Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Dalai Lama dances with Nietzsche

Last year I saw a film that got me thinking about the role of universal principles in ethics and how they fit (or not) with the need to respond to concrete communicative situations. The same kind of contrast or conundrum that I developed in my earlier post on integrity came up here as well. Here's what I wrote...

I saw something on the weekend that I can't seem to get out of my head. It was at a fundraiser put on by a Tibetan Buddhist group in Katoomba. They showed a documentary about a group of Americans, supposedly all leaders in their fields (although as they seemed to be self-selected, there was some room for doubt about their actual status), who went to Dharamasala to come up with solutions to the world's problems and present them to the Dalai Lama. He was shown laughing merrily as he greeted them, as if already tickled by the crazy ambition of the project.

After a few days of brain-storming and bickering, they met with the Dalai Lama and proposed one of their ideas, to seek an economic boycott of China in order to pressure the Chinese government to withdraw from Tibet and return it to the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama responded by saying that this was a very complicated question, but that it was necessary to consider that such sanctions would hurt ordinary Chinese, many of whom are already living in dire poverty, so ethically, it would be wrong to pursue this idea. He then softened this judgment a little by saying that he believed the intention behind the idea was good, but as a monk he couldn't endorse the idea itself.

One of the organisers then asked if they could take that response as a "tentative yes." The Dalai Lama hesitated, and asked an interpreter something in Tibetan - perhaps checking on the meaning of "tentative," or just verifying that he had heard correctly, and this man was really interpreting him as saying, well, you know as a monk I'm obliged to say this isn't a good idea, but nudge, nudge, wink, wink, that doesn't mean that I wouldn't mind if you lay people took a different view...

Having taken this in, he ran with it, chuckled and said, "Well, you know, as a monk I can't say yes to this, but let's put it to the vote. Who thinks it's a good idea?" At this, most of the people in the group raised their hands. The Dalai Lama was enjoying himself, laughing and gesturing with his hands as if to say, yes, why not, vote for it! He seemed to be playing with these Americans and at the same time possibly poking fun at the Western practice of deciding ethical questions by resorting to opinion polls. No one present showed any sign of seeing the joke, though.

It was interesting to see how the Dalai Lama handled the situation, so playfully, taking it all very lightly, improvising in response to his audience, and doing it with such good humour that they felt he was right there with them, appreciating their energy and enthusiasm. And he was - he wasn't laughing at them, so much as just taking delight in the little culture clash that seemed to have just taken place, having fun taking it a bit further. (Later on he did make it clear to them, however, that he didn’t want them to pursue economic sanctions against the Chinese.)

While I was impressed and intrigued by the Dalai Lama’s way of handling the situation, I was left feeling perturbed that this group of seemingly well-educated, supposedly intelligent adults did not respond to his first, almost sharp judgment that the plan they had proposed was unethical, or his reasoned explanation of why he made that judgment. To most of them, unethical seemed to mean no more than "bad for my image" - or perhaps, to be a bit less cynical about their views, "what the kind of person I am is expected to do." As a monk, the Dalai Lama couldn't endorse pushing Chinese people further into poverty to further the cause of Tibet, but that didn't mean that someone who wasn't a monk couldn't do so without any problems. They seemed to have no sense that ethical judgment connotes a universal standard. God really is dead for these people. And rational argument about ethics seems to have gone to the grave with him.

Here's Nietzsche on the death of God:
In the main, however, one may say that the event itself is far too great, too remote, too much beyond most people’s power of apprehension, for one to suppose that so much as the report of it could have reached them; not to speak of many who already knew what had taken place, and what must all collapse now that this belief had been undermined, because so much was built upon it, so much rested on it, and had become one with it: for example, our entire European morality. (Gay Science 343) 
It did appear that for this group of Americans, the old European morality based in Christian values has collapsed and with it any sense of a binding ethics that can't be decided by popular vote. It's easy to feel superior to such a group, and laugh at (or feel horrified by) their unshakeable attachment to their well-intentioned plan, but perhaps they are more representative of our own culture than we would like to think. Do we know any more where ethical values come from, or in what they are based, if it isn't just in expectations attached to roles, and the instrumental benefits of meeting such expectations, on the whole, at least when you're being watched (which is most of the time in the surveillance culture of modern life)?

