Changing ourselves, changing others

I want to return to something I wrote in my last post about encountering different approaches to life. I was responding to Karl Jaspers’ claim that tension between the individual and the world is necessary for self-knowledge and a true life; that we can never truly know another’s experience, but become ‘more whole’ by encountering the boundaries. There is a common thread running through this and the Nehamas interview, and Gadamer, Zeldin and Sachs’ writings on conversation and difference. Newman touches on it in his Idea of the University when he speaks of ‘a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every corner’, and it is this universality that many still consider the archetypal feature of the University.

A similar concept lies behind some highly successful TV shows; Wife Swap, Undercover Boss, Faking It, Rich House – Poor House, Supersize/Superskinny. Every episode sees the protagonist stepping into someone else’s shoes, immersing themselves in another life and coming away not only with a deeper understanding of the other, but also a fresh perspective on themselves.

One thing that hooked me into the Nehamas interview was his argument that there is no universal morality (I like this line of thought). While rejecting moral relativism, Nehamas points out that moral laws do not assume there is a single type of life that is good for all. If morality were universal we would not need rules. We construct laws – and social norms – that are applicable down to the ‘lowest common denominator’. Adjusting to them can, however, prevent us from living well; ‘rules’ for becoming an individual can be self-undermining. Nehamas likens the becoming of a person to the production of a great work of art, in that there is no recipe, no rule; we can only formulate the principles afterwards. He argues that certain lives are particularly admirable because of their differences from the lives of those around them, and so it is with art. To model life on the making of art – to engage in the ‘art of living’ – is to go one’s own way; to take ‘the road less travelled’, as Scott Peck would say.

When Richard asked him if living is an art that can be taught, Nehamas’ response seemed to underscore a conception of a ‘good’ or ‘admirable’ life as one that is, in some way, emergent or exceptional. I think – I suspect – that this Nietzschean concept of the ubermensch is often spoken of in these terms, and I find it problematic.

Consider again Carl Rogers’ presentation of what one might describe as a common process for learning to live well; a process that is founded on authenticity, acceptance and understanding. Rogers was a psychotherapist. His view of human becoming is one of mending what is broken; making the dysfunctional functional. If we view becoming from this angle, the analogy between life and art breaks down. When we describe an artwork as ‘good’, we generally mean there is something exceptional about it. If we speak of artworks as ‘good enough’ or ‘satisfactory’, we imply a lack of sorts; a disappointment. Art is art by way of its exceptionality. Why might we have higher standards for art than we do for our lives? Perhaps it is because with art we start with a blank canvas, whereas in ‘creating’ ourselves, our lives, we have to work with what is already there at the point that we start to become autonomous. By this time a lot of damage has already been done!

Design is judged differently to art. Design’s beauty is functional; we may find its form pleasing, but design may equally be considered ‘good’ by virtue of its unobtrusiveness, or its ability to make a difficult task easy. I would like to argue that living well has – or should have – more in common with design than with art, and that perhaps there is – as Rogers suggests – a common process that will set one on a trajectory to the good life. 

Rogers’ recipe – authenticity, acceptance and understanding – brings us back to the question of our relations with others, and the value of universality. In being authentic and working to accept and understand the other, we learn about the world and ourselves.

We’ve just had another general election, and what is truly remarkable about the result to me is that it shows how stable (or stubborn) our individual political leanings are. It seems that the significant shifts in voting have been from those who didn’t vote before, and those who voted for a smaller, more radical party in 2015 out of frustration with a watered-down primary opposition. What these groups want hasn’t changed; it’s just that no-one with a cat in hell’s chance of winning many seats – let alone a parliamentary majority – seemed to be offering it. It’s not so much that the public mood has shifted; more that the primary opposition is finally offering what these people want.

Now there are post-election polls showing that this effect is continuing; that the belief in the ability of the opposition to form a government is strengthening, and that were we to have another election soon we would be looking at a different result again. But I don’t think anyone is actually suggesting that blues will turn to reds in significant numbers. Do we have ‘floating voters’ that oscillate directly between Tory and Labour? Is that a thing? Has it ever been?

