I was chatting to PNH yesterday, and the topic of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent article on compassion came up. Patrick pointed me to the comment thread, wherein Hilzoy, whom I know of as the much-missed Obsidian Wings front-pager, gets into an interesting discussion with Josh Jasper, whose name I’ve heard in so many contexts I can’t recall which one was first. (This was before Elizabeth Bear also made an appearance.)
That reminded me of how much, over the last wee while, I’ve noticed the same people turning up on pretty much all the blogs I currently follow. I recognized one person from Obsidian Wings in a thread here on Making Light; I’ve been watching several local regulars (plus one friend-of-friend from LiveJournal) say wise and good things in the Slacktivist comments; and a couple of names from Crooked Timber have made themselves welcome in our conversations here.
Hm, I thought later, everywhere I go, I see the same people, chewing over the same issues in subtly varying but essentially congruent fora. You know, this is probably what epistemic closure feels like.
But is it? Or is it just a survival tactic in the face of too many people wrong on the internet at once? And more importantly, what should I do about it?
These last weeks, as the Park 51 project has loosened a lot of tongues and the anniversary of 9/11 has unleashed a good deal of anger, the internet has been full of places that hurt me to read. It’s been all too easy to stay in my safe zone, in the blogs where the local views and priorities are close to mine—basically, where the stupid doesn’t burn or splash all over me.
Even so, there’s been an average one regular* per site who has come out with views that aren’t just wrong, but fractally wrong: wrong on every level from the “facts” cited to the conclusions drawn. Formerly reasonable people talk about “a proportion of Muslims” who are terrorists, and thence conclude that “Islam is a religion of violence.” The “moderate Muslims should condemn terrorism” thing comes up repeatedly (nicely skewered here today, by the way).
In some cases these views have been unassailable by factual argument, which makes me think they’re more symbolic beliefs than actual assertions of perceived truth. But even in the situation where a commenter was persuaded to reconsider (and had the grace and character to publicly apologize), the relief and pleasure of the community was as telling as failures elsewhere. They did not expect it.
Now, disagreement is the food of politics and the internet alike, but these extended and oft-fruitless wranglings, particularly in a context where beliefs are cultural markers, do not encourage me to venture past my safe circle. Even where confrontations may be successful, they are often unpleasant, and it’s all too easy to find people digging in their heels until one has to choose between correctness and community.
Me, I tend strongly toward community, which is one reason I don’t thrive on argument. I don’t enjoy participating in the cut-and-thrust of intellectual combat§. But even if I’m not trying persuade them, it’s of value to me to understand the people I disagree with. So how can someone like me† find a way to engage with painfully different perspectives?
I think we’re back to Coates again, this time to the post itself. For other reasons, the question above is exactly what he’s wrestling with in his study of the Civil War. He can’t argue with the people he disagrees with, not because he’s not prone to argument, but because they’re dead. His recommendation:
You have to remove the cloak of the partisan, and assume the garb of the thespian. Instead of prosecuting the Confederate perspective, you have to interrogate it, and ultimately assume it. In no small measure, to understand them, you must become them. For me to seriously consider the words of the slave-holder, which is to say the mind of the slave-holder, for me to see them as human beings, as full and as complicated as anyone else I know, a strange transcendence is requested. I am losing my earned, righteous skin. I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just. But for want of seeing more, I am compelled to let it go.
What he doesn’t get into is how much that hurts, the way it hurt Eustace to lose his dragon skin in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it as just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.
Peeling off all of our carefully created coping mechanisms, leaving the community where our views and priorities don’t even need to be discussed because they’re obviously true, is like that. And that excruciating shedding-of-self is as important in its own way as the subsequent attempt to assume someone else’s worldview. Because it’s through our own pain and vulnerability that we come to understand the roots of each other’s wrongnesses.
I have come to see that our tormentors had tormentors, that the slave-holding woman was trapped by hoop-skirts and convention, that the man was trapped by lineage and human folly.
The result is what Coates calls compassion. I have another word for it, from another tradition. I call it love. But in either case, for me, it’s the way out of my own safe world.
* None here, thankfully, but enough elsewhere to keep the average up
§ however much I value the clarity it creates when others do it
† I tend to describe myself as a passion fish, which is an eggcorn I got from a children’s TV show.