‘every thing that lives is holy’: Blake’s radical relativism

Perhaps each species has a different “umwelt,” a unique enveloping environment that is experienced and influenced by the organism’s sensory organs and nervous system. In that case, reality is not one connected thing, but rather everything that you can I could possibly experience and describe, plus the many other universes that are “enacted” (Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991) by other species–those known and unknown to us, existent and yet to be.

Reflecting on such radical unknowability may have spiritual implications, which have been explored in different ways by Dogen (1200-1253 CE), Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others. (See “thinking both sides of the limits of human cognition.”)

William Blake presents a relevant discussion in his Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793). Oothoon–a female figure, described as “the soft soul of America”–invokes the radical diversity of animal experiences, “as different as their forms and as their joys.” She implies that the consciousness of the chicken, pigeon and bee are fundamentally different. She uses such examples to pose a question about our own consciousness:

Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave, and why her spires 
Love to curl round the bones of death; and ask the rav’nous snake 
Where she gets poison; and the wing’d eagle why he loves the sun 
And then tell me the thoughts of man, that have been hid of old.

Blake, Selected Poems, Penguin Classics (p. 63). 

I am not sure whether she is inviting us to imagine the experience of eagles and worms, or whether she assumes this would be impossible. Later, she exclaims, “How can one joy absorb another? are not different joys / Holy, eternal, infinite! and each joy is a Love” (p. 65).

This is a plea for appreciating fundamental diversity. She uses it to ask the person she loves, Theotormon, to accept her for who she is.

Blake had been exploring arguments for empathy. In his poem The French Revolution (1791), the pro-republican Duke of Orleans says to his reactionary peers:

But go, merciless man! enter into the infinite labyrinth of another's brain 
Ere thou measure the circle that he shall run. Go, thou cold recluse, into the fires
Of another's high flaming rich bosom, and return unconsum'd, and write laws.
If thou canst not do this, doubt thy theories, learn to consider all men as thy equals,
Thy brethren, and not as thy foot or thy hand, unless thou first fearest to hurt them.

Blake may not endorse Orleans’ belief that one can actually enter others’ brains. I am not sure whether he thinks such radical empathy is virtuous or impossible. Either premise could be the basis for appreciating everyone’s uniqueness.

Bromion is a (very bad) male character in the Daughters of Albion. He replies to Oothoon by acknowledging that there are many

... trees[,] beasts and birds unknown: 
Unknown, not unpercievd, spread in the infinite microscope, 
In places yet unvisited by the voyager and in worlds 
Over another kind of seas, and in atmospheres unknown (p. 64). 

Bromion then poses a series of questions about whether there are different wars, sorrows, and joys for these creatures. I think his answer is No:

And is there not one law for both the lion and the ox? 
And is there not eternal fire, and eternal chains? 
To bind the phantoms of existence from eternal life? (p. 65)

Here Bromion explicitly contradicts an aphorism from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” (1790)– “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression” (p. 58)–which makes me suspect that Blake is against Bromion’s view.

The third speaker in The Daughters of Albion is Theotormon. He asks Oothoon to share what she knows of the world, “so that [he] might traverse times & spaces far remote.” But he is not sure what this will do for him:

Where goest thou O thought! to what remote land is thy flight? 
If thou returnest to the present moment of affliction 
Wilt thou bring comforts on thy wings, and dews and honey and balm; 
Or poison From the desart wilds, from the eyes of the envier?’ (p. 64). 

Theotormon is worried that empathy might cause envy or other harms. But Oothoon is sure that any experience of a consciousness other than one’s own is beneficial. She concludes the poem: “Arise and drink your bliss, for every thing that lives is holy!’ (p. 68). Theotormon sits silently while the other daughters of Albion “echo back her sighs.”