On election day I considered telephoning my German grandmother. She lives in East Hampshire – a secure Conservative seat with a high voter turnout. She never votes. Her companion (lodger/whatever) Ron voted to leave the EU. I thought we could discuss the the implications of privatising the NHS (Ron has diabetes, she has dementia), and selling her house to pay for care. That’s a policy that doesn’t bother me personally – it’s not like she’s going to need it – but it would bother her (and where would Ron live? Not with me).

I wanted to get them out to vote at least. If they voted Tory, what the hell, but at least they would have needed to think about why, because I would have asked them to. And if they’d chosen to share those reasons with me – Ron never holds back with his political views – I hoped I’d be able to listen, and accept, and try to understand. But it all seemed too difficult, and awkward, and ultimately pointless. Crucially, I heard my mother’s voice in my head, screeching ‘what were you doing, getting her all panicked like that? She’s in her 90’s for god’s sake, and East Hampshire would vote for a rotting corpse as long as it was wearing a blue bloody rosette.’

I still wish I’d called them. I was being a wuss. I took the easy option and told myself it didn’t matter. I think a lot of this hinges on our need to feel that others approve of us, and I’ll come back to that.

Last year Julie Beck also did a nice interview with Nehamas that focused on friendship and art. Nehamas’ view on friendship is both complex and simple; he explains at length why friendship is not intrinsically ‘good’ – and here we realise that, while Nehamas has ideas about the good life, he is ambivalent about whether friendship contributes to that. While it would be fair to assume that we like our friends because of what we have in common, Nehamas argues in both interviews that the opposite is also true; we are drawn to others because they are different to us, and we believe that our lives will be different – better – with them in it. But friendship, like beauty, is a non-moral value; it is double-edged and can be dangerous.

For Nehamas, friendship is a means to transformation. He claims that ‘when you feel that your relationship with somebody will not change you in any way… the relationship is over.’ This resonates with me a great deal. The idea that other people enter relationships for the purposes of self-development is startling (I thought it was only me that did that), but the more I think about it, the more I think that Nehamas is onto something here.

It is easy to read Gadamer, Zeldin and Sachs and be carried away by their enthusiasm for conversation and mutual change and the seeking of new solidarities. They make it sound more effective than I am finding it to be. I did my final thesis conversation today, and I enjoyed it immensely (my new book on The Art of Conversation has been very helpful). I’m still not sure that I’ve captured any real disagreement, and maybe that’s never going to happen when two individuals get together in private, away from the cheerleading or judgement of our peers; our instinct to get along is too strong. One counter-example I can think of is when Toby Young pulled a similar stunt to me at the 2015 Tory party conference, but given that he explicitly set out to create newspaper-worthy friction and usually doesn’t hold back in his derision of lefties, his account is surprisingly tame (I wrote about my own experience here). I’d love to see a full transcript of his conversation with the protester; I bet they actually warmed to one another, not that Young would admit to that. Reconciliation, peaceful conflict, whatever we call it – it requires us to put our energies into being kind rather than being right, which it’s very difficult to do when you’re convinced that the other person is wrong.

Colleagues and friends working in education often tell me they would find it very hard to talk to Toby Young, and they don’t see what it would achieve for them to accept him and to understand his perspective. They may even consider such an approach dangerous in its supposed quietism. Carl Rogers (1967) recognises this as a natural educational reaction:

‘What is life for if we are not going to do things to people? What is life for if we are not going to teach them the things that we think they should learn?’ (p21)

But, he maintains that

‘The more an individual is understood and accepted, the more he tends to drop the false fronts with which he has been meeting life and the more he tends to move in a direction which is forward.’ (p27)

We are scared to try to understand another, because it might change us. And yes, the more we are open to being ourselves and accepting the other, the more change is stirred up. But according to Rogers, all this is change in a positive direction. So, if I were to have a conversation with Toby Young along these lines, it is likely to change me in some way; but in a positive way. Not (necessarily!) the blatant persuasion that Toby had in mind at the conference; there many other ways in which such a conversation might change both of us for the better.

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