Friday, August 18, 2006

Truly Understanding the Other

Roger Kimball has an essay in the latest issue of the New Criterion. Note this graph:
Mr. Walker's essay belongs to that large and growing genre of fiction, the political fairytale. The aim of such works is not to put its readers to sleep, but to soothe them into acquiescence. This it does in two ways. First, it tells people what they want to hear--the threat of radical Islam is overstated by irresponsible purveyors of hysteria. Second, it flatters their moral vanity: you, Dear Reader, are a good liberal and know that there is no political problem that cannot be solved by good will and a willingness to negotiate and see the other chap's point of view.

Trying to understand the "other" is always fraught with difficulty, since we only have "ourselves" with which to accomplish this task. Some degree of narcissism is invariably embedded into any attempt at understanding, but will it leave space for anything else?

Many of the anti-American, anti-West folks only provide a facade of understanding the "other". The end product of these "understandings" contains a tired refrain. At base, the "other" is actually noble and wondrous and a victim (and nothing else), while America and Western institutions and intellectual traditions and practices are polluted (and nothing else). The "crimes" of the west have no statute of limitations, and the sins of the elder accrue to the latter generations.

The "other" of today is to be understood using Western modes of thinking, but is not responsible in the Western sense of the word. The Westerner of yesterday is to be understood using today's modes of thought, isn't alive to be responsible, so the Westerner of today must be held responsible. In other words the "other" is primarily thought of as an adolescent using adolscent modes of thought.

Yes, the adolescent has something to say, but the punchline is usually "...and you're a hypocrite, so I should be able to do whatever I want". Being willing to see the other chap's point of view is a great tradition, but it is not the only tradition and is incomplete in trying to fully comprehend the "other". When a victim must always be viewed as nothing but "innocent", one actually demeans the "other". The "other" is deprived, in that way of thinking, of the dignity of choice and is prevented from being exposed to another Western tradition, letting the chips fall where they may.

"Why do they hate us?" is a question that undergoes a subtle transformation in the minds of many anti-American, anti-West folks. It becomes: well nobody could really hate me, because I'm wonderful, so they must really hate you (Bushmacchimphitler & Halliburton & anyone else I don't agree with and didn't vote for. Since anyone who disagrees with me must hate me, I am within my rights to hate them...and that means you). Since I hate you and the Islamists hate you, they must be onto something, so I'll give them some more time to calm down a bit, so they don't accidentally hurt me. Accidentally, because they aren't responsible for this, you know.


truepeers said...

Barry, here is case to test your hypothesis. I think you're right, they haven't a clue about the other because they have a rather limited grasp of our common humanity, of the fact that the history we make together is not a conspiracy...

terrye said...

It seems they are but empty slates for western man to write on. In and of themselves they have no substance. I wonder if the moral relativist as any idea how condescending that is.

Barry Dauphin said...

After reading over the story, I was struck with deja vu. Craig Murray=Joe Wilson. I wonder what his wife looks like and where she works.

Barry Dauphin said...

Apparently, according to Murray, on the off days when Bush and Blair are not being totally incompetent, they are able to maliciously, but elegantly put together a plot that fools everyone, even lefty critics like the Guardian. Only Craig knows the truth. Why? Because he reads the Sunday papers. He sees messages in the Sunday papers that say Bushitler, what a Beautiful Mind----cue Ron Howard.

Peter UK said...

A passage from the Ayatollah Khomeini, quoted in an 11th-grade Iranian schoolbook, is revealing. “I am decisively announcing to the whole world that if the world-devourers [i.e., the infidel powers] wish to stand against our religion, we will stand against their whole world and will not cease until the annihilation of all them. Either we all become free, or we will go to the greater freedom which is martyrdom. Either we shake one another’s hands in joy at the victory of Islam in the world, or all of us will turn to eternal life and martyrdom. In both cases, victory and success are ours.”
Bernard Lewis.

The trick is not to understand them but survive them.

terrye said...


Kind of reminds me of Kruschev pounding his shoe on that podium and screaming, We will bury you!

I think not.

Barry Dauphin said...

Granted, but I think to survive the enemy means to know the enemy, which is not to say hug the enemy.

Syl said...

Multiculturalism basically means you don't have to know or understand the Other. Simply accept their existence and thus their validity.

You can only know yourself.

Hence all the soul searching by the West and the self-hatred.

It has put us in a very precarious position.

However globalization has brought us more knowledge of each other. And diplomats, ngos, business people, bloggers, and global communications in general do show us that most people are normal people who just want to live their lives.

It's certain leaders, political and religious, who have gathered a large following that are a problem.

The Left thinks it's just a few individuals in terrorist groups. The Right thinks it's Islam itself.

Both are wrong and both are right.

It's not the Other so much as an element within the Other. The Left says the prominence of this violent ideology is due to poverty and alienation and blowback from our own interference.

The Right says it's their religion that causes them to be violent.

It is both. Someone recently characterized it as Push and Pull. The alienation and anger is the Push and violent Islam is the Pull that gives their lives meaning.

So we do have to understand the culture, the religion, and the grievances.

David Thomson said...

The leftists subtly believe that a further “understanding” of an individual, especially one who is a racial minority, will help us to learn how nice they really are. We probably deserve their anger. Some patience, on our part, will go a long way. Give them a little time and they will learn to love us. In the meantime, we must curtail the nefarious efforts of George W. Bush and the neo-cons to enrage them further. If only John Kerry were our president. The world would be so peaceful and loving.

Peter UK said...

It is superficially which makes the world of human relations go round,knowing more about people is not necessarily the key to liking them.It is possible to like someone in one context and despise them in another.
Harmony depends on not digging too deeply.

