I posted a link over the weekend to my friend Jeff's essay "The Bipolar in Society." I didn't want to say a lot about it initially, because I didn't want people to do one thing that he warns against in the essay, which is to assume that you understand something because of a taxonomy. We all employ our own in one form or another and it's very easy to become enamored with your own worldview. I didn't want anyone who came to the essay to have any preconceived notions about it, especially mine.
Jeff makes the point in a section I find particularly striking:
I am not in revolt against the Constitution and political system of the United States. I believe they are about the best we can hope for at the present historical juncture.
I am in revolt against the tyranny of knowledge, which had its beginnings in the 17th century Enlightenment and continues today, getting stronger all the time.
Story: A friend of mine told me about a man who lived in rural, northern Mississippi, a place not yet thoroughly colonized by the said tyranny. He got a little wild one day—got in his car, put a jug of white lightning between his legs, and rode around town sipping from the jug and shooting his pistol off into the air out of his car window. The sheriff pulled him over and put him in jail until he dried out and calmed down. That was the end of it.
I asked my friend why the man wasn’t brought up on charges. “Oh, it’s rural Mississippi,” he responded. “The sheriff just figured Sam got a little wild one afternoon. That’s all there was to it.”
Here in Minnesota, where I live, Sam would have been brought up on weapons and drinking and driving charges. He would have been processed through the legal system. He would have been evaluated like a specimen by psychiatrists to determine whether or not he was “suffering” from a mental illness. If they so wanted, these psychiatrists could have sent him to the mental ward of a hospital or, worse, a mental hospital itself. They would have claimed to act out of compassion, out of a desire to help this man.
Analysis: The pre-Enlightenment view of humanity that still holds sway in rural, northern Mississippi conceives that people, all people, sometimes get possessed by wildness. This possession is temporary. All we need to do if someone gets out of control is bring in the authorities and wait until some degree of normalcy is restored. Nothing else is needed. No more knowledge than that is necessary.
The post-Enlightenment view of humanity holds that we can be categorized into the well-adjusted and the maladjusted, the sick and the well, the criminal and the noncriminal, the homosexual and the heterosexual, and so on.
Emphasis in original. I think this is spot-on. One of the things that always struck me during my undergraduate years is how easy and alluring it was to see the world through a particular prism. The college that Jeff and I both attended was, in the mid-80s, generally still a place where one could choose your own worldview and you had feminists and Freudians and even a few Straussians here and there. The trick in describing things is that I end up using the same sort of taxonomy that Jeff is warning about in his essay.
Jeff uses a key word in his essay -- humility. The relevant passage:
No human being is a specimen. Every person I have met is a glorious mystery, a complexity, a fluidity, a richness, consisting of levels and spirals and possibilities and a future that can bring anything. No human being is a label, and a mere label is not worthy of study.
I am a revolutionary against the tyranny of knowledge, the belief that we can label, study, and know something as fluid and wonderful as an individual human being. We must limit “knowledge.”
We must learn humility. I believe the pre-Enlightenment view of humanity represented by rural Mississippi in this story is more compassionate than that of Minnesota.
I give thanks for humility.
I do, too, although humility seems to be in short supply these days. There's a lot more at the link. A whole lot more.
Cross-posted and comments welcome at Mr. Dilettante's Neighborhood.