Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Once we accept our limits we go beyond them.*


- It's not too late at night? It's four o'clock.
- No. The time is perfect. Let's go. That is, if you're really up to it, seeing assemble the unwanted of American life on these dark streets, the daytime preserve of wealth. It's not a nice sight. As a precaution maybe before we go we should clothe ourselves in understanding, see if we can agree on fundamentals.
- I don't think I'm so sensitive.
- The worse for you.
- Yeah? What fundamentals do we need to agree on to protect our sensitive souls?
- When we blame or praise we do so by rule, rules which apply to everyone. Have you ever wondered why?
- We want to be treated equally.
- Why not demand better treatment especially for ourselves? Because others would not agree to it, or because it is not right?
- Because it is not right.
- Why is it not right? Why are moral judgments "universal"?
- That's simply how we're made.
- Why are we made that way? Why do we expect to be treated the same as everyone else?
- We're just made that way.
- You said. Could be. It could also be that moral rules are fundamental: in good relations to others they are the foundation other principles of conduct are built upon. When we talk we build up a description: You and me are here in Westwood, We are in Westwood at night, We are here at night talking, We are talking about what we'll see at four in the morning...
- If we ever stop talking...
- We build up a sentence hierarchically. Maybe morality builds upon a shared foundation in the same way: We're talking, We understand and share the meaning of words and share an intention to go on talking, We learn doing this something about the world and ourselves we can use to make our lives better. If we agree on this - that we sometimes build a life together on such a foundation - we can get an idea of what is behind indifference.
- Which we define as what happens to us when we don't build our rules of conduct on any shared foundation.
- Yes. Does the idea suit you?
- I'll try it on for tonight's tour.


