January 07, 2009

Searching for some kind of wholeness beyond the brokenness of the world and the radical diversity of competing identities

Adam Seligman offered a completely different strategy for moving forward. In his extensive work with vastly different communities, Seligman noted that they never look for commonalities between participants but instead focus on finding ways to live with one another despite their radical differences. The search for commonalities too often turns tragic because it assumes commonalities where none in fact exist. As Seligman said, “Assuming commonality usually means assuming that you are like me.” Difference, said Seligman, implies brokenness. The groups that we call fundamentalist are usually searching for some kind of wholeness beyond the brokenness of the world and thus the radical diversity of competing identities. Rather than discovering some common core on which to build relationships, Seligman suggested, we need instead the stoicism to live within a fractured and broken world.

Seligman suggested that one way to help move discussions between differing groups forward is to distinguish three levels of meaning. Following Charles Sanders Peirce and Roy Rappaport, Seligman described low-level meaning as meaning that is simply based on making distinctions. This kind of meaning allows us to make basic statements such as “the cat is on the mat,” statements about which most can generally agree. This low-level meaning corresponds to the domain of the economic in human affairs because economics is based upon making distinctions, the division of labor, and so forth. A good economic transaction creates difference in the mode of profit. This low-level meaning is also, like economics, the realm of inequality. Mid-level meaning is, by contrast, based upon analogy and metaphor. A mid-level meaning statement might be “my love is like a red, red rose.” It issues in the realm of values and so primarily connects us to the domain of the political. It is a realm of empathy and trust, a shared community of faith. Mid-level meaning engages us in the subjunctive, the power to imagine “what if?” Finally, high-level meaning is based upon the perception of unity, necessity, oneness and so forth. This is the domain of the sacred and it issues in the great creedal statements of the religions: “Hear, O Israel…”, for example, or “There is no God but God…” High-level meaning engages us in the re-aggregation of the world, the restoration of brokenness, the realm of religion and mysticism.

These diverse levels of meaning interact with one another but, Seligman maintained, they need their own autonomy. Problems result when one domain attempts to legislate for another, as for example when traditional societies attempted to use high-level meanings to re-organize the low-level realm (e.g. in Catholic casuistry or, more recently, Soviet era communism). At other times, mid-level political strategies might attempt to re-organize high-level meanings as for example, Seligman suggested, when people attempt to force democratic reforms (women reading the Torah, gay bishops, etc.) on to the structures of high-level meaning. These border-crossings provoke distress-the downward imposition of high-level meaning is one way to describe fundamentalism, while the upward imposition of mid-level meanings might be called revolutionary.

This schematic gives us a kind of map for producing livable arrangements. By respecting the meaning levels, Seligman suggested, the contentious parties are more likely to come to some measure of accord. In response to Seligman’s presentation, Landau pointed out that his experience was that debate and rational arguments tended to fail when engaged in the peacemaking process. This may be because debate fails to engage the question of metaphor, of the imagination, the mid-level that is the domain of the political. If we take Seligman’s schematic seriously, then political solutions to the problems of the mid-East do not require debate so much as they require re-imagination and the activation of empathy, trust, and the heart. Summary for the September 10-14, 2006 Symposium on Jewish Fundamentalism Hosted by Esalen’s Center for Theory and Research (CTR) 11:38 AM 12:15 PM

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