Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"I more than the others": accepting responsibility

Last week a friend called to tell me that he had recovered memories of something very harmful that happened to him when he was eleven years old. He wanted me to know about this because he felt it explained some of his behavior toward me and other people in the intervening years. He wanted to apologize for this behavior, and excuse himself for it.

My immediate response to his apology was to burst into tears and say that I was sorry, too, that I hadn’t been able to understand him better. When I said how sorry I was, I felt that I wasn’t only apologising for my own failure to be more sensitive to his needs and vulnerabilities. I was also expressing regret for everyone’s failures or inabilities in this respect. I thought of a speech from Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov which is repeatedly quoted by the philosopher Lévinas in his meditations on responsibility: “Each of us is guilty, before everyone for everyone, and I more than the others.” These words of a holy fool made perfectly rational sense to me in that moment (although like Lévinas, I would substitute the concept of responsibility for that of guilt).

In my recent opinion piece on climate change, I said that it is a mistake to confuse personal and collective responsibility. Was I making that mistake in feeling sorry about all the failures of care that have affected my friend, and wanting to apologise for them all, as if I were somehow at the root of them, “I, more than the others”?

If I had been burdening myself with a sense of guilt for all that he has suffered, then yes, I think I would have been confusing the two forms of responsibility in a way that was inappropriately punitive toward myself. If I felt that this all-encompassing sense of responsibility meant that it was up to me alone to make up for all the harm done to him, to “save him” from the course his life has taken, then again, I think I would have been making a mistake, denying to him and to other people their own responsibilities and misconceiving my own – and also failing to see all the good things in his life, the gleaming silver linings of the clouds he has experienced.

I realise that I did fall into both of these errors to some extent during the days that followed my friend’s call, as I struggled to assimilate what he had told me and tried to work out how to respond to it. My body pretty quickly let me know that it didn’t appreciate either of these views. I’ll spare you the details of its “argument” – let’s just say they were pretty compelling.

The Buddha spoke about “near enemies” of different forms of love, impulses that superficially resemble love, but actually block it. The near enemy of compassion is pity, the near enemy of loving-kindness is attachment. On my analysis so far, the near enemies of responsibility for collective harms are twofold: unbounded guilt, and a desire for control.

But if we avoid the dual excesses of inappropriate guilt and a compulsion to remake the world exactly the way we think it should be, then the impulse to express regret, not just for harm that I personally have caused, but for all the harm done to a person whose suffering is brought to my attention, without concern for whether it is my fault or not, is a good and powerful thing. It provides a connection between personal and collective responsibility that allows collective responsibility to be meaningfully expressed to an individual who has been harmed.

For the one who takes up this responsibility, it is a liberating experience to put aside defensive questions about where the boundaries of personal responsibility lie, and respond to a call for collective responsibility by saying, “I’m sorry.” I imagine that Kevin Rudd experienced this when, as Prime Minister, but also as one among many Australians, he apologized to the Aboriginal Stolen Generations.

The acceptance and expression of this kind of responsibility does not mean that you are suddenly in charge of solving every problem faced by the suffering, but it does make it more likely that you will find some practical, cooperative way to help. I say this because I think that if you personally accept collective responsibility, one benefit is that you are freed from the problems of misplaced guilt and the savior complex which both indicate difficulty in sharing responsibility with others.

Actively sharing in collective responsibility does not mean that the individual merges without trace into the masses. On the contrary, Dostoevsky’s character Alyosha says that “I more than the others,” am responsible. He does not say, "I instead of the others," or "I on behalf of the others." In this form of responsibility, personal identity is not allowed to replace, or to hide behind, the collective. Rather, I am asked to accept more than the others of a responsibility we share. 

Why more? Not because I am worse or better than others, but because in the moment when the acknowledgment of collective responsibility is called for, I am no longer an anonymous individual in the crowd. The ethical spotlight rests on my face: I am the one who has become aware of harm and is called upon to show compassion for the suffering it has caused. The Aboriginal community called upon the Prime Minister. My friend called me. For those whose hearing is attuned to nature, it seems to me that the environment is now calling to each one of us.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sleeping beauties

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve come across a series of disturbing filmic images of women who are (metaphorically or literally) sleeping through their lives.

The first was in an Australian film called Sleeping Beauty, written and directed by Julia Leigh, who was a year ahead of me at Sydney Uni. The second was in an American film called The Future, made by a woman who is also close to my own age: Miranda July, an American performance artist who is the star of her own film (and life, I would guess). The third was a film of the Paris Ballet performing Coppélia, a ballet based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story ‘The Sand-Man.’

The three films were completely different in mood. Leigh’s film depicts a dramatic, desolate world full of disturbing experimental encounters, scientific and sexual. In pursuit of money, and perhaps an experience that can break through her emotional frozenness, the main character takes on more and more transgressive forms of work, eventually allowing herself to be drugged so that men can spend the night with her beautiful, unconscious, naked body. This is a form of prostitution with heavy literary associations – Yasunari Kawabata and Gabriel García Márquez both wrote famous stories on this theme. The film also clearly alludes to the work of Haneke and other male European film-makers. One way of reading Leigh's film is that it evokes the disassociation and repressed trauma of a young woman who is almost completely immersed in a male cultural perspective for which women are passive, mute, disturbing bodily presences (there is an audible female literary voice in the film, that of Ingeborg Bachmann, but even she speaks, or rather is spoken, through a male character). She cannot break free from this heavy inheritance; it is as though she is enthralled to it, even though she is also clearly oppressed by it.