See also: civility, humility, tolerance, empathy, or what?; compassion, not sympathy; Gillray and Blake; and “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”

Activism and Objectivity in Political Research

I agree with the main argument of Michael L. Frazer’s “Activism and Objectivity in Political Research (Perspectives on Politics 2023, 21(4), 2023, pp. 1258-1269). Objectivity is usually a red herring. What we need is “active engagement with inconvenient evidence.” Frazer uses the word “evidence” to encompass both empirical data and conceptual or normative arguments. Evidence is inconvenient if it complicates or challenges our prior beliefs.

As Frazer argues, engagement with inconvenient evidence strengthens both research and activism. Therefore, the valuable question is not whether activist academics should or can be objective, but how any kind of thinker should engage with inconvenient evidence.

People who are both scholars and committed activists have the advantage that they know what they stand for, which can help them recognize which evidence they should wrestle with because it’s inconvenient. However, their engaged stance may make them resistant to such evidence. In contrast, a highly detached scholar may be less aware of implicit assumptions that need to be challenged, yet more comfortable exploring diverse views. I happen to value both kinds of colleagues.

I would add that scholars can be activists in many different ways. For example, I have served on about 30 non-academic boards or committees that make collective decisions. Sometimes in these deliberations, I present inconvenient evidence. This can be my particular contribution as an academic–someone who has the time and scope to explore a range of ideas. On the other hand, sometimes I hold back because I am sensitive to group dynamics and I believe that the organization has value even if I can’t completely endorse its current theory-of-change. Besides, tact is a virtue.

Sometimes I refrain from publicly expressing views that would challenge the public stance of a group to which I belong. On the other hand, involvement with a group may make me aware of current assumptions that I then want to study critically. In such cases, being an activist scholar actually promotes my engagement with inconvenient evidence. But I may choose the slower and quieter medium of academic scholarship or a seminar room to explore complications, so that I don’t disrupt the immediate needs of a group. Exiting and publicly disagreeing always remain options.

Belonging to groups involves literal accountability. I could be removed from a committee. A fiduciary board assesses staff and makes decisions about personnel and budget. Speech in this context has tangible implications and raises many ethical considerations.

The situation is very different if one’s activism consists mainly of addressing public audiences as an individual writer or speaker. Forcefully saying simple things may attract the most attention, but fame is a lure and temptation. I often wish that public intellectuals would be more humble and less certain.

We may also be hired to play a role within an organization, whether that is an academic entity like a university or a nonprofit or government agency. Then we are responsible for the effects of our public speech on our colleagues and students or clients. The organization may need to engage with inconvenient evidence, but introducing difficult ideas may not be timely or appropriate for a given employee. For instance, when you have positional authority over someone else, it can be wise to hold back one’s skeptical thoughts.

I would start with a view much like Frazer’s–and I appreciate his literature review–but I would then explore what “engagement with inconvenient evidence” means for people who play various roles in various social contexts. Often the genuine virtue of intellectual humility is in tension with other valid needs, and the question is how to negotiate those tradeoffs. To make matters even more complicated, many of us play multiple roles, and we fall on continua rather than within discrete categories. For instance, one may be more or less open to inconvenient evidence of various types while spending various amounts of one’s time and energy performing various functions in settings as diverse as a department meeting, a lecture room, a team writing a grant proposal, a community meeting, a political campaign, and a protest action. Both the ethical and epistemic issues are quite diverse and hard.

See also: making our models explicit; analytical moral philosophy as a way of life; du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; Civically Engaged Research in Political Science; Henry Milner, Participant/Observer: An Unconventional Life in Politics and Academia

nonviolence in a time of political unrest

The next few years will indicate whether American history has entered a phase of political unrest or instability. This development is not inevitable–and it’s certainly not desirable–but now is the time to plan, educate, organize, and train for it.

To be sure, there has always been political violence in the USA, often focused on the most vulnerable Americans. However, a substantial increase in the scale and scope of political violence would challenge our already fragile constitutional order and pose dangers for the rest of the world. We will know that we are in that situation if the daily news often includes reports of violent clashes, dubious arrests and prosecutions, threats, firings or resignations connected to politics, and occasional assassinations and politically-motivated mass murders.

