Monday, May 07, 2007

On Tolerance Versus Strong Beliefs

The theatre blogosphere, including me, is currently arguing about atheism and Christianity. OK, fine. Putting it in broader terms, it seems to me that the issue here is how to find a balancing point between, on the one hand, tolerance towards people whose opinions and beliefs differ from your own (a necessary skill in a pluralist, multi-cultural society), and on the other, the holding and defending of strong beliefs. In many respects, these two values are bound to clash. If you believe in something strongly, then you are often going to find yourself wanting to argue with those who do not share your belief, and you'll not being willing to accept the validity of opposing beliefs. On the other hand, if you tolerate everything, then you probably will not be able to believe strongly in anything, because such beliefs will get in the way of your tolerance, and you won't take action to defend anything. As the King of Siam once said, it's a puzzlement.

A spectator strongly believes in certain values (that certain things should nto be said or discussed in front of young people, for instance), and when those values are violated he pours water on a performer's script -- that is plain wrong (because it violates laws against vandalism), and intolerant, but it is an outgrowth of a strong belief; it would have been sufficient had he voted with his feet and left the performance (or better yet, of course, not come to it in the first place). But is it wrong to hold the kind of values that would lead to such behavior in the first place? If so, according to whom? What values is it mandatory that we all share? Another person feels strongly that the kind of beliefs that would lead someone to pour water on a script and leave a performance are ignorant and narrow-minded, and he blasts those who don't share this view through his public blog. But is publicly blasting somebody in print any better than blasting them in person by leaving their performance? Had no water been poured, would leaving a performance and blasting someone in print be similarly intolerant?

Freshmen very often arrive at college with a bad case of naive relativism: you believe what you want, and I'll believe what I want, okay? But what this seemingly benign orientation does is eliminate the possibility of dialogue -- we all get to sit peacefully in our own solipsistic world never to be disturbed by an idea we haven't heard before. Not good. On the other hand, another type of freshman arrives believing that some belief system answers all the questions that could possibly be asked. And again the result is the elimination of the possibility of dialogue. Not good, either. The first freshman accuses the second of intolerance; the second accuses the first of wrong-headedness.

On a more personal level, I accuse David Cote of being intolerant because he has strong feelings about religion while at the same time I defend those who left Mike Daisey's performance as having a right to dobecause they...have strong feelings about religion! What????

Someone asks, in comments, whether one is expected to tolerate intolerance. And the natural response is to say no, one must take a moral stance against certain things. But viewed from another position, is one expected to attack strong feelings as wrong if one disagrees with them? Isn't it OK to feel strongly about, say, the arts and to defend their value in the face of attack? And isn't such a strong belief based on a moral value that is, in some ways, just as faith-based as a belief in God?

I'm just thinking out loud here, trying to come to terms with a contradiction that I am seeing in my argument about the whole Mike Daisey controversy. It is a contradiction that I see in other's opinions about this as well, and I also see it in many of the arguments that have blazed in the theatre blogosphere.

For instance, again using myself as an example, I want to make a point about how ineffective attacking is as a means to change minds. How do I do it? By attacking those who believe the opposite. Others strongly believe that attack is a useful and necessary artistic tactic, and they accuse me of...intolerance! Same pattern.

It seems to me that, until we come to some sort of grip with the issue of tolerance versus strong belief, this pattern will be repeated endlessly. So I'm stepping back to think a bit more deeply about this. How does one promote open dialogue between people with differing strong beliefs?


Mike said...

You put this very well--and it is a puzzlement.

For my part I am a very great believer in the power of listening. Note that listening is not the same as believing or accepting--but it is something real, a process that often gets short-circuited when we're too dogmatically attached to our own agendas. Actually listening is hard, and it does matter.

It's a continual process, for all of us I expect, and one bereft of easy answers.

Joshua James said...

I believe it's very unfair and unfounded to accuse David Cote of intolerance, simply because he refuses to respect someone's spiritual beliefs, even mine.

We tolerate and respect each other's freedom's, but nothing requires us to respect anyone's ignorance or intolerance . . . David makes a good case, as anyone could, that religion traffics ignorance and intolerance . . . why should he respect that?

Freedom of expression doesn't just mean you can state what you want . . . it also means one's neighbor may call you on your bullshit. That's freedom.

Really, I think that statement is out of line.

For the record, Scott, I don't believe you're intolerant, nor have I accused you of such myself, I don't believe -

I was reluctant to leave a comment here, and only came since you left what I would call a rather twisted-logic comment over at David's site - and as I've mentioned, I've been reluctant to engage you in discussion . . . since you've made this post as a question about open dialogue (ironically enough, after you recklessly accuse David of intolerance) I thought I would share why I have trouble dialoguing with you and see where it leads.

