I showed this clip of Henry Thomas’s audition for E.T. to Susan yesterday. She says she hadn’t stopped thinking about it since, because it has raised important questions for her: Isn’t it strange and even disturbing that someone can have that much emotion about something that is purely imaginary? This raises further questions: How much of what we feel is directly caused by reality? How much comes from how we interpret reality? How much of it is a response to our own imaginations?
For Susan, this clip is a dramatic case study for exploring some basic questions important to both educators and religious people connected with cultivating ways of thinking, perceiving and acting in the world.
When she shared her reflections with me, my mind took it in a social-political direction: What does it mean to understand another person’s experiences? What elements in accounts of experiences can be reasonably debated? What norms ought to govern conversations about other people’s experiences and what they imply about truth and morality?
Some actual real-life examples:
- Someone has a religious experience and undergoes a conversion. They see, hear and feel things that they know are real which suggest new truths to them that they consider indubitable and universal. How ought they relate their new truths to someone like myself, who has not experienced what they have? How should I respond to their truth claims, and the assertion that the claims are relevant to and in fact binding to me?
- Someone is situated differently in society than I am, and has been from birth. They have been treated differently, learned (and absorbed) different beliefs about themselves, must behave differently to get along, and consequently have developed a very different worldview than mine — one that (according to this worldview) makes me unable to understand how they think and feel, implicates me as responsible for the state of society that has produced and continues to produce their situation. And further, the convergence of the essential unknowability of this alien worldview, my complicity in their suffering and my obligation to sacrifice to remedy this state of affairs produces a defensive reaction from people with my worldview. How should I address these claims? How do I respond to the claim that (according to this worldview) there is really only one acceptable response?
- After a lengthy, arduous and painful struggle with a set of questions, I have a philosophical epiphany and undergo a conversion experience. Only personal struggle with the line of thought I followed will induce the conversion, and until the conversion is undergone, the conversion is impossible to understand at all. I feel isolated in this new worldview (it is like spiritual solitary confinement), and desperately need others in my life to understand it, but to do so requires inordinate amounts of time, energy and suffering. In this situation, what is reasonable to ask from loved ones, especially when they are unable to understand my distress?
My friend who shared this video with me got barraged out of the blue with thoughts yesterday, as these questions coalesced in my head. We had debated the understandability of marginal perspectives, and the morality of listening versus arguing, and trusting versus challenging, and for me this video became a great reference point for the conversation. Here’s the spew, slightly cleaned up:
I can’t believe they were taking E.T. away from Henry Thomas!
Those emotions he was having were real.
And that means the thing he was having emotions about is also real, otherwise we are telling him that his emotions are not real and valid, right?
The only way I can know the truth about the reality he is having emotions about is to talk with him and let him explain it to me. Because i am not the one having those emotions, I have to listen to him about it and believe what he tells me. It is not my place to argue against experiences I don’t know.
That’s the logic of Progressivism.
There is a confusion between:
- the subjective experience (including the emotions),
- the interpretation that produces the subjective experience of the emotions, and
- the reality that is interpreted and becomes object of the subjective experience.
Progressivism blends these three things into a single unknowability that requires us to listen to the one and to believe what they tell us about a reality they are experiencing, about which they and have special and exclusive knowledge.
Not that there is not special and exclusive knowledge involved in the account. I cannot really know or dispute #1. There I must take someone’s word for it.
But I can, through active listening, come to understand #2. With effort and feedback, I can pick up their way of interpreting their experiences and apply it to make sense of phenomena (this is known as intellectual empathy), even if I cannot have exactly the same subjective experience they have. Further, I can compare this way of interpreting phenomena with alternative interpretations of the same phenomenon, and note the different implications and see where different emotions might occur. While interpretations are not really debatable, they are open to a gentle form of challenge that far too few people know about: dialogue. I call it gentle because it requires voluntary mutual effort to achieve. (There’s another grisly alternative to interpretive change, which I will only mention but not discuss. Brainwashing can replace one interpretation with another.)
And #3 is entirely public and open to dispute, apart from all emotions. Claims about reality are about things we have in common. The fact that they are perceived, interpreted, experienced and produce knowledge through subjective experience (#1) does not make the reality itself subjective. The reality remains transcendent and open to a plurality of interpretations and subjective responses. It is here where debate is appropriate.
Only if we take it for granted that feelings and objects of feelings are inseparable can we conclude with progressivists that it is impossible to understand the experiences of other people. Only the feelings they have about those experiences are unknowable in principle.
Many Progressivist who are parents harm their children irreparably though this same confusion. When their children throw tantrums, they fail to pick apart the validity of their emotions from their mode of interpretation and its fidelity to fact. Because the emotions must be honored, so does the childish worldview and the current understanding or misunderstanding of the state of affairs. This prevents children from growing up and learning to separate these three ontological layers, which is a condition of civilized adulthood. Or to put it in old-fashioned language, they spoil their children and make them into confused narcissistic permanent adolescents.