Week Two of LEACOCK 150~100~75! Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019.
I left off last week casting hesitant doubt on the words Equality and Fairness in our conversations about Social Justice and, even more hesitantly, on Perfection, Principle, and even Truth, in our wider political conversations. We have heard a lot recently about Principle and Truth in the brouhaha about SNC-Lavalin. Jody Wilson-Raybould’s reference to “her truth” at least left the door open to the idea of a place for other people’s truths. The brayings of the political opposition and some journalists for “the truth” do not. When I hear the word “principle” in democratic political conversations I always remember Lord Peter Wimsey’s dictum in Dorothy L Sayers’s Gaudy Night that “the first thing a principle does, if it really is a principle, is to kill someone.” Or at least do a lot of damage. For “perfection” I remember W.H. Auden’s
“In our bath, or the subway, or in the middle of the night,
We know very well we are not unlucky but evil,
That the dream of a Perfect State or No State at all,
To which we fly for refuge, is a part of our punishment.”
For my rhetorical purpose, which is not Auden’s, and for any practical discussion of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, I would rephrase the second line more awkwardly. We are not, in this context, unlucky, but lazy, narrowly preoccupied, and open to manipulation by half-truthers. The third and fourth lines I would let stand.
For my purposes I am going to re-word Charles Simeon’s seminal dictum about the truth, and I am going to keep repeating it, because it has become, and maybe always was, one of the easiest verities to forget:
THE ‘S0LUTION’ IS NOT AT ONE OR ANOTHER POLE OF AN UNSOLVED RIDDLE, NOR HALF-WAY BETWEEN THEM, BUT AT BOTH POLES.
For clarity this statement assumes only two poles. Of course there could be multiple poles. If you are conversant with n-dimensional geometry, which most of us are not, you will be able to visualize the more complex possibility. I use ‘poles’ rather than ‘extremes’ because I am not sure they are extremes in many if not most cases. They are often simply different ways of looking at the same situation. Calling them ‘extremes’ simply intensifies a conversation that badly needs to be moderated.
I also want to drag into the conversation George Orwell’s concept of “doublethink”. I have written about this elsewhere, as follows:
“Doublethink,” said he in 1984, “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” He presents it as an intellectual prop to tyranny. I believe that in a great many circumstances it thinks the truth, that to think double enables creative engagement in the necessary deliberations and conversations of our time. We are a two-handed species. On the one hand and on the other hand are built right into our bones.
I could cite dozens if not hundreds of examples; I will mention one, which is current: the law of assisted suicide. On the one hand, it is a terrible thing to aid in the extinction of a human life. I hold that truth to be self-evident. On the other hand, it is a terrible thing to let a person suffer extremely without hope of relief. I hold that truth to be self-evident. I hold these truths simultaneously and accept both of them. I am a double-thinker on this issue, as on many.
Of course my double-thoughts may be offensive to a person of single-minded beliefs. I recognize the offense, I regret it, but I don’t know what to do with it. I do know what to do about assisted suicide, what was in fact done with it, and wisely continues to be done: a long tortuous process of conversation and negotiation, leading to an experiment accepting something from both hands and feasible within our institutions. We are in the middle of that experiment now, and the conversation continues. In other words, we have met one aspect of the Unsolved Riddle of Extreme Human Suffering, we have worked on it with both hands, we have done our humane best to accommodate both hands, and we have recognized that further adjustment may lie ahead before we achieve Social Justice. We have somewhat mitigated contention on this matter, at least for the time being.
We have two examples in front of us right now, both stubbornly resisting that kind of conversation: the SNC-Lavalin affair, which I have discussed earlier in this blog, and ‘Brexit’, which as Olde Stephen observed on Monday of this week (see the Leacock Blog), is none of my business but fun to watch.
On SNC-Lavalin the words ‘principle’ and ‘truth’ play in and out of the conversation like flashes of lightning, and with about as much lasting illumination. ‘Perfection’ will so play, at least conceptually, when we come to consider whether the two roles of Justice Minister and Attorney General should be combined in the same person in the cabinet. We will find valid arguments on both sides, and the conversation will be long and tedious. Perhaps the bi-polar solution is to separate the two roles while keeping the Attorney General in the Cabinet. That way, legal decisions that have little political weight can be dealt with at the discretion of the office-holder, while those with substantial political weight (using ‘political’ in the governmental, non-pejorative sense), can be resolved through normal cabinet processes. .
I am reaching the end of my self-imposed tether for this or any posting. Next week I will start to probe the real substance of the matter for this blog in this year of Leacock Anniversaries: if conversation, negotiation, and double thinking are the ‘solutions’ to Unsolved Riddles in general, and the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice in particular, then what kind of institutions can we create to enable and encourage them, how do our present institutions stack up, and how can we educate ourselves appropriately? Education always preoccupied Stephen Leacock. Where does his tetrad of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour work itself in?
I also have a notion that theoretically, in all our parliamentary legislatures, our ‘government’ is not the top-party uni-polar institution that we think it is, but a bi-polar one intended to incorporate both ‘the government’ and ‘the opposition’. We know that excessive partisanship is dysfunctional for public well-being in a government. We tolerate some of it because we know we must. Perhaps it is equally so for a political opposition. Perhaps because we have been propagandized to believe that ‘government’ is about power, more than service, we are being fooled, or fooling ourselves.
Pluralism comes into this somewhere too. We mustn’t forget that.
Please keep in mind that we find ourselves always drawn to one book among Stephen Leacock’s fifty-three, that being Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, probably because we sense in some way that the people of Mariposa are just like us. Please note also that they were forever being fooled, or fooling themselves. Are they any less prone today? You can find out in the Mariposa blog (see right-hand panel for link), add your ideas to any of the three Leacock Anniversaries blogs, or even to the eventual All-Weather Sketches of a Middling City.
Enough for this week.