Monday, October 16, 2006

Among School Children

The problem for Salman Rushdie, which is actually not tolerance of ideas or people, but this: Do ideas make people; or do people make ideas?

It's a problem of Western civilization, going back as far as Plato. Aristotle wrote the first book of ethics, but his ethics were not the ethics of Socrates. Socrates was convinced (per Plato, anyway) that ideas made people; that our existence was meant to conform us to proper ideas, and then we would be shaped by them and so escape earthly existence and exist solely in the province of the Good.

Aristotle saw people as the makers of ideas, and so discerned which ones seem to work best in a given society, and advocated those as the ones to pursue in pursuit of happiness. Aristotle's ethic applied to his Athens, and he certainly didn't have the modern anthropologist's point of view toward non-Western cultures (anthropology being a very Western science), but his system is behind the kind of deference to those cultures that Rushdie decries. For Rushdie, ideas are universal and must be respected no matter who holds them, or rather, fails to hold them.

But aye, there's the rub. The ideas he holds sacred, are all Western ideas. Why are they universal? Because we say so?

This is a separate matter from the issue of, say, gays in church in the Anglican Communion. In that issue ideas are clearly subordinate to individuals. Ideas are paraded as universal, but only certain ideas are upheld; others are fiercely denigrated. Ideas there simply exist as conduits to power. Witness, for example, the recent exclusion of the Revised Common Lectionary by Bishop Peter Beckwith, Diocese of Springfield. Somehow the bishop connects that to the offense (an undefined one) of Presiding Bishop Elect Schorti (she who cannot be named, according to their resolution; the ultimate disavowal of individual worth). Ideas, for Bishop Beckwith, have simply become tools for assault. Rushdie, who has been on the receiving end of this kind of thing, wants to find a middle path, where ideas don't exist in a zero-sum game frame, but where all ideas are equally respected simply because they are ideas. So tolerance for gays and intolerance for gays are both equally tolerated in an ideal Rushdie world, simply because they are ideas. And that takes us back to the problem: how do you know the idea, separate from the individual? Or, if you prefer, seperate from the community, the culture which espouses it? Do ideas really have a separate reality, a metaphysical one apart from human minds or brains, apart from human existence? Can we truly say no one should take an idea personally, because the idea is the universal Ideal? Is anyone buying this?

No one except perhaps Hegel and a few lingering die-hard Idealists think of ideas as a realm separate from human existence and only, from time to time, impinging upon it. Even the God of the Hebrews and of Jesus is actively involved in history. Indeed, it is a one of the scandals to the Greek mind of perfection that the God of the Abraham could be perfect, and yet be so intimately involved in human history; could be eternal, and yet so caught up in temporal matters. But that seeming contradiction is the expression of human existence at its core: the irreconcilable conflict between the individual who is mortal, and the community which is eternal (well, from the individual's point of view); between the reality of existence and what justice tells us it should be; between the present, and the hoped-for future. These things are so intimate as to be who we are, as to be our identity. To ask us to separate ourselves from them is to ask us to deny their importance, their essential value: not the value of the ideas themselves, but their value to us. It is the latter that makes ideas essential; not the ideas-in-themselves.

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