At the same time, perhaps there is more in the Dalai Lama's response than just a display of good humour. He didn't insist on the ethical reasons he'd just given for rejecting the plan - didn't thump his fist on any equivalent of a pulpit and demand respect for the universal ethical truth. He seemed willing to acknowledge that yes, as a monk (and a teacher), he is playing a role, you can usefully look at it that way. He also seemed spontaneously to realise that in giving an argument based on Buddhist values of equanimity and compassion for all humans (not to mention other sentient beings) as fundamentally interconnected, he was - as the response showed - relying on cultural assumptions that simply didn't have any valency for his audience. 

They didn't get it - and reiterating reasoning that was already perfectly clear probably wouldn't have helped them to get it. It would have been more likely to set off an argument, destroying the friendly atmosphere that was allowing a good connection to be established. Instead he switched immediately to a process that was culturally familiar to his audience, and gave him a quick insight into where they were at in terms of their ability to understand what he’d just said to them. This was the knowledge that counted in this concrete ethical situation, and it wasn't universal or based on abstract reasoning. Instead, it was based on a remarkable ability to hold the truth lightly, and let go of any fixed assumptions about how to approach the challenge of communicating it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Word of the day: traduce

The verb, to traduce, covers an interesting spectrum of meanings, ranging from straightforward confidence in the capacity to pass something on, to a recognition that change is likely occur along the way, to a potent sense of suspicion or anxiety about what is passed on and why. According to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, its equivalents include to convey, transport, transfer, transmit, generate, propagate, translate, alter, modify, misrepresent, malign, slander, blame, accuse.

A traducian is a person who maintains that the soul of a child, like the body, is propagated by or inherited from the parents. Also (rare), a person who maintains that original sin is transmitted from parent to child.

In logic, traduction refers to the transference or transmission from one order of reasoning to another.

A traductor is a device on the side of a railway carriage that picks up and deposits mailbags while the train is moving.

This family of words strike me as especially interesting, as I’ve just finished reading Christina Stead’s great novel of family life, The Man Who Loved Children. The Man of the title, Sam Pollit, operates a bit like a traductor, picking up and depositing children, like mailbags, while the train of his creative and self-absorbed monologue remains in perpetual motion, protecting him from more than fleeting contact with the surrounding emotional landscape, which is dominated by the relentless antagonism of his embittered and periodically hysterical wife, Henny. For the kids, there’s joy to be had in the world their father creates around himself – it’s fun to be picked up by a human traductor, and there’s something vaguely miraculous, in a strictly naturalistic, scientific way, about the process. But there’s also danger – getting ‘deposited’ from the fast-moving train of endless words and activity that is ‘Sam-the-Bold’ can be a jolting and bruising experience.

For the reader of the novel, the casual cruelty that seems to flows seamlessly from the diversions of Sam’s jokes and invented language remains shocking, even after multiple repetitions of the pattern. One moment, he’s entertaining the kids, and us, with amusing word-plays, or at worst, lulling us into a gentle, drowsing stupor with his endless factual knowledge or his na├»ve humanistic idealism, and the next he’s viciously running one of his children down, goading the boys into hurting one another, demanding that the girls perform grinding domestic duties, or proposing eugenics programs that even Hitler might have baulked at. We come to realise that the charmed atmosphere Sam generates around himself is not a safe or reliable space; it is more about shoring up his ego than providing for his children’s emotional needs. Over the course of the novel, it more slowly becomes apparent that he is also incapable of taking responsibility for his family’s material needs: about financial matters, as about everything else, he is “vague and sentimental.”

Biographical information suggests that the character of Sam is closely based on the father of Christina Stead. One reviewer comments that the portrait, although critical, is drawn without hatred. I’m not so sure of that – there seems to be both hatred and love woven into the many details, like tiny brushstrokes, that build up the picture we are given of this man. Stead has traduced her father, with all the ambiguous range of that word: she has passed him on to us by generating and abundantly propogating the literary character of Sam Pollit. This character is a transmission, a translation of the living man who is, no doubt creatively misrepresented, openly slandered, and yet also reasonably blamed for harms and plausibly accused of domestic crimes committed against the children he loved. This range is what makes the work such a satisfying and intriguing example of literary traduction, to coin an expression, by which I mean the transference or transmission from the order of lived experience to that of literature.

