Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The near-enemy of compassion


Starts with a poem, here.

Continues here, here and here.

Lisa Ruddick makes some excellent points in her article, especially in the second half of it:

...People can often become ethically confused because of a particular problem inherent in human dealings, namely, that any virtue has a bad cousin, a failing that closely resembles the virtue and can be mistaken for it -- what in Tibetan Buddhism is called the near enemy. For example, the near enemy of equanimity is apathy; the near enemy of compassion is a patronizing pity; the near enemy of love is possessive attachment; and so on. For whatever reason, English professors of the last two decades, like the Continental theorists upon whom we draw, have picked up this knot in human affairs and unknowingly worked it in such a way as to create great confusion, a confusion that ends up undermining people's attachment to any domain of ethical being outside the profession itself.

For example, let us say that there is such a thing as decency, which is a virtue. In the interest of decency, a person could refrain from taking credit for someone else's ideas, or forgo the thrill of humiliating a colleague. A second meaning of the word "decency," though, is adherence to a set of communal norms that are really a screen for class bias or prejudice. Thus in the name of decency, people can be condemned for wishing to read books about sex, or parents can pressure their children into securing a "decent" income and achieving a "decent" middle-class lifestyle.

What current critical theory often does, though, is to collapse the difference, making the good thing look bad by calling it by the name of its near enemy -- saying that anyone who speaks up for decency is imposing an oppressive social norm. With numbing regularity, one finds articles that make cogent and indeed powerful claims about how bourgeois discourses, as they appear in one literary text or another, construct or engender in the reader a commitment to a repressive moralism, or to a particular kind of complacent, sentimental compassion. Yet these articles usually are silent on whether there is any kind of moral intuition or compassion that is not just an oppressive bourgeois illusion. Such articles effectively reduce all human goodness and tenderness to an artifact or a baneful self-indulgence, leaving the sense that the only exit from the deluded compassion of middle-class culture is in an identification with what is "vicious, scheming, proud, resourceful, vengeful," to quote from the most recent article I've read that meets this description.


At 12:22 AM EDT, Anonymous nwo said...

This is what I love about you Noga.


At 9:19 PM EDT, Anonymous Noga said...

NWO: What is the "this" that you love about me?

I had no idea you liked anything about me, so I'm curious.


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