- If language is built on foundations...
- Where's the poverty?
- Coming. We say language is hierarchical, builds foundations upon foundations.
- If language builds on foundations and indifferent people don't have a shared moral foundation what kind of language do they speak?
- Their language also is hierarchical.
- Then how is it different?
- The picture their language builds is not a model of what has been experienced but a model built in imagination of future foundations they are to construct.
- Construct doing the work equally?
- Yes.
- Now you've got me totally confused. The indifferent have a morality that is equal and hierarchical, and so do those who aren't indifferent?
- The indifferent are all equally subject to their model, participate in making it, they build it up step by step. But building a model society equally is not the same as equally subject to the same rules of conduct.
- Why not?
- Their society is specialized, segmented into different social roles, sexual roles, occupational roles, each role subject to different rules of conduct appropriate to different responsibilities.
- A foundational rule, "don't kill", applies to all of us, but a soldier in a model society must kill when ordered to?
- Exactly.
- I think I understand. Governments like to claim they act in the interest of the entire population equally but this really only means they set up a model society in which those in control have taken the most profitable roles. Because all are equally invited to participate in the society's building, everyone has something to do and everyone has a place in the building built on the shared foundation, it seems like the society is moral when it is far from it.
- Let's begin our tour. We're on Wilshire Blvd., the southern border of the village. We'll go around this corner, up Gayley Ave. Atop those steps to the bank ahead - do you hear?
- I don't see anything. A crazy person raging to herself?
- Keep walking. It's morning wake up time for the transvestite who sleeps there. Well? What did you think?
- She's sitting on piles of carpets, very stylishly holding up a cigarette. When will I feel your promised 'cold wind of wealth's indifference to poverty'?
- Just wait. Let's turn here. Turn again, we're going up Broxton. There: see the small guy, young, bearded, neatly dressed, no bags?
- He's rubbing his hands.
- A compulsion. He's down from Berkeley where he's a student. He grew up in Northern California, but his uncle has a place here, not far from Westwood. But he doesn't often go back to his uncle's house. He has in fact his own, completely empty little apartment up on Fraternity Row his family has rented for him.
- How do you know?
- I've been there. He says he's unable to stay within four walls for more than a few minutes at a time. He wanders all the night, strolls the supermarkets, spends an hour or two at Starbucks, Coffee Bean, he walks the streets, he stands holding his phone reading on the internet.
- Where does he sleep?
- In a coffee shop chair, or a chair in the student center at UCLA. That bent old man pushing the cart: he's also on his way to Starbucks. He sleeps in a doorway on Westwood Blvd, spends whole days at the computers at UCLA's Research Library. I see him sometimes reading through dictionaries.
- Why is he doing that?
- Don't know.
- Why don't you ask him?
- I'm afraid to. He's started to say hello to me when we pass each other on the UCLA campus.
- And you, Mr. Sympathy wrapped up in his ideas doesn't like that.
- No, Mr. Sympathy doesn't. Starbucks is straight ahead. But let's turn right. In front of Trader Joes is this fat naked girl always wrapped in a blanket lying down on the pavement; about this time she's also getting up. Her legs are bruising more and more, severe sores are developing. Soon she won't be able to walk. She sings softly to herself, has the mind of a three year old. Been on this corner for months, since summer people say.
- How does she live?
- People shop for her and leave her bags full of groceries, hand her cash or set the money down beside her when she's sleeping. Last night she offered me her surplus food, an entire shopping bag. The destitute of Westwood come and ask to borrow money from her. She gives it. 
- Are you indifferent to her plight?
- No. But I do nothing to help her. Are you indifferent?
- Do you mean am I going to do anything to help her?
- Do you feel anything, anything at all about her?
- Yes. Like you. So we're not indifferent, just don't know what to do. 
- What about the others who pass by her all day and night, sometimes, when she has moved across the street, literally stepping over her sleeping body to get in the door of the department store? Are they indifferent?
- They can't help noticing, seeing her. Do they feel nothing?
- They appear not to imagine she is suffering. Or that the others suffer either who sleep on the streets here.
- But maybe they don't suffer. They are protected by their craziness, distracted by their mental weaknesses.
- They don't they feel the cold? Feel pain of wounds? Fear the police?
- Sorry, I wasn't thinking. Of course they do. Maybe a lot of people are like us, not really indifferent, just don't know what to do about the problem, seeing as we don't have any influence on our finance and corporate controlled government. But what about them, the corporate and financial rich: are they indifferent?
- Playing their roles in the construction of the imaginary state they are indifferent to those who don't share in that construction. 
- But who says they always are like that: can't people switch back and forth between the two languages, foundations, sometimes building up imaginary societies, sometimes building upon a foundation of sympathy? The two ways exclude each other, can't be done as the same time, but we can imagine organizing one as the "spare time", recreational, restorative, behavior of the other.
- At times when recreation is not required won't the wealthy be indifferent?
- Yes, they'll be indifferent.
- See that man? He wheels a cat around in that trolley bag to all the same places the hand-rubbing young man with the beard goes. See that shuffling even older man, barely able to drag himself forward? He used to be a professional confidence man. Most days he's penniless, drinks the self-service coffee cream at Starbucks. See that old woman standing at the window of Starbucks? She sleeps in her car parked across from Dennys on Tiverton; she believes while she sleeps crack cocaine is introduced into the car's heating system.
- And Starbucks lets all these people stay?
- They don't even ask them to buy anything. They wake them when they catch them nodding off. We said the rich are indifferent when they don't feel the need to recreate themselves. But maybe they are indifferent in the very practice of charity too.
- Why?
- Because on days they don't give charity they go right back to stepping over the poor naked girl's sleeping body to do their shopping.
- And you think it would not be so easy for them if their days off from indifference involved any real feeling?
- Yes. Don't you agree?
- I do. What about you?
- What about me?
- Do you step over her sleeping body with indifference? 
- Not that. Indifference takes me when I do my own society building, imagine myself occupying an important place.
- And are you ashamed of yourself afterward?
- I am. When you allow yourself to feel indifferent, your life founded on sympathy brings discredit on life without; you feel guilty, you feel like you have lost yourself.
- You're building society's world not your own.
- Exactly. Those living lives of society-building can imagine that in giving charity they are moving to another kind of life but they are not.
- Why not?
- Because that life builds upon the foundation of sympathy, and charity is only an interval of imitation sympathy that nothing builds upon and which soon sinks back to the life of indifference never really left. 
- Then the indifferent can't escape even for a moment their indifference without challenging their whole way of life.
- That's right. 
- And not even in their charity do they stop being indifferent.
- Not even in their charity.
- How many of these people at Starbucks do you know? At least something about?
- Around half. Some of them practically live there. The coffee shop closes between two and four to allow them to clear out those who've fallen asleep in their seats; in those two hours they go lie down on the pavement under the theater marquee next door. See: they're getting up now.
- Tell me the truth: what do you feel as you look on at this?
- I feel sad.
- Me too. But if what we've said is right, the majority of us fine Americans are not merely looking away to spare ourselves from feeling bad about something we have no control over, but we in fact do look and feel nothing. What do we do about that?
- What we said also shows us that the indifference is not an inherent, unavoidable personal fault, but a consequence of the wrong kind of society. Human nature is not an obstacle blocking our way, and we know what to do: work to understand and change society.

Further Reading:
Justice & Terror
How To Read Plato's Republic
* Albert Einstein

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