In The Man Who Loved Children, Stead, the daughter, becomes the propagator of the soul of her father. This might well be a kind of revenge upon the father for his persistent assertion of a secular version of traducian orthodoxy: Sam sees himself as the creator, and assiduous gardener, of his children’s souls. While neglecting the conditions of his children’s material and emotional well-being, he shows intrusive interest in examining and attempting to shape their moral development. His eldest child, Louie, feels this intrusion keenly, and a strong thread (I initially wrote ‘threat’) in the narrative concerns her struggle to free herself from his influence. Since Louie appears to be a literary traduction of the young Christina Stead, the novel can also be read as an effort by the mature Stead to examine the extent to which her own soul has in reality been ‘propagated’ by her parents, particularly her father, and how far its structures have been shaped by her exposure to and involvement in the conflictual relationship between her father and the woman whom she called mother (her birth mother, like Louie’s, died while she was very young).

The step-mother of the novel is Henny, the shade to Sam’s dazzling light. In some ways she resembles her husband: she also has charm, and a capacity to create a magical world for the children, as well as an acid tongue which she does not hesitate to use upon them. But she is consistent in her litany of complaints, which gives her insults an expected, familiar quality and softens their effect. They seem an eloquent expression of her own misery, which is visibly wearing her down, more than an attempt to hurt anyone else. For Louie, who is regularly reviled as the step-daughter Henny cannot stand, these attacks seem to flow like water off an ugly duckling’s back; they do not prevent her from feeling a deep affinity with this woman and sympathy for her position. There is an almost extravagant honesty about Henny, in spite of her secrecy and deceptions; she rarely lies to herself, or to her husband – she simply avoids speaking to him, most of the time. If anything, she is too keenly aware of the misery of the world in general and her marriage in particular, which Sam refuses to feel. It is as if she has taken on the burden of this unhappiness alone, as she also increasingly takes on the burden of providing material support for the family, as best she can. She is the rock that holds the family together, but she is a fragile support, ready to shatter under a weight too heavy for her.

And then there is Louie, whose soul does indeed seem to partake of the qualities of her parents. Like Henny, she is keenly sensitive to the “daily misery” of their lives, but like Sam, she has a drive for self-preservation and a capacity for invention and imagination that allows her to transcend her immediate surroundings. Louie does not simply retreat into a self-absorbed fantasy world, however. Rather she finds resources in literature to help her interpret the violence of her emotional life and transmute it into poems and plays and stories, written sometimes in English and sometimes in a language of her own making.

Freud (with Sophocles) has offered us the Oedipal complex as a mythico-psychological guide to the love-hate relations between mother, father and son. In The Man Who Loved Children, Stead gives us an account of the triangular relationship between a father, mother and daughter which suggests that the passions involved in this version are equally powerful, transgressive and destructive in their potential. But her conclusion to the familial drama is quite different. At the end of the novel, Stead’s female Oedipus, rather than blinding herself in guilt, turns her gaze away from the family and toward the world, with a sense of awakening and adventure:

They would look everywhere and conclude that [Louie] had gone for a walk. “So I have,” she thought, smiling secretly, “I have gone for a walk around the world.”

It is an appealing conclusion. However rich or poor the psychic inheritance we receive from our parents, and however happy or difficult our childhoods, there is a whole world beyond the family, awaiting our attention, and if we open our eyes we see that we can traverse - and even traduce - it for ourselves.

But there is another way to understand the sense of liberation and opening that is so strong in the experience of Louie at the end of The Man Who Loved Children. In writing this book, Christina Stead looks unflinchingly into the unhappiness of her early family life, and by the end of the novel there is a sense that this has brought her enough peace and understanding to let the title of the novel be truly ambiguous. Although Stead leads her readers to hold Sam Pollit responsible for multiple failings as a parent (what kind of fatherly love is this, so selfish, so deluded, so intrusive, so neglectful?), at the same time, the book is suffused with a lively, grateful, even wildly proliferating sense that this man does, with all the considerable energy of his flawed, suffering human heart, love his children, and the rebellious Louie, or at least the writer she would grow into, finally understands this and is able to let go of her anger against him.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Truthfulness, by Beatriz Copello

Speak the truth
let your voice
utter honest words
words of courage
words of valour,
open your mouth
to embrace sincerity,
kindness and compassion
because by doing this
you will be true to yourself.

I came across this poem by Australian poet Beatriz Copello, printed in One Heart-One Mind, The Newsletter of the Association of Engaged Buddhists. Like a precious stone, it shows all the facets of integrity that I began exploring in the last post, in shining simplicity. Thanks, Beatriz.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


This is the first tango philosophy post in quite a while... years, in fact. I've been inspired to revive the blog by a couple of factors. First, I've recently decided to stop teaching (ordinary) philosophy in a university setting, and to devote more of my time to writing. I've got a feeling that a lot of that writing will end up being in the spirit of tango philosophy (as defined in the very first post to this blog, back in 2007).

