Friday, October 29, 2010

Who can you talk to?

A few years ago, we were saving money by canceling our cable or having only some very basic package. Since I don't watch TV much, it took me a while to figure out that we were budgeting according to this method. I discovered it the first time I wanted to watch CNN and it wasn't there, and in my consternation I was surfing to find out exactly what was there. That's when I happened to come across a women's group in progress, on some small Christian station, at the exact moment the facilitator was haranguing one of the participants. She was saying to her repeatedly, "You're arguing with a Pharisee! You're arguing with a Pharisee!" Apparently this group leader was communicating to the woman why and how she was stuck. Something like, "You've punched a tar baby," I guessed. Telling the woman that in fact she was stuck and was in her fix because of whom she had let herself become embroiled with. An unresolvable mess! A bottomless pit!

The particular significance of this story for me is that, according to tradition, at least, the Pharisees gave rise to the ancient Rabbis, who assumed leadership of the Jewish people after the fall of the Temple to the Romans in 70 CE. The Judaism that survived is Rabbinic Judaism. So, you might say, I'm a Pharisee. To me, the Pharisees are good guys, sort of analogous to Church fathers for Christians.

Because of the significance of Pharisees in the Christian tradition that eventually evolved, "pharisee" has come into English with a very different--and not positive--meaning: "hypocrite." Pharisees are supposed to have been the enemies of Jesus, so in our culture the ordinary person on the street will have all sorts of negative characterizations for "pharisee." Actually, though, Jesus was more like the group known as "Pharisees" then he was like the other known groups and classes of the time. Pharisees were not the ones in power in those days. That would have been the high priestly class (Sadducees) and the princely class (Herodians). Pharisees were the liberals and progressives of their day, concerned about the poor, the widow, and the stranger, etc., and who led "schools" organized in the master-disciple fashion. Nor were they a monolithic group, any more than "liberal Christians" today, albeit defining a cultural group, are monolithic in their beliefs, practices, and lifestyles.

Some scholars think that the enmity between the Pharisees and Jesus described in the New Testament portrays conflict being experienced at the actual time the Gospels were being written that was retrojected back into the stories about Jesus' time. And also as the new Christian tradition grew and tore apart from Judaism, the theological need arose to make all the directions the Jewish leaders might lead the wrong directions--not to mention the political need to control the flock and keep it from straying.

Now isn't that convenient for establishing group boundaries and keeping the right people in and the wrong people out! There are the right people and then again there are the wrong people. As for them, don't even speak to them, much less, argue with them. Keep your distance. Keep up your defenses. Once the "yuck" factor is associated with those wrong people, separation becomes second nature. No one has to police it, since it has become internalized.

And I won't lie; it's the same in reverse. For Jews, Jesus and all things Christian have acquired that same patina of disgust. As with Christians this is not experienced to the same degree in everybody across the board. I hypothesize it may be strongest in large relatively self-sufficient Jewish communities and weaker in the South, where we typically have been more integrated into the general community. I grew up in a liberal Christian community who were kind. It was not so long after the second world war had ended, and those neighbors were sensitive. I had no cousins or grandparents in town and only a limited connection with the Jewish community way across town, but, nevertheless, I will say something of this aversion was instilled in me. No matter how much in those days my parents tried to protect me from knowledge of any prejudice, and no matter how I as a child came to recognize and feel the stigma of being different, something was instilled that protected me from ever wanting to join that majority.

Now take this same principle and apply it more generally. I'm not talking just Christian and Jew anymore. Protestant and Catholic. Muslim and the West. The races. Foreigners. Native people. Immigrants. Not to mention Conservative and Liberal. Even epicurean vs. ascetic. I'm talking "us" and "them" and what we do to "protect" ourselves and automatically wall out "the other."

Here's some interesting research I came across: Some subjects in an experiment were primed with words or odors associated with disgust, while other subjects were not primed in that way. Both groups were shown some rather innocuous individuals doing and saying innocuous things. Those people who were primed to feel disgust judged the individuals they were shown more harshly. In other words, according to these results, the emotions ("passions") come first, the intellectual conclusions follow. If you are interested, this experiment was done by a psychologist named Jonathan Haidt, who has been working with philosophers on the question of how we make moral judgments.

Now, back to our religions, our races, our politics. In those polarities, no one has to manipulate the situation to associate disgust with "the other" since it comes pre-installed with the package! I am not talking about something abstract or in your head. Disgust is visceral. And another aspect of this is that it's easy to see that dynamic in your adversaries, not so easy to admit to it in oneself. It's quite easy to see how this works in others, that others are reactive and under the control of their passions. Those pesky others--they're so subject to manipulation! They are downright irrational! Something comes to mind here about the speck in the other person's eye and the log in my own.

What to do? Why should the disgust we project onto the "other" even be a subject of interest? For instance, if I happen to be in a dominant group in our society, why should I care? Wouldn't I be like the incumbent in a campaign who doesn't particularly want to have a debate? If I admit to such concerns, wouldn't I have everything to lose and nothing to gain? Well, for one thing, even if I'm the majority in one area (say, Caucasian), I may be a minority in the next area (Jew). Or I'm soon going to be a minority (Caucasian!). Or, say I love or care about somebody in a minority or marginalized group. Or say I want to influence somebody in another group--I'm going to need to empathize. Or, what if, as they say, hate hurts the hater worse than the "hatee." A belly full of various shades of disgust for others makes for indigestion, and certainly all our religious or ethical traditions weigh in on these matters. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others.... At some point we are going to have to behave like adults!

How to dissipate disgust? Remember the 1985 movie The Breakfast Club? The "jock," the "brain," the "hippie," the "princess," and the "thug" have to spend all day together. The movie is about the transformation that occurs. At the beginning they all hate each other. At the end a modern miracle has occurred. Each comes to see he or she has a little bit of all those others in herself or himself. The "otherness" has been transmuted into a common humanity. They are family.

Maybe all this otherness, this alienation and polarization should not exist. I was idealistic and didn't want it to. I stuck my head in the sand. I guess I was waiting for things to change, or for somebody else to change them. Time it was a-passing and I wasn't getting any younger. It has only been in facing people as they really are that I can sometimes engage. If I want to do something about the barriers that exist, I had to come up against them, kicking and screaming though I may be.

Birds sing; people talk. Talk to each other!