5.14.2010

On (More!) Government Intervention... (and, on Cultivating Contentment)

Academics aren't good at taking doses of their own medicine (link). Here are the main four points of the recent "anti-ethnic studies" law, for consideration:
A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:

1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of people as individuals.
I do have a problem with this bill, because I'm a consistent libertarian who doesn't believe the government should meddle in all things. But some people are less consistent. If the government should set interest rates, should encourage & discourage behaviors like smoking and hybrid-car buying, should prevent irresponsible corporations from failing, should fund public education, then of course it should intervene in what can and cannot be taught in public education. It already does that. It's always done that. Ever since the government got in the business of educating our children for us.

For the record, this law would've banned at least a third of the courses I took in college and graduate school, if only because of point #2. Instead of racial resentment and "solidarity," I'm with the Dalai Lama, who wrote in his 1999 book, Ethics for the New Millennium,
In order to overcome our tendency to ignore others' needs and rights, we must continually remind ourselves of what is obvious: that basically we are all the same. I come from Tibet; most of the readers of this book will not be Tibetans. If I were to meet each reader individually and look them over, I would see that the majority do indeed have characteristics superficially different from mine. If I were then to concentrate on those differences, I could certainly amplify them and make them into something important. But the result would be that we grew more distant rather than closer. If, on the other hand, I were to look on each as one of my own kind--as a human being like myself with one nose, two eyes, and so forth, ignoring differences of shape and color--then automatically that sense of distance would fade. I would see that we have the same human flesh and that, moreover, just as I want to be happy and to avoid suffering, so do they. On the basis of this recognition*, I would quite naturally feel well-disposed toward them. And concern for their well-being would arise almost by itself... Cultivating contentment is therefore crucial to maintaining peaceful coexistence.
*[Casey's note]: this turn, hinging on the phrase, "on the basis of this recognition," is a very articulate defense of the idea that ontology must precede ethics (or that ethics will follow naturally from "right perception," as the Buddhists would phrase it).

5 comments:

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Insignificant Wrangler said...

I think we would need to agree on a definition of ontology. The word for me designates a process of interpretation and abstraction. It falls within the domain of thinking and language.

I am precisely interested in your quote here because it testifies to the necessity of local presence and ethics, as I have struggled to define the term. The truly important moment in the passage is the moment in which the Dalai Lama meets each reader as individuals. This moment of encounter is irreplaceable and should not be overlooked. This is an ethical encounter that precedes the ontological investigation--whether into differences or similarity. Alterity precedes any act of recognition. Or of re-cognition. [i.e., whether knowledge can be understood as kairotic production or chronologic recollection, the age old debate of whether language presents or represents. I side with presents, obviously, but don't think language is the whole show here].

Notice that he cannot imagine his readers. He needs to meet each as an individual. Individual encounter. This (I argue) has always been the concern of a strain of rhetoric--a strain that falls outside the dominant understanding of the term [Plato-Aristotle-persuasion].

The moment of encounter is more than ontological or linguistic, even though those are the primary tools we use to understand it--even the Lama in this case. I urge us to consider another approach to the encounter, the intersubjective. Such an approach requires patience and attunement--precisely to resist the desire to first ontologize.

Pedagogically, I argue this has a simple implication--to build the possibility for alterity into our syllabi. Two ways: first, how does a syllabi promote the possibility of encountering alterity [how does it move beyond the traditional voices of school, teacher, text] and, second, how does the syllabi respect the response of students [so that the syllabi doesn't become strictly chronos but also kairos, that it holds itself response-able].

Ah, I miss 215. But these recent encounters have been quite productive. Back to "work."

Casey said...

"...a process of interpretation and abstraction" is way too vague a definition of ontology (for me).

Ontology is basically metaphysics with an emphasis on how "self" fits into that picture. So we're asking, what is the nature of reality (in metaphysics), and how am I a part of it?--am I an atomistic/bio-chemical animal alone in a cold, dark cosmos? Or am I a glowing soul working its way back to G-d? Or am I a single unit of a strange kind of cancer that's killing the living organism that we know as "Earth?"

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I was shooting for vague, so point taken. I would also point out that all of your options are routed in a self's hermeneutic knowledge of a self. It is a self speculating metaphysics (which reduces the metaphysical to the ontological).

I'm holding out, against language, for the possible sense of a metaphysics that cannot be so bound. I'm speculating on the possibility of a beyond ontology.

Such would be felt, not thought.

And it wouldn't be felt by an "I," but rather would condition its emergence. In other words, how do you come to be and ask those metaphysical questions?

Casey said...

I'm with you, Wrangler -- and you're right. My options all were rooted in a notion of "self." It's very interesting to try to think of an un-self-based ontology. Some of the mystical experiences allude to such a state, where the ego is altogether dissolved... but then we're way out beyond the sandbars of language, into the deep--