Second, and more immediately, I was provoked to think about integrity by a discussion that recently took place on Sujato's blog. The comment I wrote turned into an essay, too long to post as a comment. So here it is, the tango philosophy approach to integrity (in which moral philosophy dances with Buddhist practice and personal experience)...

What is it, to show integrity? One understanding would be that it is to stand up for what you believe, regardless of whether other people like it or not, and regardless of the price you must pay for refusing to compromise or pretend or remain silent. The price may be the loss of relationships, and the alienation of people who have previously supported you. This is surely painful, but if you value integrity, you might consider that it is worse to betray your own convictions.

I used to identify strongly with this vision of integrity. I remember, many years ago when I was studying law, I did a course on the Holocaust. The teacher passionately believed that former Nazis should be hunted down and punished, preferably killed, by legal or if necessary, illegal means. He seemed to have the courage of his convictions – he’d been involved in street fights with neo-Nazis in his own country. I spoke up against the vengefulness that I saw in this approach, and in favour of an analysis of the Holocaust, and appropriate responses to it, in terms of collective responsibility. I think the teacher respected the fact that I was willing to articulate my position, although he didn’t agree with it. What disturbed me most was not his views, but the fact that no one else in the class spoke up against them, even though several people privately told me that they agreed with me and admired me for speaking out. I remember one day leaving the law school building in tears, in despair over what I saw as the lack of integrity of my classmates, and their failure to support me publicly even when they agreed with my objections. And these were people who intended to take up the responsibility of maintaining our justice system! It was an odd situation – the person I identified with most easily was the one whose views I found abhorrent, because at least he had the courage to say what he really thought. He had some integrity!

But is standing up for what you believe all there is to integrity? What if what you believe is that people belonging to a certain category deserve to be killed? Do we want to say that a person can display integrity in proclaiming a message of hatred? The honesty and openness with which such a person expresses his views and feelings might contain seeds of integrity, but I think there must be more to integrity than this.

There’s a phrase in the Metta Sutta that has given rise to some dispute. The phrase describes the way of enlightenment, and is sometimes translated as “not holding to false views,” sometimes as “not holding to fixed views” (these are not the only options). This difference in translation reflects a difference in practice. Some say that to follow the Buddha means that we must free ourselves from false views and hold to true ones. This suggests that a person of integrity is one who sees the truth and is willing to speak it and to live by it. Standing up for false views is not integrity, it’s stubbornness, arrogance, or simply foolishness.

Others say that to follow the Buddha means that we must loosen our attachments to all views, recognizing that our grasp on the truth is only ever partial. To hold tightly to any fixed view prevents us from listening to and learning from other perspectives. This opens up a different vision of integrity, one that has at least as much to do with listening as with speaking our truth. A person of great integrity would be one who can “integrate” a great number of different perspectives, who can see the grains of truth (and separate them from the chaff) on all sides of an argument. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, such a person would know how to keep the door of their heart open to all, to the snake as well as to the frog who is eaten by the snake… or to the provocative lecturer as well as to the quiet student who disagrees with him but never says what she thinks. Standing up for views, even true ones, is not integrity if it leads us to reject those who think or behave differently to us.

While I might have shown integrity in articulating my views in that class on the Holocaust, it wasn’t integrity that made me burst into tears on the steps of the law school. At that point I was angry because I was convinced that I was in the right, and everyone else was in the wrong – I believed that I was the only student in that class who cared about the truth, while everyone else was only selfishly interested in getting a good grade. And that thought made me feel simultaneously superior to the others, and very lonely and sorry for myself. I now think that a mature sense of integrity would have allowed me both to state my objections to the lecturer’s views, and to have remained equanimous, or at least curious rather than furious, when I discovered that no one else was prepared to speak up on my side of the argument.

Interestingly, in this situation I was not overly fixed on the view that I would still hold to be true – that vengeance and punishment of individuals is not the best way to respond to collective crimes. This idea I was prepared to put into the space of public debate. I was willing to listen to counter-arguments, consider exceptions and to revise my view in response to them. (You can see some of the results, years later, here.) The view I was really fixated on – that the only honourable way to respond to the lecturer’s statements was to speak up against them – was not one that I clearly articulated, even to myself (it’s hard to articulate clearly when you’re sobbing). Now that I have identified it, I can immediately see that it isn’t true: another valid and perhaps even more effective response in this context was to refuse to be drawn by the more extreme aspects of the lecturer’s argument, simply to let them fall away into silence.

