When There Is a There There
When I was in graduate school I stumbled across a Greek word for agreement that after a while became kind of important to me. The word is the root of our word homology. In modern use, the word has pretty much been relegated to science — biological patterns that are similar between two organisms. When you dig deeper into its Greek roots, however, homologia is not just about the goal of similarity or agreement. It also speaks of the process toward that agreement. Put simply, it's a kind of agreement that is patterned with, or predicted by, or dependent upon, or inseparable from the process of its achievement.
It's basically the unity (homology) of means and ends.
In a society so aggressively focused on results, measurement, calculation, ends that justify any means, winning at any cost, fear-driven achievement, individual responsibility at the expense of common concern (a distorted meritocracy of competition and accomplishment sometimes triumphing over impulses to commonwealth or shared burdens of care and protection), perhaps homology of this kind is a lost dream.
If so, what a loss.
Imagine a form of agreement that is inconceivable outside of the process by which it is achieved. This is the opposite of "power games," or "management by objective." Instead of power games, it is more about discretion and mutual respect. Instead of management by objective is organization of effort by virtue. It is based in a certain trust that we don't need to go into every disagreement with the sole intent of winning, and that we can learn as much as we can teach. It depends on hoping that if we disagree virtuously, at least somewhat virtuously, whatever agreements we can come to along the way will be more valuable than what we might have come to otherwise — even if we have to give and take along the way. It also means that we want to be teachable. We want to learn from others — even from our enemies.
All this takes me to that question of virtue. Remember the medieval list of seven virtues that are often put as contraries to the medieval list of vices? If you don't, I'll list them here and ask how they might shape homology today — if they can.
Chastity - Temperance - Charity - Diligence - Patience - Kindness - Humility
Traditionally about sex, of course. But at its root, isn't chastity about discretion, about respecting differences and recognizing that certain intimacies or certain forms of relationship require certain commitments for health and well being? Chastened disagreement will respect the life-position and commitments of others, and avoid going to some topics sometimes in order to appropriately respect the privacy and integrity of another. It might mean that there are some topics we won't take on if we don't have a relationship with the other that can support it.
A requirement for chastity. It's restraint, not saying too much, being willing to "hold ones tongue" long enough to allow another some space to make their own claims. This doesn't mean not offering your perspective, but it does mean not shouting another down. It was the ancient philosopher Seneca who said, "You have not persuaded a man merely because you have silenced him." Sometimes there's just nothing to say, even if there might be something to say later.
Don't we have a whole set of proverbs to describe this? "Give someone else the benefit of the doubt." "Walk a mile in her shoes before judging." "Let another 'save face.'" Isn't this different than the kind of endless suspicion that seems to rule us today? It's based in being trustworthy, and so being willing to let others be trustworthy too.
So many media pundits, politicians, religious leaders, folk in the pews, or any one of us assert "truths" today without facts to support or work to confirm. Diligence is often lost in the battle of opinions and rectitude that we call the blogosphere or that fills cable news. Diligence means earning ones words through effort, experience, learning, respect, and care. And diligence means respecting the diligence of others — at least I think so.
It's close to temperance, don't you think? Do we have to say everything we think? Can we let folks who've perhaps been long silenced have a voice? Can we avoid inappropriate curiosity, wanting to know things that discretion (chastity) would suggest we shouldn't want to know? Can we wait before winning? Can we not have to have the last word? Can we know something yet not speak it, for the sake of another's dignity? I think we can, at least sometimes.
This is something about caring as much or more about the person you're engaged with as you do about your idea or opinion. We remain obligated in some way to the very persons we "beat" in an argument, if we do "beat" them. This is a burden. It's not easy. But it's fundament to homology.
The Queen, or King, of the virtues. I am told that Justice Hand once wrote that "the art of democracy is not thinking that you are always right." I love the double negative phrasing there, deliberately naming an art after what we don't do instead of what we do, and so describing a way of thinking and living by implication instead of demand. We can be passionate, committed, informed, engaged, and active in persuading others and still be humble, open, teachable, virtuous. We may look weak to some, even a fool to others. But we are not. Far from it.
Homology. What do you think?