Paw Paw the cat
July’s film, by contrast, portrays a humorous, slightly fantastical, but very recognizable world of self-absorbed people stuffing things up. In this film a cat, who has her own squeaky soliloquies to the audience, ends up euthanized because the couple who have decided to adopt her are so busy having a crisis about the meaning of their lives that they forget to pick her up. It occurred to me that you could see this cat as a figure of divinity, the Second Coming in female, feline form. This time around, God is not persecuted or hated. Rather, she suffers and dies because people simply forget about her. There is clearly a message about our relationship to the environment gently embedded in this story of animal neglect.

What really struck me though, seeing this film the day after Leigh’s film (they were both shown at the Sydney Film Festival) was that The Future also depicts a woman who is in thrall to a culture in which women are seen primarily as attractive bodies, with no capacity or concern for moral agency. In this film the picture of femininity is drawn from popular rather than high culture, and the lines are not so sharp, the trauma is ordinary and visible rather than unexplained and hidden, but the problem seems essentially the same. 

In The Future, the main female character is a dance teacher for kids, who competitively aspires to create a series of sexy dance clips that she hopes will go viral on the internet. Finding herself jerkily and self-consciously incapable of this and lacking any other clear direction, she pursues an affair with a random stranger who offers her the opportunity to let herself be absorbed into his life and avoid working out what to do with her own. As a result she breaks her boyfriend’s heart, and her pet-to-be meets a clinical and premature death. The message for anyone who can identify with her: wake up! and live your sexuality - and your life - in a more conscious and authentic way.

July’s film seems more optimistic than Leigh’s about the possibility of this kind of awakening, but there is no redemption at the end of her story, either. What seems to be missing for both film-makers is any sense that there exists any widely-established cultural support for a view of women as active and responsible – as fully awake, especially in sexual relations. They both portray young women struggling with this soporific situation, which is a start, but it feels like there’s still a battle for consciousness to be fought.

As for the ballet, remembering having been enchanted by a live performance of Coppélia when I was a child, I took my 9 year old niece, Caitlin to see this filmed version of it. She commented authoritatively as soon as it began, “Very good dancing.” And it was. But it also gradually sent both of us to the verge of sleep. As Caitlin said on the way home, it seemed an achievement to get through it without nodding off.

Partly this may be the nature of ballet on film. Partly it may have been the result of us both having stayed up late the night before – I had been out dancing tango and Caitlin had had a sleep-over with a couple of her girlfriends. But mainly, I think it was due to the fact that in this production, the director, Patrice Bart, made a psychological interpretation of the story which was too subtle to be appreciated by anyone who didn’t have the original clearly in mind already (Caitlin and I both belonging to this category on the day of viewing).

As I found out later, the Hoffman tale is about a young man whose love for his intelligent, calm, beautiful and loving fiancée is interrupted by his deluded passion for an animated mechanical doll, an enchantment which develops during a period while he is living away from his fiancée. The doll is created and brought to life by a couple of men, one of them a very ugly, mysterious and threatening character. It is by looking through a glass created by him that the young man falls into the ultimately fatal trap of confusing this false, mechanical version of femininity with the woman who loves him.

In Bart's interpretation of the ballet based on this story, a single dancer performs both parts: the fiancé and the doll. Not only does this blur the distinction between them, it also suggests that it is the young woman herself who is giving life to the figure of the doll, rather than this being solely the work of men. As a result, the potential for confusion between woman and mechanical doll, fantasy and reality, dream and waking states, is exponentially increased.

When I saw it with Caitlin, this complex interpretation combined with perfectly executed but somewhat repetitive dance moves just made me sleepy. Now, though, it occurs to me that rather than simply presenting a dilemma concerning male perceptions of women, this version of the ballet opens up the same contemporary problem addressed by Leigh and July. Not only her lover, but also the young woman herself is in danger of being lulled into an artificial sleep by the power of images portraying women as passive sexual commodities. As she struggles to conform to their mechanical patterns, she compromises her agency, as well as her moral intelligence. And when this happens, perhaps beauty itself, as something inseparable from self-consciousness, is surrendered - unless and until she wakes up.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A little thing

“And then he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and I thought: ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came: ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled that it could last, for I thought that it might suddenly have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. And the answer came into my mind: ‘It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.’ And so all things have being through the love of God.”

These words were written by a woman known as Julian of Norwich. 

She lived in the 14th century, and is the first woman we know of to have written in English. Her biography is uncertain, although it is thought she may have been a wife and mother who lost her family, possibly in one of three bouts of the ‘black death’ that reduced the population of Norwich by about one third during her lifetime. At the age of thirty she became very sick herself, and during this illness received sixteen ‘showings’ from God, which she recorded in a small book.