This leads me to speculate that perhaps the difference in translation I mentioned earlier can be reconciled. Maybe it’s only false views that get fixed and bound up with our emotions, so that we become enraged or fearful when they are triggered or threatened. In this case, false views and fixed views would be one and the same. Views that point toward the truth, on the other hand, never really get “fixed” in this damaging way. They are of the nature to be held lightly, open to new developments. This is why we can take pleasure in throwing them out into open debate, and let them get tossed around in argument without concern: we have confidence that they will not only survive, but be improved in the process, their rough edges smoothed away or transformed into new points of interest.

Recently, I found myself in a rather different situation in which I felt my sense of integrity was again being tested. I was at a dinner for my brother-in-law’s 40th birthday, held at a fancy restaurant. He and my sister were picking up the tab for all of us, a gesture that is typical of their generosity. One of his friends started posing moral conundrums of the “you’re in a train that’s about to hit five innocent track-workers, and you can divert it onto a different track where a child is playing, meaning that the child will be killed but the workers will be saved. What do you do?” type. (These are the questionable legacy of utilitarian philosophers to dinner party conversation.)

He asked me to suppose that immediately after a disaster, I found my sister (who at that moment was sitting directly opposite me) on the verge of death, and five other people who were also injured but whose chances of survival were much better than my sister’s. There was a chance that if I devoted all my attention to my sister and abandoned the five strangers to their deaths, she would survive. On the other hand, if I attended to the strangers and abandoned my sister, she would certainly die, but all five of them would probably survive. What would I do?

Somewhat startled, I played for time by asking how likely it was that my sister would live if I gave my attention to her. My brother evilly upped the stakes by suggesting that even with my help her chances of survival were extremely slight – but there was still the slim possibility that she might live… I remained silent, while my sister looked at me intently with an unusual expression, hovering between confidence and accusation. Someone else spoke and the conversation went off on a tangent I don’t recall – but the reprieve was temporary. The dinner-party philosopher wasn’t going to let me off. By the time he had reiterated the question, I was ready: “I’d save my sister. Logically, I ought to save the other five, but…” My sister finished the sentence for me, “the connection is stronger.” Clearly, in her mind there was no doubt: I had made the morally correct choice.

To be honest, I wasn’t so sure. I had not come up with any watertight moral argument – or indeed any argument at all - to justify favouring my sister’s life over the other five. However it had occurred to me that if I answered differently my sister would feel hurt, even horrified, at the thought that I could contemplate abandoning her in her moment of greatest need. I will probably never find myself in the hypothetical situation, and if I do, it won’t be as I imagined it. To my mind the real moral conundrum I faced was how best to answer this question in front of my sister. And from this perspective, I also felt no doubt that I answered it correctly. So strong was this feeling that as I spoke I also felt sure that what I was saying was true. Not as a statement about what I would do in a counter-factual situation, but in a more direct, self-evident sense. In that very moment I was choosing to save my sister – I was putting her feelings and my relationship with her ahead of any interest I or the five or so other people participating in the conversation at our end of the table had in pursuing the philosophical discussion.

Did I show integrity, or a lack of integrity in answering this way?

I began this piece by suggesting that the price to be paid for integrity may well be the “loss of relationships, and the alienation of people who have previously supported you.” In this situation I gave an answer I couldn’t justify in terms of beliefs, in order to take care of a relationship with someone who is important to me. My response wasn’t intellectually impressive. It didn’t fit with my image of myself as someone who values and is good at philosophical argument. In this sense, my sense of identity was challenged. And yet I wouldn’t say I felt a loss of integrity. It seemed to me that I had responded intuitively to the demands of the present moment; my answer was “integrated” with my sister’s needs in a way that an abstract discussion of principles would not have been. This was in harmony with the value I place not only on my relationship with her, but more generally on practices of kindness, awareness and sensitivity.

I still think it is important to stand up for what you believe, and I greatly admire those who manage to weaken the power of false or fixed views by opposing them with cogent arguments and fearless gestures. But now it seems to me that such effective examples of integrity depend not only upon courage and conviction, but also the flexible wisdom of an attentive mind and the steadfast kindness of an open heart.