30 December 2007

Of Blind Men and Elephants

There is, apparently, an old Indian legend which goes briefly like this: Once there were six blind men who went to touch an elephant, so each could know what the elephant was like. The first touched the elephant's side, and said: "Ah! The elephant is like a wall!" The second touched the elephant's trunk and said: "Now I know, the elephant is like a snake." The third touched the elephant's tusk and said: "Round, smooth and pointed- obviously the elephant is a kind of spear!" The fourth touched the ear and proclaimed the elephant to be a leaf, the fifth touched the leg and henceforth believed the elephant to be a sort of tree, and the last stumbled and grabbed onto the elephant's tail, and forever afterward believed the elephant to be a rope. Soon, the six blind men began arguing amongst themselves, each believing themselves to be right and the other to be wrong. American humorist, John Godfrey Saxe, who wrote a version of the legend, sums up their debate thusly:

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

I thought of this today when I saw this article over at Cafeteria Closed. Gerald touches on several ideas here. Quite correctly, he opposes the relativism of increasing gender confusion. He also runs into is an old acquaintance of mine from my days at University: deconstruction. Gerald treats deconstruction as a load of bunk and its practitioners as fools. I would it were so. The truth, it seems to me, is far more difficult and troubling. The truth is, they've seen a part of the elephant.

In my experience at university, educated people simply don't run off and say to themselves, "I think I'll be a moron for the rest of my life. I'll follow a philosophy that has no resemblance to any form of reality." Instead, they are presented with an idea that makes sense to them, that jibes with some of their experience, and they interpret everything through that one lens, and are convinced of their truth over all others. This includes, ironically, the deconstructionist tenet that there is no truth- only constructs and deconstruction. (Which is, also ironically and somewhat tragically, similar to Marx's claim that we live in a world of constructed ideologies- except for Marxism. That, and that alone, had the power to see through the veil. That alone was not an ideology.)

Were deconstruction simply a lie we would have an easier time combating it. But it has its points, and those who hold these points run into a problem like the men in the legend: they see only deconstruction. Further, they also have a problem that is quite rife in modern academia: the disregarded middle. To put it simply, it is easiest and clearest to argue black or white on any issue, rather than grey. It is easiest to argue all or nothing, rather than some. As soon as the question of "some" arrives, it is almost immediately followed by "how much?" and "Where do we draw the line?" These questions are difficult to answer, difficult to uphold and nearly impossible to defend. So the modern academic very often pretends these questions does not exist. Therefore, only the extreme is reality. Anything in between is discarded. The problem is, the extreme is often absurd. You can find yourself arguing, with all seriousness, that an elephant is a large plant. Even more absurd, you may find yourself wondering how you can argue against someone who believes, in all seriousness, that an elephant is a large plant.

In the case of the article at hand, Gerald is arguing against Deconstruction's position that humans are a narrative construct, that we all have our personal narratives and each is as right as the next. Taken to the extreme, we are beings with no inherent nature, not even gender. Perhaps we may one day go to a farther extreme, and argue that we one of the animals- a bear, a cat, a dog. Against this Gerald posits inherent nature, and here he runs into a little danger. Who's right? To me, it seems we have both an inherent nature but are also constructs of our own and our situation's making. We did not choose, for example, our bodies, but we have some choice in what we can do with them- or not. For example, I know some people who could have been professional athletes, but they preferred beer. Myself, no amount of practice would have made me a professional anything.

Furthermore, as Catholics we know we are also beings of spirit and soul- what C.S. Lewis terms as "amphibians"- belonging both here in time and also in eternity. But to divide ourselves into "soul" and "nature" and "construct"- how can we tell where one begins, or one ends? There is sometimes clear evidence of one or the other, but they blur and mix in the middle, and become inextricably linked with each other and anything else that may go into us that our science or reason has not yet discerned. But the very difficulty of peering into that blur, of trying to untangle the gordian knots, causes most people to walk away, and prefer a more limited view.

As Catholics, we know God alone knows everything about elephants, or human beings. We look forward to the day when the veils are lifted and we can see clearly. In the meantime, we're stuck here trying to argue with those who insist there is only black or white, and grey- indeed any other colour- does not exist.

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