I don't know you, you're probably a nice guy - but it drives me nuts to try and discuss anything with you for two reasons -

One: You're a contrarian - you often seem to take the opposite side of any discussion, whether the position warrants it or not . . . and then later on change - It's a useful tool when teaching, but pretty damn frustrating in conversation. And I don't want a teacher, you haven't been granted that role in my life, so I'm not asking for contrarian positions simply for the sake of contrarian positions.

To have an open dialogue, one must be able to agree on a happy middle ground - one reason fundalmentalists are impossible to dialogue with is that it's their way or the highway.

Contrarians will almost always take an opposing view, for varying reasons, simply because it's there, which also makes discovering common ground nearly impossible (their mantra is agree to disagree, which is great when talking about food or art, bad for discussing world policy, laws, science or matters of a concrete nature).

that's one.


You're a emotional knee-jerk reactionary - you have operated, with me, under the assumption that because YOU feeling something, it must be true.

But it's more than just feelings, there are also ideas involved, also logic and smarts . . . just because I feel you're something doesn't make it so . . . I have to back it up with evidence . . . for example, I can't simply state: you're willfully ignorant (I feel it) - I have to back it up with observed evidence - (you stated science is a belief system, when it's obviously not under any definition of the term or word) why I think you're being willfully ignorant on any given subject.

No one's perfect, everyone has a juicy knee-jerk reaction now and then, but it's a constant in almost every conversation I've had (which, granted, has been awhile up until the religion / science ridiculousness over at David's)

Listen, we work in the arts - emotion is an important part of the work we do - the work must move folks emotionally - but I also believe that emotion must be grounded in ideas . . . and ideas come from logic, reason and agreed upon principles . . . isn't that what Aristole and the Greeks were doing by writing down a lot of that critical theory, in addition to philosophy?

Now I hope and pray (in my way) that you take what I just shared with you not as a personal attack, though I understand I may have cut ot the bone with it, but as an honest and rational assessment of my blog dialogues with you . . . and I would note, while we all have had our arguments and fights, you have had, in the time I've known you over the internet, far more than your fair share, wouldn't you agree?

I'm the first to admit, I'm flawed, I'm not perfect, but I do try hard to be clear on what and where I'm coming from in terms of the ideas and principles I stand for in the work and in the world . . . and I'm open to disagreeing with people on matters in the arts, etc, and see their position once it's stated clearly -

For the life of me, I wouldn't be able to say that about you, other than you feel things very deeply at times and that when you feel them, they're very important . . . but what about the ideas, Scott? Are not ideas important too? Is not reason just as important as emotion? Doesn't it have a value function in our world?

Listen, if I stepped over the line with this comment, I apologize in advance and feel free to delete . . . but if since you asked, I felt I should answer -

Scott Walters said...

Joshua -- I truly appreciate your posting this. First, because you have been a long time gone, and believe it or not, I've missed your voice. Second, because you are opening a dialogue with a minimum of bashing. I feel like I can trust you with my thoughts.

I must admit I find your belief that I am all emotion and no idea puzzling, mainly because most people find me the opposite. So I am going to have to work through this a little.

For instance, as far as science is concerned, I find myself firmly among the postmodernists, who posit that science, like any other human construct, is based on human assumptions, and that embedded in those assumptions are power relations and cultural blindness. This philosophical critique of science has gone on for several decades now, and there is quite a lot of scholarship, beginning with Thomas Kuhn's now legendary "The Structure of Scientific Revolution," which I read in the late 1980s. Through these writings, the "objectivity" of science and the scientific method has been persuasively questioned, to the point where, in this view, it no longer holds a privileged position within the cultural universe. I have found much of this argument persuasive, at least to the point where I no longer bow low when the name of science is raised in an argument. So while the scientific method is indeed a practice, as you say, it is based on a priori assumptions that privilege positivist, physical data over other kinds of data, and I don;t subscribe to those assumptions.

As far as my positions regarding theatre, I will certainly admit to having opinions that run contrary to the mainstream. I believe that theatre artists should view themselves as part of a specific community, and create work that contributes in some way to the betterment of that community. I don't believe in art for art's sake, and I reject Kant's formulations almost entirely. If I am looking at past theorists, I lean toward Horace over Wilde. If I lean toward artists, it is Dudley Cocke of Roadside Theatre, John McGrath of 7:84, and Hallie Flanagan of the Federal Theatre -- people who believed in a social role for the arts -- over Richard Foreman, Harold Pinter, and Elizabeth LeCompte.

