.

Pure liberal silly thought games again, you might say, and you might suspect me of hero worship. But I insist, the man simply comes from a time and place where his integrity requires him to hold on to certain principles and his intellect tells him the world will fall apart if the framework is rattled too abruptly. He was wrong about that, I think.

That’s the point, for me. You don’t need to list all the positive things Karol Wojtyla did – apologizing to the Jews, entering a mosque, taking a stand against capital punishment and capitalist greed. Even without those things I can respect the man for his integrity. I mean think about it. Put him up against the Roadkill of the Hour, Tom Delay, for a minute, and you’ll see what I mean. Compare Wojtyla to Mr. Zero Integrity and I’ll bet you’ll find yourself wondering how to join forces to fasttrack his canonization.

The funeral is over. Wojtyla went into a plain wooden box and into the ground. It’s really time to refocus attention on that dinosaur of an institution run by old farts in crimson dresses whose fear of change keeps them tied to Augustine and his loathing of sex and to pre-industrial beliefs in patriarchy. On the battle between those with an ecumenical bent, like kindly old Giovanni Roncalli (John XXIII) and the embrace of Vatican II on the one hand, and the retrograde forces of Vatican I, papal infallibility and the stacked curia of today. Time to separate other men from their ideas – people like Josef Ratzinger, often referred to as Roman Catholicism’s most brilliant theologian and thinker, and his provincial and arrogant notion that God listens only to the prayers of Roman Catholics.

Time to consider whether Wojtyla’s fear of liberation theology really was because if priests carry guns they will also kill and if priests kill they will also want to marry. (Kind of like the Southern Baptists who don’t like sex because it might lead to dancing.)

Time to wonder if Rome’s disregard for a 50% drop in people joining religious orders has anything to do with their being out of touch, and time to wonder whether the promotion of that creep Cardinal Law – you remember him, he’s the guy who covered up the child abuse scandals in Boston – to a position of power in Rome after being booted out of Boston means the church is in self-destruct mode.

Time to wonder about all those things, if you’re of a mind to.

As for me, I’m wondering how it is that I have such a soft spot in my heart for old Mr. Karol Wojtyla.

I loved some of the things you stood for and hated others. You were an interesting man. And I admired your integrity.

Rest in Peace, old man.

Oiso, Japan
April 13, 2005