Domination vs. understanding

“We may perhaps survive as humanity if we would be able to learn that we may not simply exploit our means of power and effective possibilities, but must learn to stop and respect the other as an other, whether [the other] is nature or the grown cultures of peoples and nations….” So said Hans-Georg Gadamer in 1992, at a time when he was increasingly worried about aspects of the Industrial Revolution — weapons, technologies, ecological disasters — that made it questionable whether our species will survive.

There are at least a couple of philosophical alternatives to learning “to stop and respect the other as other.”

First, you could engage in deconstruction, that philosophical fad of the 1980s and 1990s. Some of those who do deconstruction claim that understanding the other isn’t really possible. (This claim always made me wonder if they could ever make me truly understand what they were saying about deconstruction.) I sometimes feel that the public discourse in the United States is dominated by a half-assed version of deconstructionism, in which everyone has their own truth and they have given up on understanding anyone other than a small circle of allies all of whom think exactly the same thoughts. While deconstruction can be a useful intellectual tool, it can also be an excuse for not listening to anyone else.

Second, you could simply attempt to dominate others. I think there are many people who start out with the best of intentions and wind up trying to dominate everyone else unwittingly. It takes a lot of work to really understand someone else’s viewpoint, and it’s easy to get lazy: why try to listen to someone else when it’s so much easier to yell at them? So that’s one way you can slip away from understanding and slip into domination. But for the college-educated professional class, there is a still more insidious path to domination, and that is being condescending. A great many college-educated professionals think they are much smarter than everyone else; and the more successful they are, the smarter they think they are. When yo have that attitude, it’s easy to slip into the mistake of believing that you know best, and that everyone should just do what you tell them to. It’s pretty ugly when you see it. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are the most egregious examples, with their foundations giving away money only to those causes which Gates and Zuckerberg, in their supreme condescension, think are worthy. But condescension is equally ugly in the average software engineer or college professor or minister, because condescension is nothing but an effort to dominate other people instead of listening to them.

And maybe these two alternatives aren’t all that different; I suspect that deconstruction has devolved into yet another way that college-educated professionals can condescend to other people. Perhaps both these alternatives are the basic ingredients of the toxic brew that fuels public discourse in the U.S. today — where each person gets to have their own private truth, their own truth that they must defend against all others.

I prefer Gadamer’s alternative: Stop and respect the Other as Other. Listen to the world of non-human organisms. Listen to the “grown cultures of peoples and nations”; and so “we would be able to learn to experience the other and the others, as the other of our self, in order to participate with one another.”

Then we may have a small chance, perhaps, of surviving as humanity.

The Gadamer quotations are from Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics, trans. L. Schmidt and M. Reuss; ed. Dieter Misgeld and Graeme Nicholson (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1992), p. 152; quoted in Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography by Jean Grodin (Yale, 2002), p. 329.

Why we need hermeneutics

By hermeneutics, I understand the ability to listen to the other in the belief that he [sic] could be right.

— from a 1996 interview with Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Die Welt als Speigelkabinett: Zum 350. Gerburtstag von Leibniz am 1. Juli 1996,” Nicholas Halmer, Das SalzburgerNachtradio (Osterreichischer Rundfunk); quoted in Jean Grodin, Hand-Georg Gadamer: A Biography (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2003), p. 250.

Gadamer lived through the Nazi nightmare in Germany, and was rector of the University of Liepzig in 1946 after the Soviets had taken charge of what later became East Germany. He had, therefore, directly experienced how ideologues can restrict public discourse. Yet he affirmed the importance of scholarly independence and, more importantly, openness in dialogue.

In the United States today, we are in a situation where liberals, conservatives, and the far right each hew to set of shared assumptions. If you question the assumptions of liberals, conservatives, or the far rightists, you cannot expect open and respectful dialogue; instead, you will be subjected to ad hominem attacks, and immense pressure will be brought to bear upon you to conform to one or the other sets of assumptions.

For example, if someone were to question the validity of the #MeToo movement: liberals would condemn that person as a Neanderthal sexist and demand acceptance of the essential goodness of the #MeToo movement; conservatives might affirm that person for standing up to “political correctness”; and the far rightists might latch on to that person for upholding “family values” and assume that person was also affirming the right of men to be sexual aggressors. None of these groups would listen to anything that was said beyond the initial questioning of the validity of the #MeToo movement. But I have heard liberal feminists question the #MeToo movement on the grounds that it is in effect a vigilante movement, and that while vigilante movements might be inevitable in situations like this where the rule of law does not adequately protect some individuals nevertheless we should always be extremely wary of vigilantes; furthermore, when we look at our past we find that one of the largest single groups of U.S. vigilantes was white lynch mobs carrying out summary justice against African Americans, and that’s probably not a tradition that we want to carry forward.