Syl said...

You know, I feel like I'm talking to a wall around here.

It's always the rhetoric of us vs them. The Left is ALL bad. The Dems are ALL bad. Muslims are ALL bad. Europe is ALL bad. The MSM is ALL bad. Everything wrong in the world is because of the Left and Islam, Democrats and the MSM.

And the Right is right because it's made up of conservatives who believe in God.

It's all so predictable though you'd think there would be a little more 'nuance' in a post specifically about attitudes towards the 'other'.

Sorry, but it's making me cranky.

Luther said...


I don't mean to be flippant. But I am cranky as well. Cranky that there are those who would love nothing better than to see western civ and more specifically the US come to an inglorious end.

There is only so much I need to know about the other when the other is attempting to kill me.

And trust me, for myself, this has nothing to do with left or right, liberal or conservative, God or No God...just survival.

Barry Dauphin said...

I certainly am not implying that understanding=liking. Often it doesn't. To give an example of my ideas of differential understanding, my sense is that Bernard Lewis understands the Middle East better than Edward Said did.

I think it is possible that survival might be linked to understanding. Understanding does not, to my mind, mean being seduced into something vile nor to become "like" the other. For me, it does not imply losing oneself, in fact far from it.

Luther said...

I was thinking there was a problem with my browser. No posts, no comments today.


I do not know if you were directly addressing me or not. But just in case.

Your post was fine and I have no disagreement. I know you were not implying understanding=liking.

I suppose I am tainted by my past. But when I speak of survival, I speak from a personal viewpoint. I speak (forgive my presumptuous) for the noble members of our military who wake up every morning to face the hell that is Iraq right now. I speak from an appreciation for those facing, every minute, every hour, of every day, the fact that someone, somewhere, out there, wants to kill them.

Therefore my perspective becomes skewed. It is sometimes difficult for me to appreciate the nuance of understanding, when that understanding goes beyond what I need to know to kill my enemy. IMHO, our troops are being forced to be much more understanding than is good for their health. And I would say the same re the general populace of this country.

Apologies for incoherence.

Barry Dauphin said...


I was speaking to a number of comments and wanted to clarify my thinking. I appreciate what you said and did not think it was incoherent in any way. Certainly when one has a gun pointed at them or an IED waiting, that is not the time for deep reflections on the nature of the "other". I was thnking of survival in the broader sense of Western Civilzation. I think we don't want to throw away some of our own hard won principles nor do I think we have to in order to prevail.

Syl said...

Please let me apologize. I shouldn't have come on so strong. I love you peeps and share your fears, hopes, and so much else.

I think we're all feeling pretty frustrated right now, and I let it get to me.

Rick Ballard said...


I'm unsure as to which principles we might be in danger of throwing away. It can be argued that we set aside the Westphalian doctrines of warfare for a brief period at the close of WWII but I would argue that we did not lose them as much as simply set them aside in recognition of the fact that our foes did not honor them.

If necessity dictates that they be set aside in order to prevail in the current conflict, I will not count them as having been lost because the result of their having been set aside in WWII is that Germany and especially Japan now acknowledge their utility.

I agree that trying to understand the other is a worthy endeavor but I don't feel a necessity to know much more than I have learned over the past three years. I've reached a sufficiency of understanding (IMO) and am more concerned with grid coordinates identifying the location of leadership cadres.

Barry Dauphin said...


I was thinking in terms of broader, noncodified principles (e.g., America's generosity, desire for open inquiry in pursuit of knowledge, etc.), our liberties, and the idea that understanding the other guy is generally wise. Yes, I recognize that we might need to put aside certain principles in service of protecting ourselves. I was meaning "we" in the broadest sense of the west or America in general, I wasn't trying to be allude to the "we" of the blog or any individuals. I believe, from what I read, that you have a very good understanding of the other from what is possible at this distance.

Taking your grid coordinates example further, I think it could be argued that such information is likely to come from having a good intelligence network, especially having agents that have infiltrated Iran, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents, etc. In order for agents to "pass", they will have to have a keen understanding of the other. This will have to be backed up by a bureaucratic infrastructure that also "understands" the other. I worry about our poor intelligence capacity, although I hope there is more going on than we know about.

Luther said...

Dead thread, but just for the record. Thanks Rick, for articulating what I was unable to say.

And this Barry;

"In order for agents to "pass", they will have to have a keen understanding of the other"

that would be the extent of what I think we need to know about the 'other.'

Does the general populace need this degree of 'understanding?

I mean, really, there comes a point when one knows too much about the enemy. Familiarity does breed sympathy and/or empathy, which in my feeble mind, in some situations, equals defeat. Perhaps we should all go back and read Machiavelli.


As you say, we are all frustrated. These are 'very' trying times. You just keep writing what you think, none of us should get stuck on certain. It seems I must always qualify, I do not mean to be condescending, or any other damn thing. I'm just a HS dropout wishing to participate in the dialog.

Rick Ballard said...


Take a good look at Eric Hoffer's work and report back. Degrees indicate a persons willingness to couple innate intelligence with perserverance. Lack of a degree or a diploma is no bar to intelligent discours and having the requisite letters after your name is no guarantee that your utterances have any particular value.


At some point the west is going to have to spend a bit more effort in identifying differences with the other on a cultural anthropological/pyschological basis. Every once in a while I return to Montesquoeu's The Spirit of the Laws and reread his observations concerning Islam and the despots spawned by its theology. I keep thinking that a bet is being missed by not exploring the Ottoman Empire's use of terrorism to control the Caliphate.