Monday, January 2, 2012

The Blind Labelmaker

In the study of ideas, there is a never-ending plethora of -ism's.  We have Existentialism, Materialism, Nihilism, Marxism, Skepticism, Atomism, Infinitism, Fundamentalism, Coherentism, Solipism, Empiricism, Rationalism, Realism, Idealism, Nominalism, Conceptualism, Structuralism, Poststructuralism, Modernism, and Postmodernism.  There are many other -ism's, besides.

As necessary as they seem, there are problems with these labels.  We seem to need them because you can't think about something unless you can name the thing.  Or can you?

It is possible to think without words, but it's really really hard.  Trust me.   Even I wasn't able to do it until I had learned at least one second language.  Then one day I found I could manipulate ideas in my head without having to refer to their labels in either language.  Translating from one language to another isn't simply replacing English words with the equivalent words in, say, German.  It doesn't work.  You must get the thought expressed by the English sentence into your head, and then re-express the thought in your own words in the context of the German language.

(By the way, if you want to understand how a nation thinks, what they believe without even knowing they believe it, and what values they unconsciously, implicitly hold, then learn their language.  All those things lie hidden in the words they depend on for thinking and without which most people cannot think at all.  And even then, people only think things that their limited vocabulary allows them to think.  If you can't be bothered to learn a second language, then at least learn as many new words as you can, so as not to be limited in the things you are able to think about!)

In any case, that's why there are so many words to describe ideas.  The problem as I see it is this.  When a philosopher thinks up a new word - creates a new label - and people begin to hear of it, the whole world suddenly gets divided into two parts:  things that are described by the new label, and things that are not.  In effect, each new label is two labels:  the thing and its opposite.  That part of the universe that belongs within the new label, and that part which does not belong.

Further, people silently think (without choosing to do so - it's automatic) that everything covered by the new label is the same in some important way, and everything outside the new label is the same.  Without active opposition, the world becomes very monochromatic (look it up - that's your new word for the day).

These labels are often compared to theories in science, but in fact they differ significantly from them.  Both might be described as a model of reality, useful only to the extent that they reproduce what we can observe.  And so we understand that the world isn't actually divided up into everything that is Existentialism and everything else that is not, yet it is occasionally useful to model the world in that way.  But a scientific theory is much, much more than a model, a black box the interior of which is irrelevant as long as it produces useful results.  No, a theory in its inner workings must closely resemble reality as much as possible, and not just simulate observable phenomena.  Only then can a theory also make accurate predictions of as-yet unknown, unanticipated phenomena.

Another challenge posed by these labels is that new, original ideas are easy to dismiss by lumping them into an old label.  "Oh, that's just old-fashioned Modernism."  (Wait . . . what?)  It's the fastest way to end a conversation while maintaining an illusion of triumph.

Which leads me to wonder why people so often misuse impressive-sounding labels.  Do people throw them around in order to have that feeling of exclusivity or supremacy?  Are they so completely unaware that the real effect is to cover themselves in snootiness?

Until recently, that is precisely why I had very little use for the oft-misused and inherrently imprecise terms of Modernism and Postmodernism.  By implication, there is a third, "none of the above," or Premodernism for short.  (Does this cover all the possibilities, I wonder?)

Then, the day before New Years' Eve I had a long, relaxed chat with a Philosopher and father of two, who in a previous lifetime was a Geophysicist, a Corporate Consultant, and Environmental Activist. He knew how to use these particular labels in a more productive way: as shorthand for discussing without judgement various styles of thinking that roughly correspond to the Graves' Values Levels which were developed as a part of what became known as Spiral Dynamics© in the 1970's.  They also correspond inexactly to Robert Bly's seven layers of the male personality.

Essentially, individuals and groups utilize systems of values or styles of thinking which can be identified and predicted.  There exists the possibility of movement or progress from one style to another.  This leads to the erroneous assumption that such progression is a goal to be achieved, with under-achievers to be pitied and sometimes harangued.  My friend by contrast used these concept labels without judgement or condescension.

One of the many things I learned was that someone who skips over or does not completely integrate the useful foundations of one level can appear to be operating on a higher level while actually being quite dysfunctional.  He or she will have some significant blind spots or character flaws.  A Modernist, for example, might identify himself as an Athiest or a Skeptic (though there's nothing inherently wrong with that - an untestable belief chosen individually).  Modernists also reject much of what might be called Premodern thinking: superstition, unquestioned obedience to authority (basically anyone in a uniform or sufficiently impressive hat), conformity, tribalism (including racism and tribal morality - right and wrong are defined as relative to what's right for the Tribe), and ostracization of anyone who seems different.  A Modernist for example will usually not belong to a church or identify with a particular religion.

But in rejecting Premodernism, some important parts of an individual's operating system are often written over.  Children awakening into Modernism at increasingly early ages might for example fail to develop a system of personal ethics because they were not first exposed to any form of group ethics.  My friend expressed what to me was quite a novel but obvious idea that Premodern (or if you prefer Level Four or Blue Level) organizations like churches and schools have the responsibility to nurture people within the values systems in which they currently operate, while keeping a door open for individuals who are adequately prepared to move through it.  In other words, they might also allow for the possibility of transcendence.

A striking example was shared in which a postmodernist teacher, a self-described Enlightened being, came to Australia to speak to an interested audience.  Towards the end, a participant asked the question, "Does having children assist or retard a person's progress toward enlightenment?"  The answer was, "Enlightenment is impossible if you have children.  They only get in the way of your growth."

This was glaring evidence of a gaping hole in this supposedly enlightened, Level 7 individual.  The archtypical Premodern experience of raising children, of procreating, is actually one of the most powerful catalysts for personal growth and transcendence on many different levels - as an individual, in one's capacity for love, sacrifice, compassion, leadership, - in the ability to act decisively, and in one's ability to experience and rise above pain, loss, empathy, anxiety, need and attachment - as well as growth in the more indefinable spiritual or existential capacities.  Raising children is not the Premodernist error or fools' roadblock that our "enlightened" teacher took it for, but rather an opportunity that comes along for a few lucky individuals to experience unheard-of new plateaus in this lifetime.

Later there were rumors that this same teacher had been taking undue advantage of his female acolytes, further indication that he had unwisely skipped a few important steps in his personal development.  Enlightenment isn't a destination, it's a journey.  If you think you're there and you stop moving, you aren't there.

That brings to mind one last problem with the over-reliance of labels.  Did anyone realize they were Premodernist until someone invented the word Modernist?  If someone is aware of the label Postmodern, doesn't that make him automatically something beyond Postmodern for which a label has not yet been produced?  Having a label to hang onto might actually trick us into thinking that we are something which we are not, or that we know more than we really do.

We might be compared to a Blind Labelmaker who busily affixes stickers to boxes at random in an unlit warehouse.  If we quickly slap a new -ism onto every idea and individual without actually examining the contents, of what value then are the labels?


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