A thing is what it is, Part 2: Appearances

by Wolf Pascoe on May 21, 2012

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The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.

— John Ruskin

I’ve never won an argument with Aristotle. Go with me here. For example, in his Metaphysics, Aristotle says this:

Every thing is the same with itself and different from another.

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Now it’s hard to argue that a thing isn’t what it is, despite what it may appear to be. Or as Lincoln famously observed:

How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?
Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.

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THE FARMER’S SON

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I like this Chinese story about appearances:

One day a farmer’s only horse ran away. The farmer’s friend came over to commiserate.

“Rotten luck,” said the friend.

The farmer shrugged.

The next day the horse came back, leading twenty wild horses into the farm. The farmer’s friend came over to congratulate him on his good fortune.

The farmer shrugged.

The next day one of the wild horses kicked the farmer’s son, breaking his leg. The friend came over to offer condolences.

The farmer shrugged.

The next day the Imperial Army rode by the farm, looking for conscripts. The farmer’s son, having a broken leg, was exempted from service. The friend came by to congratulate the farmer on his good luck.

The farmer shrugged.

The story ends here, but could go on like this indefinitely–inexorable in retrospect, but not predictable.

It reminds me of something Chou En-lai, Mao’s foreign minister, is reputed to have said to Richard Nixon. Asked for his assessment of the French Revolution, Chou thought a moment and answered, “Too soon to tell.”

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DARFUR

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There are easy truths and there are hard truths. Easy truths are usually black and white and have neatly defined borders. They exist mostly in the head. Hard truths are messy, and grey. They exist on the ground.

I’ve thought a lot about why a guy like Mike Daisey should bug me so much, and what I’ve come to is that it’s because he appears to revel in easy truths. Rebecca Hamilton, who wrote a book called Fighting for Darfur, is an example of someone looking for hard truths.

Remember Darfur? After Sudenese-recruited troops marched into there in 2003 and started slaughtering whole villages of civilians, the “Save Darfur” movement arose in the United States. It’s purpose was to pressure the Bush administration to do something to stop the genocide.

To his credit, President Bush responded by pursuing available means to end the violence in Darfur. The lethal adjective here is available. For example, Bush ruled out direct military intervention because he felt it would make the problem worse.

Here is Rebecca Hamilton unraveling the complex lessons learned from the Save Darfur effort:

To build a mass movement quickly, it helps to have an over-simplified, emotive narrative with a single demand. It also helps to tells people that by doing easy tasks – sharing a link on Facebook, buying a bracelet — they can save lives. Central to the formula is that the agency of local actors gets downplayed to hype up the importance of action by outsiders. But all those ingredients inevitably lead to eventual failure when the simple solutions can’t fix the complex reality. The movement walks away, disillusioned. And in the meantime untold resources have been expended on solutions that have been out of step with what local activists need.

The Darfur situation was hellishly complex. It turned out that one of the more effective moments in the struggle came when Steven Spielberg, artistic director of the opening and closing ceremonies in the Bejing Olympics, resigned his position in protest of Darfur.

Spielberg’s act embarrassed the Chinese regime. China was weapons supplier to Sudan. After Spielberg’s resignation, China, in order to limit a brewing Olympic public relations disaster, acted to restrain the Sudanese government.

Inexorable but not predictable.

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NICK AND ORWELL

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We live in a time when the arduous and delicate process of thought can be torpedoed with a mindless phrase.

I happen to know that in my own field, medicine, needless suffering could be alleviated and billions of dollars could be saved and by educating families about realistic medical expectations and the benefits of hospice care.

“Death squads!”  said one of the candidates in the last election, aborting the conversation.

We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. — George Orwell.

I think about Orwell whenever I sign a petition or send money, or talk to Nick about right and wrong action.

“We need to sue the banks so they don’t have any power,” he says, knowing that some of his friends’ parents are out of work. “People are forgetting.”

“Forgetting what?” I say.

“Like eating the right foods. Not junk food. They need to forget junk food.”

At least Nick has the excuse of being nine. When he’d old enough, I’m going to give him Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Have you read it lately? I beesech you to do so. It’s linked below.

Meanwhile, I restate the obvious. I try to leave out slogans and memes. I stick to what I’ve experienced.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

— William Stafford

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RELATED POST:

This is the second of a two-part series.

A thing is what it is, Part 1: Truthiness

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YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:

Politics and the English Language, by George Orwell, 1946

Facts, 360 B.C. – A.D. 2012. In memoriam: After years of health problems, Facts has finally died.

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EXPRESS YOURSELF!

Just give me some truth. Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Kyle Bradford May 21, 2012 at 1:29 pm

The Facts article was quite humorous but unfortunately quite accurate. The age of relativism has finally won out…it’s official..absolute truth has finally been vanquished.

God help us all.

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Wolf Pascoe May 21, 2012 at 5:44 pm

Orwell was right.

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Jim Parkevich May 21, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Every man holds his truth as absolute…Unfortunately, all these truths can no longer find a common ground..Therefore, there is no truth.

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Wolf Pascoe May 21, 2012 at 5:45 pm

And that’s the truth.

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BigLittleWolf May 21, 2012 at 8:54 pm

“No simple solutions for complex realities.”

That’s a mouthful.

As to the truth, or truths, or truthiness – the fact that there are fewer (or more complex?) absolute truths might be more manageable if we still understood about honor.

So much to consider here, Wolf. Thank you for this.
BigLittleWolf recently posted..Movable Truth

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Wolf Pascoe May 22, 2012 at 9:12 am

See Bruce’s comment below.

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Privilege of Parenting May 22, 2012 at 12:23 am

Looked at but cannot be seen – it is beneath form;
Listened to but cannot be heard – it is beneath sound;
Held but cannot be touched – it is beneath feeling;
These depthless things evade definition,
And blend into a single mystery.

In its rising there is no light,
In its falling there is no darkness,
A continuous thread beyond description,
Lining what can not occur;
Its form formless,
Its image nothing,
Its name silence;
Follow it, it has no back,
Meet it, it has no face.

Attend the present to deal with the past;
Thus you grasp the continuity of the Way,
Which is its essence.

[Tao Te Ching fourteen]

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Wolf Pascoe May 22, 2012 at 9:11 am

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

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Barbara May 24, 2012 at 10:19 pm

I waited to comment until I could read the links. I loved them both – the Orwell writing ‘suggestions’ I’ve heard before, but never from the original source. And the Facts… ah, funny but sad.
Wonderful post, because it’s so true, unfortunately!

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Wolf Pascoe May 29, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Thanks, Barbara. Extra credit for reading the links!

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Pamela May 31, 2012 at 1:14 pm

I have nothing really to contribute Other than to thank you for writing about the complex realities and not just the simple ones.

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Wolf Pascoe May 31, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Welcome, Pamela.

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