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.

Kearney, Nebraska, to Rock Springs, Wyoming

By the time we got to the Wyoming border, Carol said she was ready to leave Nebraska. I didn’t say so, but I enjoyed the drive through Nebraska. Near Kearney, I liked the way the highway followed the broad flat valley of the Platte River, every so often crossing over one channel of the river or another, passing between green fields of corn and hay fields and lines of trees along the river channels and the very occasional small city. As we got further west, we saw fewer and fewer trees, and more cattle, and here and there a field of golden wheat. The land gradually rose up and up until we were in the high plains, and most of the land was range land. Now and again we passed cattle, mostly clustered around stock ponds in the heat of the day, and I thought about the story that I had read in yesterday’s issue of the Kearney Hub — “125th year, 230th issue”; “At the center of Nebraska life since 1888” — that told how the U.S. Farm Service is going to allow “emergency grazing on about 900,000 acres in Nebraska because of the ongoing lack of forage for livestock”; Western Nebraska is one of the regions where emergency grazing will be allowed, for conditions continue to be drier than normal, even though “conditions appeared to improve at the beginning of the year.”

Once we got into Wyoming, the scenery did get more dramatic. Not long after we passed over the border, we saw sagebrush growing by the side of the highway, and not long after that we saw our first oil derrick bobbing slowly up and down, and then we caught our first sight of tall mountains in the blue distance. We drove past strange rock formations, and watched the railroad wind its way around the sides of hills and buttes. The railroad reminded me of something we saw yesterday: As we drove out of Yankton, South Dakota, before we crossed over the Missouri River on U.S. Route 81, we had to stop at a railroad crossing for two Union Pacific trains to go by; the train headed west consisted of a long line of empty hopper cars, and the train headed east consisted of a long line of hopper cars filled with coal; I suspected that the coal came from the huge Powder River Basin mines on federal lands in Wyoming, since something like eighty train loads of coal come out of Powder River Basin each day.

We stopped in Laramie to visit the food coop there, and stock up on good food. We happened to arrive just when the farmer’s market was taking place, so we wandered around, talking to people in the various booths. Carol got a small bag of summer apples, and some spinach. I got some raw honey and a loaf of olive bread. Carol got some raspberry leaf tea, and an inexpensive necklace made out of a seashell by the nice young man who sold it to her. I found Second Story Books in the next block, browsed for a while, and came away with a biography of Hans-Georg Gadamer, and a book published by the University of Nebraska Press written by a man who had traveled all over the Great Plains for several months, stopping in small towns and talking with whoever came his way. We finally made it to Big Hollow Coop. The man who took our money was from Jackson, California, and had come to Laramie because his girlfriend was in graduate school there. He told us that Big Hollow is the only coop in the whole state, which surprised me; I expected that there would at least be one in Cheyenne.

We stopped to eat our dinner at a highway rest area outside Laramie. It was very windy, but the picnic table had brick walls surrounding three sides, and a wooden roof, so we could shelter from the wind. A pair of Barn Swallows was also taking shelter in the picnic, and they had built their nest up in the rafters; I could just see one swallow’s tail projecting out a little beyond the mud walls of the nest.

We stopped just before sunset at a parking area just before the exit for Creston Junction, Wyoming, and got out to stretch our cramped legs. We looked out over the sagebrush tinged gold by the setting sun, the mountains in the distance now turning pink and purple, the picturesque white clouds — and I realized something out in the sagebrush was looking at me. “See that?” I said to Carol. “An antelope.” She spotted two more. One of them looked at us, saw that we were too far away to be a threat, grazed on some sagebrush, and began moving west; the other two were also moving west, heading towards the setting sun.

BlogJul1913