I believe we need broad-based nonviolent social movements to get us through any unrest and ideally to bring us to a better place. Such movements will generate protest actions, some of which will involve reported violence–if only as a result of hostile responses by other groups or police. Thus we should be striving for a high ratio of nonviolence to violence.

Just in the last few days, I have heard confident statements that nonviolence doesn’t work and that violence is always necessary for achieving rights. This is false. Nonviolent struggles have a much better record of success. In any case, Americans must understand nonviolent strategies, so that they at least have this option.

On Dec. 1, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the Poor People’s Campaign, which he was organizing at the time, “is a search for an alternative to riots. This is kind of a last, desperate demand for the nation to respond to nonviolence.” Here he used the prospect of social unrest to demand change. But he did not believe that violent strategies would actually benefit Black people or poor people. He saw violence as lose/lose. Although he warned privileged people that they would pay a price if violence prevailed, he never advocated it, partly because he thought it would harm disadvantaged people as much or more than anyone else.

In his final book, King expressed strong doubts that violence could generate “any concrete improvement” and defended nonviolence “as the most potent weapon.” This book was Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Since the 1950s, “chaos” had been King’s word for the fruits of violence. For instance, in a lecture at Brandeis, he had forecast “an endless rain of meaningless chaos” unless nonviolence prevailed. Those words sound prophetic today.

Most of the political violence in the USA is coming from the hard right. According to Rachel Kleinfeld, the Global Terrorism Database identified more than 50 violent attacks by the extreme right in the USA in 2019, versus about 5 attacks from the extreme left. However, that disparity is a recent phenomenon, not a long-term one, and there is much potential for violence on all sides (including the middle). Kleinfeld’s fig. 2 (below) shows that Republicans are somewhat more favorable to political violence than Democrats are. But support has risen rapidly on both sides–albeit from very low baseline–and the partisan gap is small. This graph makes me worry that almost any group can rapidly shift to supporting violence.

As we navigate the next several years, it will be helpful to track the level and extent of unrest so that we can tell what we are dealing with. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) is helpful for this purpose. Its raw data include brief and–to my eye–balanced summaries of each event that they track. Here is my summary of all US events from their global database*:

US data from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED)

ACLED includes nonviolent protests. Although we should monitor them, I generally assume that they are good rather than dangerous. I would be happy to see the “grand total” in the table above rise, as long as peaceful protests represent a larger share. (Note that the rate of nonviolent protest has halved since 2020.)

Perceptions are important. In What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life, I discuss Black Lives Matter (BLM) as a major nonviolent social movement, citing evidence from Erica Chenoweth and others that violence was extraordinarily rare in BLM events and was prevented by careful planning and training. Indeed, BLM was less violent than the classical Civil Rights Movement had been. However, BLM has been widely reported as violent. Even some supporters perceive it as violent and justify it as such. This impression then contributes to a general sense that our times are violent, which may motivate tit-for-tat responses.

Nonviolence needs forthright and even passionate advocacy, as well as much painstaking training and organizing work.

Nonviolence relates to and complements other necessary strategies, such as civic education, dialogue and deliberation, political reform, defense of civil rights, voter registration, and the efforts to enhance “social cohesion” that Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) has mapped (see below). However, nonviolence is a category of its own that needs special attention today.

