Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Taking Differences Seriously: An Introduction

"We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography. Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself-must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know." Ralph Waldo Emerson, History, Essays: First Series
In contrast and in contradiction to my previous post on Ronald Dworkin, I turn here from abstract and objective principles to personal and subjective values.

It is a commonplace view that the world or universe, at least the human social world, is a holistic totality. That everything is connected to everything else, and that there is thus a center from which to comprehend and  conform to an objective Truth appears a majoritarian proposition. This view has perhaps always been a predominant one in both secular and religious worlds; people even enlist hard science to support such a view.

I should like to introduce a contrary account.

It is abundantly clear that there are gripping and dramatic divisions which daily and increasingly fray, indeed practically dismember, our current society.  Whether it is conceived of as a polarization or cultural alienation, the really central question is whether such divisions reflect a contest between objective truths and falsehoods or,  conversely, subjective value.  Are such divisions the expression of equal and competing values, values that are incommensurable, to use Isaiah Berlin's carefully chosen word?

In many respects this might be thought of as the age of Psychology. Whatever differences experts and professionals may have over difference itself (the valence and extent of difference, whether individual temperament matters the most, or, conversely, large, group identity matters most), anybody - whatever their background - who has lived in a family, or dealt with coworkers, or simply observed the variety of motivations that create individual variations in human behavior, can attest to the power and intractability of such differences. The psychologist Steven Reiss has a theory of at least 16 different motivational values that, when found in various combinations, combine to make every one of us truly unique (and even invent some hypothetical individuals who have yet to be born!) In his two books, Who Am I, and The Normal Personality, he has put forth a scientific account of these variations in individuality. I believe Steven Reiss' project to be a great advance over theories of single and unified psychological health. (For example, the superiority of intimacy or social justice, to name two currently privileged values).

In past ages there have been many theories of group interests. On the political Left, to name the most prominent taxonomy of group identities, accounts of dominant and subordinate class identities, or accounts of  shared struggles owing to membership of a gender or ethnicity that have a certain history and experience have been put forth to explain a great deal of human behavior. Steven Reiss notes that when differences are discussed at all it is almost always large scale group differences that are being discussed rather than the harder to notice individual differences between any two people.

One of the virtues of the filmmaker Ozu was that his entire art was an exploration of the power of such differences. Though the setting of his films is an ostensibly unified one, at least on the surface, there is nevertheless immense drama in his films as, given the cultural unanimity, the underlying individual difference stands in relief, mainly because of the subtle comic or dramatic misunderstandings among his characters. Ozu's films are case histories of the power of temperament in the world.

One of the advantages of a contemporary post-industrial and post-agricultural society is, for all of the sins of such a society, it enables people to understand and realize their individuality in way that would have been impossible in heavily traditional societies marked by only duty or rank.

As we come to to see things in more intimate and psychological terms might we also understand large scale collective phenomena as a manifestation of individual psychology writ large? What if the conflicts that most inflame passions are not conflicts between a side that has it right and a side that has it wrong but, rather, conflicts that reflect subjective and tragic differences in values that admit of no central and objective solution? We can even take the most sensitive of examples to see this. What if, in the abortion debate, the anti-abortion side is not merely or only pathological misogynists, but rather people for whom sexuality is a most precious affair and family and childrearing are concerns to be placed above all others? Conversely, the pro-choice side takes the freedom of choice of individual female, and human lives very seriously, and thus sees a multiplicity of meanings and uses for sexuality. The abortion debate is between two opposing views of sexuality itself  - views that cannot be objectively morally evaluated precisely because they are so very different.

The painful truth is that sometimes there is no holistic totality in which we can inhabit to make the perfect choice, from an objective perspective.  This is what Isaiah Berlin meant in using the word incommensurable.

Sometimes whole epochs are in the grip of a single standard of human character. Ever since the presidency of Bill Clinton we are enthralled by a certain kind of magical and charismatic "people person". President Obama is constantly measured against this standard and found wanting. I never thought I would live in a world in which a journalist would publically ask the president if he "had juice".  It is not only the lack of respect and tact that had entered the public sphere that surprised me, doubtless the culmination of an excessively casual, rock n'roll influence upon all areas of life. It is the assumption that a leader must possess certain fixed psychological traits to be deemed a competent leader. The question concerned the juice, as if it were a masculinist magical elixir to deal with an intractable and hostile congress. It is like something from an old Firesign Theatre comedy skit. Yet this was a serious question. But, of course, the problem is not with Obama but with the belief in the juice itself. This is a belief that all problems can be solved and overcome and the failure to do so must always already be a failing of individual character rather than, say, the structural limits of an impossibly complex society. Who is to say how long this ideal of the "I feel your pain" people-person will last? Doubtless some time in the future it will be eclipsed by something else: the socially awkward loner who finds the cure for cancer, for example. And in the reign of a newfangled sensibility in the far future a figure like Clinton might seem corny and inauthentic. We might one day regard the current mode of expected behavior like that of opening up like a cheap suitcase.

