As we are in the middle of the next two-year long election cycle, we are once again directly confronted with the obvious divisions in our society. However, this phenomenon is not limited to the political realm or to the public discourse that juxtaposes science and religion, we can find divisions in our own community, the Luther community as well. As we face the hard realities of liberal arts colleges these days the cracks in our community become more tangible, and a line is drawn between those who “fit” and those who “don’t want to belong,” between those who are “invested” in our community and those who are marked as “disinterested” regardless of what their motivations and contributions may be. Neither the fact of a divided community nor the divisive rhetoric that comes with it is unique to our community, it rather seems to be a central, albeit unfortunate, feature of human communities. However, and sadly, as much as we try we are not exempt from this phenomenon. So why is this?
When I try to understand where these divisions come from and how we can overcome them, I do this as a person trained in philosophy of religion, not in sociology or psychology. And as a philosopher it seems to me that these divisions and the rhetoric that expresses them stem from a dualistic worldview that is born out of identity politics. Given a certain conception of identity and the way everyday consciousness works, we create binaries between a perceived “us” and a constructed “them” when we try to figure out who we are. This mechanism inherent in identity formation and politics seems rather obvious. What is more puzzling, however, is that we are seemingly unable to break out of this way of thinking even as we try to understand the “other” and to build an inclusive community. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to confess that it is my assumption, and I may well be deceiving myself here, that most if not all of us sincerely strive to create an inclusive community at Luther College. If this is the case, then, what hinders us from breaking out of our ways of thinking? I found a possible key to this dilemma in the work of the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and the comedy of A. Whitney Brown.
In his Monadology, Leibniz proposes persons are windowless monads, i.e. closed and causally independent systems that do not interact with each other. To make this model work, Leibniz proposed that God preset all monads like clocks at the beginning of time. In short, it only seems as if individuals interact with each other when, in fact, they do not. Ever since I read Leibniz’s Monadology the first time, I thought this model to be rather counter-intuitive and to provide a good example why the notion of causally independent and, therefore, closed systems do not adequately describe our experience of reality. While I am still not convinced that Leibniz’s monadology gives us an adequate picture of reality, it does reflect our generally shared working assumption that human individuals comprise, in some sense, closed system even though most people nowadays would abstain from claiming that individuals are causally independent. More importantly, however, Leibniz’s model does give us some insight as to why we experience the world to be, quite literally, around us.
One day on my commute between my house and Luther College, I suddenly realized the value of Leibniz’s monadology. Driving on Highway 63 passing and being passed by cars in which some people were in conversation, some were on the phone, and some were in the grip of road rage, it occurred to me that cars were the ultimate illustration of windowless monads creating the illusion of seemingly self-sufficient worlds. Only it seems to me that the idea of monads as closed systems referred to our perception of reality rather than reality itself. In the car, we feel at the center of the traffic. We expect the other drivers to understand when we are in a rush and to accommodate our style of driving. This attitude may be exaggerated when we are in cars, which give us the illusion of being in a closed system, but this sense of being a world unto ourselves seems to pervade multiple aspects of our interaction with other people. In a hilarious routine, comedian A. Whitney Brown suggests that “we all live in a pre-Copernican universe.” Only, our universe is not geocentric but egocentric. In this bit, he satirizes that we feel more moral outrage when someone cuts in front of us in a line than when we feel about moral evil such as poverty and genocide. The reason, he offers, is that perpetrators of crimes against humanities “never stole my bike.”
Of course, this statement is extreme, but it reveals a sore spot in the worldview of most of us. We believe our thoughts, our morals, our experience to be absolute and binding for all. It does not matter if our standards and criteria are unique to us or characteristic of a culture, religious tradition, academic discipline, or subculture. We perceive ourselves at the center of our world. And as Brown remarks, “I include myself in that. In fact, I am thinking of only including myself.” It is not that only some individuals or some groups of people are afflicted with this egocentrism, most of us are. According to basic Buddhist teaching, only the awakened ones can conceive of a world in which our own personal self is not at its center. And this self-centeredness colors our experience of the world, our moral ideals, and our assessments of other people. To use the terminology of Jean Piaget (1896-1980), it seems we tend assimilate the views of other people into our world view instead of accommodating the experiences of others by restructuring our own worldview. But how can we do that?
I wish I had an easy solution to this problem. In an earlier essay I discussed the concept of “antiphony” (Japanese: ko’ō, literally “call-and-response”), which James Heisig coined when he was translating the work of the Japanese philosopher Iwao Kōyama (1905-1993). “Antiphony” describes an attitude in which listening to others is as important as articulating one’s own position, an attitude which respects and includes all interlocutors without privileging one over the other. To this attitude, understanding is more important than judgment. Such an attitude is only possible when we start with an affirmation of diversity, when we listen to the voices of the other, when we approach other voices and especially minority voices with good faith assuming that we all want the best for our community. It seems to me that a problem with divided communities is that we accuse the perceived and constructed other to act in bad faith. This applies to the political discourse in the USA as much as to the rhetoric of “fitting in” at Luther College. Only when we overcome this basic assumption can we slowly move from a culture of judgment to a culture of understanding. Then, we can open the windows of our monads, we can see the world (including ourselves) through the eyes of others, and we can work towards a community that embraces all members as equal.