Photo: “Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge” by Jonathan Bachman, showing Ieshia Evans. See also: the case for (and against) nonviolence; Rev. James Lawson, Jr on Revolutionary Nonviolence; preparing for a possible Trump victory; introduction to Gandhi

*The suicide bombing noted here took place in Nashville on December 25, 2020, when “a man detonated a bomb inside a recreational vehicle,” injuring 31. The grenade attack occurred in Pittsburgh on Jan. 3, 2021, with unknown perpetrators and motives and no injuries. Most of the incidents categorized as “sexual violence” are rapes of prisoners by corrections or police officers, which are understandably treated as political acts, although the motives may vary.

social education as learning to improve models

Some theses for consideration:

  1. Everyone who acts to change society has a mental model that represents portions of the social world.
  2. It is better for our models to be explicit in our own minds, so that we can be clear about what we are assuming and open to changing our assumptions.
  3. Our models must be sufficiently complex. (For instance, if you think that the Israel-Palestine conflict has just two parties, that is unacceptably simple.) But a model cannot be as complex as reality. Modeling is a matter of judicious simplification.
  4. Our models may include causal elements: e.g., “This phenomenon affects that one.” But they also inevitably reflects values. It is better for the value components to be explicit. They may take the form of ideals, goals, specific injustices, and other objects. Or they may be normative connections among objects, such as: “This situation merits that response.”
  5. A model may be an application of a more general framework to specific circumstances. In that case, we are obliged to have a good framework and to apply it correctly.
  6. We must check our models against events, observations, and other kinds of information from the world.
  7. We must compare our model to other models (and our framework to other frameworks) and constantly reconsider whether the alternatives offer insights. The assessment of social models is comparative: it’s a question of choosing the best model for the situation, given the alternatives. If we don’t seriously consider other models, we are not thinking hard about our own.

I think that educating for responsible civic participation is substantially about developing the skill of forming and improving social models. I am very skeptical of curricula–at any level–that offer students one model. That is not even a satisfactory way of understanding the model that is presented, because full understanding requires comparison. And it discourages the essential civic skill of critically assessing one’s model.

See also: making our models explicit; decoding institutions; a template for analyzing an institution

recent changes in tolerance for controversial speakers

In July 2020, I wrote a post showing that the proportions of Americans who thought that several types of controversial speakers should be allowed to talk in their own communities generally increased between the 1970s and 2010s. The categories of speakers mentioned in the General Social Survey have been gay people, opponents of “churches and religion,”* communists, advocates of military dictatorship, racists, and Muslim clergy “preaching hatred of the United States.”

I have now looked at the GSS data from 2021 and 2022. Here are the updated trends:

I still perceive a general upward trend from the 1970s until 2018. The exception is that tolerance for racist speakers did not rise--nor did it fall--during that period. Since 2020, levels of tolerance for both racist and militarist speakers have declined very noticeably.

Interpreting such attitudes is complicated because a person can express tolerance for a given kind of speech for at least two reasons. One might be a civil libertarian, believing that bad speech should be allowed and countered with more speech. Or one might not see the speech in question as bad in the first place. The graph shows that tolerance for racist speech did not rise while other forms of tolerance increased. I am pretty confident that the population was generally turning more civil libertarian, yet also more opposed to racism, partly because Americans were becoming more demographically diverse.

The recent dropoff in tolerance for racist speakers is driven entirely by people who place themselves on the left side of a liberal-to-conservative spectrum. I presume it is a result of the antiracist movements of recent years.

The modest decline in tolerance for anti-religious speakers seems to be driven by a five-point drop on the political right.

The decline in tolerance for proponents of military dictatorship has been similar on the left and right. I presume this is a critical response to Jan. 6, and I'm glad it has been bipartisan.

For what it's worth, I am consistently opposed to governmental censorship of political speech. I think that some other organizations may choose which speech to favor or exclude, but they should generally be reluctant to use bans or retroactive penalties for speech. I don't think it's obvious whether racists or proponents of dictatorship should be "allowed" in one's community. The First Amendment prevents legal sanctions to their speech. But if the question is whether they should be given prominent invitations to speak, then I am skeptical.

*For no good reason, I omitted attitudes toward anti-religious speakers in my 2020 post. See also: there has been no decrease in toleration of differences; a civic approach to free speech; what sustains free speech?