Every currently fashionable philosophical orientation seems to me in error. The newfound interest in "Virtue" ethics blinds us to the inevitability of tragic choice; where choices aren't clearly right or wrong, or the product of character defects, but the result of innate limits. Utilitarian philosophy holds that pleasure and pain, and good and evil can be quantified as if a science by comprehending the whole "big picture": it is a view that intentionally disregards the innate biases and preferences of individual persons. Yet bias and preference is not always a bad thing. As Stephen Asma argues in his book Against Fairness, knee jerk fairness is ultimately a view that seeks to always disparage favoritism and bias when, in reality, there are many realms of life where bias is essential, preeminent among them, the prominence a parent's child holds for the parent over a stranger's child in another neighborhood or country. To say nothing of the notion of monogamy, superior artistry, and all other sorts of defensible favoritism.http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/16249

A utilitarian aims to know some general good for all while forgetting that there is really no such thing as an average person and that we must experience the world always from a biased and particular point of view. One cannot have it all, and one must choose  how to spend one's time. When the difference in choice is translated into a question over what is the objective moral law,  you get political disagreement.

Psychological disposition is powerful: think of the debate between an extroverted and introverted sibling inside a family about whether to go out to a party. When we move from light issues to the heaviest of issues, the causes of the conflicts in both might have similar roots, psychologically speaking.The extroverted sister wants to go out on the town and be the life of the party and the introverted sister or brother wants to stay inside and have peace and quiet. People become religious fundamentalists or liberal secularists and vote accordingly, not for objective moral principles, but because their choice serves their respective needs for freedom, order, loyalty, security, risk taking, and a whole host of other values.

Life is quite a bit like that Neil Simon light comedy The Odd Couple. Oscar Madison is not unclean and dirty, just very relaxed and loose.  Felix Madison is not anal retentive and uptight, as Oscar Madison might see it, just neat and precise. They each might pathologize the other but both men's habits and temperaments have something to be said for them. Objective truths are quite beside the point. It seems to me that many of the intractable and perennial debates in human life are extensions or collective manifestations of such individual and subjective differences. It is hard to realize that the minor issues of personality conflict in a light popular comedy are at the root - however hidden - of some of the most serious debates in public life. The difficulty in admitting the psychological root is that we always, already assume an Archimedean objectivity to be attainable, thus implying that psychology is a moot point.

Many of the conflicts inside families are in fact conflicts over competing and equally valid values. An intellectually inclined parent will be dismayed over a son turning out to be a jock or vice versa. I have often thought that the whole drama that we call The Sixties turned not only on a clash over objective moral truths like war and social justice but on differing generational styles and sensibilities. For the Left that drama was story of progress and liberation over outmoded and ethically compromised and flawed older generations. For the Right the drama was a tragic story about the growth of decay and slipping of standards. Both points of view ignore subjective, psychological difference however; they think they are in possession of the Truth. If the so-called Greatest Generation was about achievement, sacrifice and work, the Boomer generation was more about exploration, leisure, and work-life balance.  Steven Reiss uses the phrase "I don't get it and neither do you" to describe this sort of conflict between conflicting values.

 As I have remarked before, our culture is one that fails to see the beauty or truth in the quotidian. We also tend to see beauty in that which unites us rather than that which divides us. As an antidote we need illustrations of the power of individual difference and we need illustrations of live not lived in extremis. Thus my invoking of Yasujiro Ozu.http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/silence-is-golden-to-ozu

Imagine trying to "prove" the superiority of either Mozart of Beethoven over the other. They are both very different, even when working in similar style and often identical forms, and yet the quality of both is equally outstanding.

It is easy to see the power of individual difference in aesthetic preference; it is far harder to see the power of individual difference in forming political or religious beliefs. The usual image we have in mind when understanding or conceiving of conflict is the image of a person struggling to directly master or overpower another person. The more common, though less discussed picture is the conflict between two over a third, almost always a value that is in question i.e. how much to eat and what kind of food, questions of taste and so on. The reason for the conflict is that there is a choice that must be made between two equally valid courses: both cannot be pursued simultaneously, and one must be discarded.

Since practically every human being, however introverted or passive, aims to remake their environment in order to suit their values and tastes, all sorts of conflicts inevitably ensue, all the more so when the larger society has at least a partial commitment to maintaining the freedom to pursue and indulge a plurality of choices.

Usually experts try to recommend that in solving conflicts we emphasize our similarities. Yet I would suggest the opposite. We should bring up bad news and elephants in the room first. The more we are conscious of individual difference and, moreover, conscious that the causes of individual difference are not rooted in objective moral stances but rather in the partial, subjective emphases of the interlocutors or combatants, the more possibility there is of preventing conflict and domination.

The real secret to solving many of our seemingly intractable divides is to imagine and inhabit points of view utterly foreign to ourselves. Afterwards we can then return to our rather different or even opposed point of view - not to "give in" to the other side, but to hold our usual values a bit more provisionally. Fallibilism is one philosophic word for this move. This would look rather similar to what I imagine therapists do in so-called "couples' counseling".

The greatest and surest way to imagine or inhabit alien points of view is through works of art.

As historian Carlo Ginburg famously wrote:"The historian's task is just the opposite of what most of us were taught to believe. He must destroy our false sense of proximity to people of the past because they came from societies very different from our own. The more we discover about these people's 'mental universe,' the more we should be shocked by the cultural distance that separates us from them." I am merely suggesting that we apply this principle to any two or more people inhabiting the same time and space and in the same culture.

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