Subsequently she became an anchoress, meaning that she lived in a small room adjoining the church from which she took her name. She spent the rest of her life in this room. It had a window into the church, and another on to the outside world. She had a couple of servants who brought her food, and a cat who kept the rats from coming in to nibble at her ears. She spent her time in prayer and in advising the parishioners who came to her with their troubles, something she is said to have done with great wisdom and compassion.

She also wrote a longer commentary on the first small text describing the ‘showings.’ In this commentary she grappled with the problem of how to reconcile the message of unlimited divine love she had received in her visions, with a world in which she was acutely aware of human suffering and conflict – the fourteenth century saw the 100 years war between England and France, harsh suppression of the Peasants Revolt against taxation during years of famine, and an intensity of religious rivalry and doctrinal controversy that would make the Holocaust references and ad hominem attacks of the recent debates over climate change look like polite conversation.

It was this later effort to make sense of her revelations of divine love, and their meaning in the human world, that made Julian one of the greatest of all theologians (in the judgment of Thomas Merton, among others). She began with her experience of divine love as all-encompassing, blissful, and unlimited, with no room for anger or judgment, or for craving or confusion. Then she grappled with the multiple questions that flow from the seeming incompatibility or inaccessibility of this kind of love in a human social world in which anger, craving and confusion so often seem to be the elemental components of experience and expression.

Her vision of creation as a ball the size of a hazelnut, sitting in the palm of her hand, is perhaps the most famous of the images she has left us. It has particular resonance at a time when space exploration has given us images of the earth as a tiny ball and awareness of global warming has led us to see the future of this small planet as resting in our hands. Julian's message is that it is divine love that ultimately sustains the world, but also that this love needs to pass through us - we need to stop blocking it with greed and anger and ignorance.

If only we manage to do that, then to my mind Julian’s teachings suggest that the awesome analytic and creative power of science and the human capacity for social and political cooperation will be able to operate unhindered, and as she put it:

“All shall be well, 
and all shall be well, 
and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Earthrise viewed from Apollo 8, December 1968

(With thanks to John and Joy O’Connor for introducing me to the thought of Julian during a wonderful day at their house recently.)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Is climate change science inconclusive?

In my Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece on climate change I wrote:

“I doubt that many people question the truth of climate change because they truly find the science inconclusive.”

Quite a few people wrote to me to dispute this claim, saying that the science is not settled, there is still room for doubt that climate change is a problem that we need or can do anything about.

In response to these people, I take back my claim – there are obviously a significant number of people who do find the science inconclusive, and who have real doubts about the trustworthiness of the mainstream scientific community and their declarations regarding climate change.

As I said to my friend in the record shop, who is a scientist, I’m not a “believer.” I don’t espouse quasi-religious faith in climate change science, or in scientists (sorry, Neal). I’m open to the idea that reasonable questions and challenges can be addressed to the scientists who maintain that climate change is real and caused in significant part by human activity.

But I’m also happy to leave this discussion to the scientists, and to show what I consider to be rational and friendly (rather than blind or mystical) faith in their expertise. Right now, the Climate Change Commission and a large majority of scientists agree on the reality of climate change, and that’s good enough for me. It has to be, because I know I don’t have the scientific training to look into the science directly. To attempt to assess all the evidence for myself would be a mistake that would be likely to lead me into confusion and false conclusions – I’m humble enough to recognise my limits in this regard.

Contemporary science is a highly complex and interdependent form of knowledge. It is not something that each individual can assess independently, making his or her mind up based on direct experience and individual use of reason. This is another reason why climate change science should not be treated as if it were a religion.

In the case of religious or moral knowledge, it is legitimate and important for each individual to make up their own mind, based on their own interpretation of teachings, use of reasoning powers and reflection on direct experience. While the support of good friends is essential for anyone’s personal ripening and not everyone is at the same level development, you have to seek spiritual enlightenment or grace for yourself, you can’t delegate that task. Similarly you have to make moral decisions for yourself, otherwise they’re not fully moral.

Everyone is capable of making moral judgments about climate change, even if only a few of us are qualified to make scientific judgments about it. More that this, we are all obliged to address the moral challenge posed by climate change, and I think the volume of debate about it shows that many people feel this keenly. This issue raises important questions about how we relate to one another, and how we operate as a moral and political community (or interacting series of communities). It also raises the question of how we relate to the authority of science.

I think it is this last question, about the authority of science, that underlies the splitting of speakers on climate change into opposing camps of believers and skeptics. To my mind, this suggests that for both sides, science is taken to be a new form of religion, to be defended or challenged in the same way that a religious faith might be. This is where I see people on both sides of the debate making a crucial error. Modern science is not religion (or it's an "inverse cripple" form of religion, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche).

No matter how strong the science on climate change is or becomes, it will never give us the answers to moral questions about how to communicate about it, how to respond to it personally, or how to shape collective identities with the power to do something effective about it at local, national and global levels. On these sorts of questions, I agree that the science is inconclusive.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Climate change pagans

This week's blogpost has made it into the mainstream media! You can read it here.