The current situation in the U.S. is one where everyone has been rubbed raw by the intolerance of the public sphere; everyone has become an ideologue, sure of their narrow beliefs, not tolerating any challenge to those beliefs. Everyone has their own truth. By contrast, Gadamer calls on us to develop the ability to listen openly to others, aware that I might not always be right and that I can get closer to truth by listening to others. These days in the hyperindividualistic U.S., everyone thinks they can have own truth. Gadamer challenges us to listen to think about the possibility that there may be truth that extends beyond the narrow confines of one’s own self; and that by entering into open dialogue with someone we disagree with, we might actually learn something.

Ch’ang-O, the Moon Goddess

Our Coming of Age class took a field trip to the Asian Art Museum to see images of divinities. There we saw a beautiful jade sculpture of Ch’ang-O (Pinyin: Chang-e), the Moon Goddess. It’s just a few inches tall, but highly detailed: Ch’ang-O is smiling beatifically, and she is accompanied by her rabbits, one of whom is grinding something in a mortar and pestle:

Ch’ang-O is still honored in Chinese popular culture, at the Mid-Autumn Festival which takes place on the fifteenth day of the eighth Lunar month. More than one version of Ch’ang-O’s story is told, but the general outlines of the various versions are similar:

Ch’ang-O is an immortal being; she and Houyi are sweethearts. One day, ten suns appear in the sky, the sons of the Jade Emperor of Heaven, and these ten sons cause much damage; Houyi takes up his bow and arrow and shoots down nine of the ten in order to save the earth. Ch’ang-O loses her immortality by offending the Jade Emperor in some way. Houyi obtains a concoction that will make one person immortal (in some versions the pill could be split between Houyi and Ch’ang-O, making them both very long-lived, but not immortal), and this concoction is formed into a pill. Ch’ang-O takes the entire pill herself, either mistakenly or on purpose, upon which she not only becomes immortal, but she begins floating upwards towards heaven. At last she lodges permanently on the moon.

The Rabbit in the Moon

The reason there must be rabbits in the Moon is simple. In the West, we look at the moon and see the Man in the Moon, but in East Asia it is common to look up and see the Rabbit in the Moon; the Rabbit has a mortar and pestle in which it grinds herbal medicine, rice cakes, or mochi (depending on who tells the story). The body of the rabbit corresponds to roughly lunar landscape features as follows: left ear — Mare Fecunditatis; right ear — Mare Nectaris and Mare Tranquilitatis; base of ears — Mare Serenitatis; head — Mare Imbrium; body — Oceanus Procellarum. The mortar which the Rabbit uses for grinding is centered on the Mare Cognitum. For Westerners, here’s a sketch of the Moon Rabbit:

To help you find the Moon Rabbit next time you look at the moon, remember that the crater Tycho is just to the right of the Rabbit’s mortar.

How divine is Ch’ang-O?

Something we ask Coming of Age participants to consider when they look at images of deities is where they would place that deity on the following rough scale:

1. Ordinary human
2. Extraordinary human (prophet, sage)
3. Semi-divine (more than human, not quite a god or goddess)
4. Human who became divine
5. God or goddess with a non-human form
6. God or goddess that acts like a human
7. God or goddess that is far above humans
8. God or goddess so divine that humans cannot know it

In the stories about her, Ch’ang-O started out as — perhaps — semi-divine (more than human, not quite a goddess); then became completely human; then became immortal once more; and finally wound up as the Moon Goddess. Most Westerners, influenced by the strongly Western tradition of ancient Greek philosophy, tend to think of a deity as unchangeable, the “Unmoved Mover”; but far more human cultures have deities that can change in response to events. Thus Ch’and-O serves as a perfect counter-example for Westerners (both theists and atheists) who dogmatically assert that God is perfect and does not change.

Ch’ang-O in popular culture

The story of Ch’ang-O doesn’t leak out much beyond the boundaries of the Chinese American community (or other East Asian communities). But once in a while, the story of Ch’ang-O makes it into Western popular culture. The most notable example of this was just before the first humans set foot on the moon.

Here’s the Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription of the Apollo 11 Lunar mission, from July 20, 1969, not long before the Lunar Module landed on the moon:

03 23 16 18 CC [Capsule Communicator, i.e., Mission Control]:
…The “Black Bugle” just arrived with some morning news briefs if you’re ready.

03 23 16 28 CDR [Commander, i.e., Neil Armstrong]:
Go ahead.

[some material omitted]

03 23 17 28 CC:
Roger. Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.

03 23 18 15 LMP [Lunar Module Pilot, i.e., Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.; this was latter corrected to Michael Collins]:
Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.

(National Aeronautics and Space Administration, “Apollo 11 Technical Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription,” Tape 61/3 page 270 [Houston, Texas: Manned Spacecraft Center, July, 1969], pp. 178-179.)

