Brave companion of the road

28 05 2011

Is it better to be consistent than inconsistent? What about contradiction and hypocrisy: what is the merit or demerit of such concepts?

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been carrying on a long conversation with himself and the rest of us regarding the interpretation and understanding of the American Civil War; to that end, he tries to leave judgment behind and move into the experience—as much as is possible—of those living at the time. He reads historical accounts and letters and novels and requests that we “Talk to me like I’m stupid” regarding weaponry, battle tactics, wardrobe, John Locke, and hermeneutics.

He wants to understand.

I follow his wonderings in part because he often writes beautifully about these topics, in part because I learn something the Civil War, and in part because his attempt to shed enough of himself to enter into the mind of, say, a Confederate soldier, seems simultaneously brave, foolish, and in vain.

Brave: You do have to shed your armor, your clothes, sometimes even your skin to make yourself open to another.

Foolish: You have to shed your armor, your clothes, and sometimes even your skin to make yourself open to another.

In vain: As long as you can choose to come and go into another’s experience, you reinforce the separation between yourself and the other.

I am ambivalent about the limits and risks and possibilities and purposes of understanding, an ambivalence which tips sometimes more toward openness, sometimes more toward skepticism, but I am fascinated by the quest.This is not just philosophy; this is art.

And that’s where I return to the questions regarding consistency and contradiction. In  a recent post of George Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All!, TNC noted that he appreciated not only Fitzhugh’s straightforward defense of slavery, but his willingness to extend it as far as it could logically take him—in Fitzhugh’s case, into the enslavement of the majority of humankind:

There’s something attractive about his willingness to game out all of his maniacal theories. He has moral courage that his double-talking, bullshitting, slaveholding friends lack. It’s the opposite of that Jeffersonian view of slavery which cowers from the awful implications of one’s beliefs.

It’s Howell Cobb’s, “If slaves make soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong,” versus Jefferson Davis’s legalistic bullshit about black Confederates. There’s something about the sheer clarity of these guys, even though they speak evil, that’s a breath of fresh air. Half the problem is cutting through the deliberate lying about one’s own theories.

At which point I (metaphorically) raised my hand and said, Um, wait a minute: why is straight talk better, here? Is this really courageous as opposed to, say, crackers?  I drilled down further to argue that there is no necessary moral content either to consistency or to contradiction.

Consider, as well, “double-talking”, “bullshitting”, “deliberate lying”: these are all moral judgments on those who, unlike Fitzhugh, do not make their arguments one logical smooth piece, but who cramp and crinkle and perhaps tear at the fabric of their own arguments regarding the justness of slavery or the conditions of those enslaved.

These moral judgments, in other words, are, if not at root, then at least also, aesthetic judgments: better to make the argument straight than kinked, better to untie all knots and iron the whole cloth of the argument, better there be no seams.

But why is this so? Why let the aesthetic stand in for the moral? Can the aesthetic stand in for the moral? (This is a very old argument, by the way.)

No, no, I’m really not demanding a thesis from TNC; he’s doing quite enough already. But his musings in this particular piece have thrown into sharp relief how tenacious are our unexamined judgments, how much of one’s own world—one’s own ontology, as it were—one brings to that quest for understanding.

There’s no easy way out of this: judgments are our bearings, and to leave them behind in an attempt to make sense of another risks losing them altogether, to the point where we can’t make sense to ourselves.

I don’t know where I’m going with this; perhaps I’m losing my own bearings. But this whole understanding gig, tch, it’s a real kick in the head.

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