Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for April 5th, 2009

I’m a student at Claremont Graduate University, and in a course I’m taking this term there was a lecture and discussion on a social reformer and activist named John Commons, who did some really great things in America.  While reading some of the blog posts, I became interested in some tension that developed when it was discovered that some of John Commons’ writings and beliefs later had an influence on inspiring the eugenics movement.  The eugenics movement was a patently racist movement that believed in the possibility of improving humanity by keeping people with undesirable qualities from reproducing and encouraging reproduction among people with desirable qualities.  In this way, the evolution of humanity could be guided and self-directed.

 

What I find most interesting is not, to be totally honest, John Commons. I’m not even really all that shocked that he held racist ideas.  Many learned people did then, and many learned people today hold views that are patently racist while at the same time holding ideas that are significantly progressive toward social justice.  What interests me most is how people (readers) like us take and assimilate, through texts and images, ideas of a person to construct an image of that person and his ideas in our imaginations.  I’m guessing that we struggle through a common process when we hear of John Commons being related to the eugenics movement and believing “white races” are better suited to democracy than “tropical races.”  I, for one, immediately feel that there are two images of John Commons that somehow cannot both be true, and I notice that I have a feeling that the respect that I felt for him before I knew of his racism ought to be diminished and replaced with only criticism for his folly of racist ideology. 

 

This is the process that goes on inside my own head, but I’m pretty sure that it happens with most of us, with a lot of things, all the time, every day, in big and small ways.  I’m particularly interested in the pull that happens inside us toward division into a simple bifurcation—to fully lean to one side or the other—admiration or scorn, good or bad, truth or lies, tolerance or racism.  Since with Commons, all the information we have is from traditional texts—books, papers, etc. (and I suppose from oral texts or lectures about those traditional texts), we must undertake a complex negotiation of these texts we read with the text that has been constructed in our heads—our idea of John Commons and what his ideas mean.

 

In my own personal life, I’ve had many people who I have known as very good people, but at some point I discover that they have done something very evil—I’ve had a friend who committed murder and one who committed child molestation.  Both of those acts were horrific, but as my understanding of them was processed throughout their trials and sentencing, my conception of them did indeed change, but it did not affect everything I knew of them.  My friend who committed murder, for example (I’ll call her Becca), many times showed kindness to people and once brought me a plate of brownies just because I had never had that kind and she wanted to do something kind for me.  I had to reconcile in my head that this kind of decent act (decent in the strictest sense) could somehow co-exist in her in some way with motivations that would lead Becca to commit murder. 

 

I’m still learning this lesson and, no doubt, will be learning it deeper and deeper for the rest of my life, and I find them helpful as I wrestle with a challenge that is far less personal and emotional: trying to reconcile two different texts (John Commons A and John Commons B) into a third hybrid: John Commons C.  How does this happen? 

 

Here are two possible models: 

1) we take the old and new conceptions, which are very different from each other, and put them together, and one colors the other through completely, causing us to lose our trust in Commons’ progressive actions and view him as a fraud of social activism or at least as an ethically stunted person whose judgment cannot be trusted at all.  This is just like mixing food coloring and water: the water changes all through and one cannot then ever really “uncolor” the water. 

2) we take these two conceptions and simply let them both sit and occupy the same space—that is, the same label of John Commons in our head, and admit to the possibility that there may be contradictions—that there may be logical or ethical tensions in the different ideas, but we allow them to mix nonetheless.  This is much more like mixing two colors of pebbles into a big jar.  They are not the same, but nonetheless there they sit in the jar, and we must be willing to allow that there are two different colors in the jar at the same time, even if it offends our sense of aesthetics.  Knowing that there are these two disparate and quite contrary texts at work in my own conception of Commons is a burr in my mind; it would be much easier to understand him and compartmentalize him if I could simply say he was this or that all the way through—but it is not quite that easy.  People usually do not make it so.  But when I’m tired and want everything to be right with the world, and just want to have a hero to admire, I sure wish it were easier!

 

The whole thing pivots around being willing to allow unresolved tension to exist in the spaces in our minds—tension between one idea of someone and another.  We always have tension in our conceptions of people, and usually we simply resolve this tension by forming a new conception by somehow negotiating the two conflicting ideas in our head.  They struggle and bits of each are cut away, and bits of each are left standing.  As a result, some new conception emerges that is different. We do this all the time with all kinds of things, big as well as small, profound and superficial.  We may not know how to resolve the tensions we find, and it can be the hardest thing in the world to choose to not undergo the process of resolving those tensions, because sometimes there is no way for us to accurately resolve them.  We must sometimes choose to see both conflicting things and simply let them be—to trust that the process of resolving a good act with a murder may be beyond our capacity.  Most importantly, we are told by the Savior, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.”  I think he was talking about this exact thing.

Read Full Post »