— And don’t let the conspiracy theorists fool you: the Apollo astronauts saw no sign of Ch’ang-O, nor of any rabbits, nor of a cinnamon tree (actually a cassia tree in the myth).


Updated 3/7/18 with revised drawing and Apollo 11 transcript.

It’s that time of year

Five minutes ago, Carol was sitting in the living room staring at her laptop, and I was in the kitchen reading a murder mystery. Suddenly my ears caught the sound of something outside the window. I stopped to listen, and it came again.

“Hear the owl?” I said to Carol.

“No,” she said. “Where?”

I opened one of the kitchen windows a crack, and we stood there and listened.

“Hu-hu, hu, hu,” said the owl in a nearby tree.

Carol and I grinned at each other. This is one of those times when we really like living in a cemetery. “Great Horned Owl,” I said.

“Hu-hu, hu-hu.” It’s mating season.

Redding to San Mateo

We left Redding, in the narrow upper end of the great Central Valley, and headed south towards home. In the late morning, we stopped just south of Willows at the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge to walk the two-mile marsh loop.

There is something about being near wetlands that I find soothing: perhaps the big vista of sky you get from being in an essentially flat landscape; perhaps the nearness of an astonishing number of nonhuman organisms. Carol felt like walking fast and charged on ahead. I walked as fast as she, but stopped now and then to look at or listen to something: a mixed flock of White-fronted Geese, American Coots, Northern Pintails and other ducks swimming cautiously away from me; Marsh Wrens calling in last year’s dead and grey tule reeds; swarms of Red-winged Blackbirds flying across the marsh and up into the trees and back down into the marsh.

I stopped to look west towards the Coast Range in the distance, and the nearer ridge of the Great Valley Sequence, which, according to Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California, 2nd ed., “defines the boundary between the flat valley floor and the gaunt ruggedness of the Coast Range.” For someone raised among the smooth glaciated hills and mountains of New England, the mountains and ridges of California always look strangely ragged. This is a landscape defined by ongoing tectonic movement, not by the glaciers of fifteen thousand years ago.

A little later on, I stopped to spend ten minutes looking at an alkali meadow. The soil was almost white in places, the vegetation low and scraggy. It was not a very attractive place. Yet there were a number of game trails criss-crossing the meadow, and earlier I had seen a jackrabbit lopping off towards this meadow. In the distance, through the moist and hazy air, I could just see Sutter Buttes, the old defunct volcano that sits in the middle of the Central Valley.

I finelly caught up with Carol near the parking lot where we had started walking. It was time for lunch. We sat and ate at a picnic table near half a dozen bird feeders. The birds were cautious of us at first, but when they saw we probably wern’t a threat, they swarmed out of the tule reeds and nearby trees: White-crowned Sparrows, Yellow-crowned Sparrows, House Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, House Finches.

The rest of the ride home was unremarkable and dull. I read aloud from a bad murder mystery while Carol drove. The traffic got bad as we approached San Mateo. At last we arrived at home.

Seattle to Redding

We dropped off Saba at the Montessori school where she works, and started driving south. It was a gray and dreary day, and before long it started snowing. Pretty soon it was snowing hard enough that the ground was white on either side of the highway, and in a few places slush accumulated between the lanes. We saw some accidents: a couple cars spun out and off the highway, something on the northbound side of the freeway with several tow trucks and emergency vehicles and traffic backed up for a mile or more. South of Eugene, the snow stopped, but the forecast for the Siskiyou Mountains was for snow tonight and snow tomorrow morning. We decided to drive as far south as we could before we got tired. Wes topped briefly in Ashland so Carol could collect mineral water from the public fountain in Ashland Plaza. Then we started driving again, winding up over the mountains and back down again until we reached Redding, where we stopped to spend the night.

As for the lithium water, it smells sulphurous, like slightly rotten eggs. The water also has quite a bit of barium in it, so you’re not supposed to drink more than a few sips at a time. If we decide to drink it, we should do with it what they do with “Crazy Water” from Texas: dilute it; “Crazy Water” tastes pretty yucky, too, but once diluted it’s at least drinkable.

Snow and ice

In the middle of the day yesterday, I looked out of the window here in Seattle and it was snowing steadily. The snow didn’t stick to the ground where we were, and it was soon over. This afternoon when we went for a walk, we saw frozen puddles by the side of the road, and frozen mud crunched under our feet when we stepped off the paving. We passed a pickup truck with a couple of inches of packed snow on its roof; it must have been driven into the city from some place nearby at a higher elevation, where there had been more snow, and the snow had stuck. And as it turns out, the same cold front swept down to San Mateo, where the National Weather Service reported “an active morning with passing showers and snow showers,” with the showers ending by this afternoon.

There is a long and honorable literary tradition in which events in the natural world are linked to human affairs, and I can’t help thinking about what Robert Frost said about fire and ice. If he had to choose between the world ending in fire or ice, Frost said, he’d bet on fire, based on what he knew of desire. But, he said:

…if [the world] had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Consumer capitalism provokes our unending desire for cheap consumer goods, and cheap consumer goods require the ever-increasing use of cheap energy, which in turn has led to the frightening rise in average global temperature: so the odds are pretty good that Frost is right, and the world will end in fire. But all the hatred that has broken out into in the United States in the past couple of years has made it clear that is we don’t die of fire and desire, we will freeze to death from icy hatred.

San Mateo to Eugene, Ore.

We got up later than planned (and isn’t that how all our trips begin, getting up later than we had planned?), and immediately gave up on the idea of driving to Seattle in one day. Carol researched places for us to stay while I drove through the unpleasantness that is Bay Area traffic. We were glad to get off Interstate 80 and head north, away from the sprawling tentacles of the growing San Jose – San Francisco – Sacramento megalopolis.

I’ve been reading Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California, and when Carol started driving after lunch, I read to her from the section on driving Interstate 5 up through the Central Valley: it’s all Quarternary alluvial deposits, for miles and miles, with the one exception of the Sutter Buttes, a group of craggy hills that thrust up seemingly out of nowhere, a volcanic intrusion that seems incongruous.

The geology along the road got really interesting a couple of hours further north, but by that time we had moved on to other things. We sang some Sacred Harp songs, to get us ready for the Sacred Harp convention we’re going to this weekend, and then we sang some other songs — old standards like Moon River, Close to You, Ring of Fire — until I got the hiccups and had to stop.

We drove up, up, up over the Siskiyous, where there was some snow on the side of the road once we got above 4,000 feet, and then down, down, down into Ashland where we stopped for dinner. We saw a lot of street people in Ashland. Two of them accosted us as we walked towards a restaurant. “Hi, how are you?” the young white man said. “Good, how are you?” I said. “Poor and hungry. Can you give us a dollar?” he said. “We’ll stop on the way back,” Carol promised, and we did, but they were gone: it had gotten pretty chilly by then.

As we approached Eugene, we talked about Steve who had lived in Eugene. Steve was someone we had hung out with at the Alaska Sacred Harp Convention in October, and he had died suddenly and unexpectedly in California last month at the age of 60. He was not someone you would expect to die suddenly, and we keep talking about it, trying to make sense out of his death.

And then we were at the motel, where they were showing Olympic ski jumping competitions on a big TV. I talked to one of the young men staffing the desk while Carol checked in. “What they have on right now is figure skating or ski jumping,” he said apologetically. “I don’t need to see figure skating,” I said. He grinned. We talked about all the sports they never seem to show. “Like curling,” I said, “ho come they never show curling?” “It’s pretty boring,” he said, “it’s like people who weren’t good enough to play hockey had to invent a sport they could play.” It turned out that he enjoyed shooting, and shot both pistols and rifles; we both agreed that we would like to see the Olymplic biatholon competition, where you have to ski a certain distance, then shoot. We both looked up at the big screen as another ski jumper twisted through the air in slow motion, then landed wrong and tumbled down the hillside.

Power and sexual harrassment

Under the headline “The Role Power Plays in Sexual Harassment” (Tuesday, Feb. 6, page A13) Elizabeth Bernstein of the Wall Street Journal reports on a series of five studies published in 2017 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Bernstein also interviews a number of psychologists to explore the question: What makes some men abuse their positions of power to sexually harass women?

According to Bernstein, psychologists are finding that men who exploit their power to harass women “typically share specific personality traits. Their power amplifies proclivities they already have.” Those traits include:
— men who felt powerless in the past are “most likely to pursue an inappropriate workplace attraction or exhibit harassment behavior”
— men who have so-called “hostile masculinity” tend to “find power over women to be a turn-on”; these men are often narcissists
— men with what’s known as “impersonal sexuality prefer sex without intimacy or close connection”; these men often have multiple sex partners; their lack of intimacy with sexual partners may go back to experiences of abuse as children
— men with sexist attitudes are also likely to harass or assault women

Bernstein quotes Dr. Neil Malamuth, professor of psychology and communication at the University of California, Los Angeles: “It’s not automatic; it’s not that power corrupts. It’s a certain type of man who uses his power in this way.”

From my perspective, it’s both interesting and not surprising that men who abuse power to sexually harass women share certain personality traits (and I wouldn’t want to limit this to men: there are also women who abuse their power by becoming sexual predators). In my work cleaning up congregations after sexual misconduct by religious leaders, I have sensed shared personality traits in those leaders who abuse their authority. But I’ve never had enough distance from the problem to be able to adequately articulate what those personality traits are, so this is a helpful list of personality traits to look for.