I also believe that human beings are, at root, basically good and generally want to do the right thing, and consequently they deserve to be addressed with respect from the stage. This often puts me in opposition to the Romantic artists who harbor a sense of anger toward most in the audience (at least the popular audience) because they feel that they are self-centered, uncaring, and not very thoughtful -- and that they are in need of being shocked out of their "complacency."

I also believe that intelligence, sensitivity, and moral uprightness are pretty evenly distributed throughout the world, and not concentrated primarily in the urban intelligentsia. I believe that the poor, the rural, and the uneducated are virtually ignored by the current theatre (which is focused almost wholly on the wealthy, educated class) and they deserve a quality theatre that speaks to them in a language and about subject matter that is connected to their daily lives and concerns. They deserve this as much as those who live in megalopolises, and so I see the obsession with the NYC stage to represent the deprivation of the rest of the country. I believe that theatre artists should be able to make a living outside of NYC, and if they do, they should be treated with respect. I also believe that it is highly possible to make serious contributions to the theatre without making your living at it.

Many, if not most, of these values, which I have thought over quite thoroughly over the course of my 30+ years in the theatre, put me in direct contradiction to many of my fellow theatre bloggers. And while it may seem contrarian, what drives me particularly nuts is when basic assumptions that underlie an argument or opinion go unexamined, and it is just assumed that "everybody" agrees. Many times, I don't.

Yet I respect differing opinions. George Hunka and I couldn't be further apart in our aesthetic, yet I read his blog every day, and I have stopped arguing with him not because I believe it won't do any good, but because I respect the intensity of his exploration of his theatrical ideas and feel that he should be allowed to develop them without quibbling.

Believe it or not, I am trying to do something similar here at Theatre Ideas. Recently, I have found that I am in accord with ideas expressed by the grassroots, community-based theatres such as Roadside Theatre (Whitesburg KY), Cornerstone (LA), Dell Arte (Blue Lake, CA), June Bug (New Orleans), Carpetbag (Knoxville TN), and Los Angeles Poverty Department. The reason I haven't made this realization before is that most theatre writers, and even theatre historians, virtually ignore this important and strong artistic movement. Why? Mainly, I suspect, it is a combination of being regional and not NY-based, and also that these theatres lack a fashionable, educated audience and do not produce works that reflect the aesthetic of such an audience. But it makes me angry that someone such as I, who has read many, many books on theatre, hasn't encountered the main figures of this movement until recently.

Yes, I admit I get angry. But my anger is mostly reserved for those moments when someone assumes a foundational agreement that has not been examined. That drives me nuts.

What is ironic is that your statement that your comment that I "have operated, with me, under the assumption that because YOU feel something, it must be true" is how I often feel about you, too! So somehow we are not communicating effectively with each other. My preference is that we figure out how to do this better.

From my perspective, you often bring a "get the professor" attitude to the table -- like I need to be brought down a notch or something. What is your impression of what I bring to the discussion, specifically as it relates to you?

Again, thanks for posting this -- and I invite anyone else with an opinion to join in as well.

Joshua James said...

You state your beliefs, which are fine, but are rooted in your feelings and experiences . . . that we can debate and agree to disagree upon . . .

But science is not, in any mainstream sense of the word or idea, a philosophy . . . earlier, I posted Webster's definition of science and you dismissed it . . . that's not kosher . . . you cannot reinvent the idea of an idea without first dealing with what is WAS or IS to begin with.

In other words, you cannot reinvent the word GOAT and assign it to another animal unless we all agree, first. You can't reassign GOAT simply because you don't care for how the animal looks or you've spoken to someone who had a better suggestion.

And your definition of science, at its simple essencee, doesn't jibe not only with my understanding of the word, nor does it jibe with scientific community's sense of the word . . . before you can share with me your NEW definition of science, you have to deal with the accepted one.

I'd recommend asking someone outside your circle who is in the science community . . . personally, I don't know, nor could I really understand what you think science is, but it's not really a philosophy . . . it's a process, as I've listed in the definition.

And it's not MY definition, Scott. It's simply what it is . . . like saying 2+2=4. Sure, there are schools who philosophically believe they can disprove the above equation, but it doesn't take away from the fact that, if you have two apples and add two more apples, you have four.

Math, like science, is about things like that.

This is different from theatre, where new ideas can be tossed about and discarded with fluidity . . .

The other stuff, listen . . . contrary is fine, but it must be rooted in common understanding, with which we . . . I'm not a professor, so it could be you're projecting . . . but the reality is, I'm not that interested in angry fights over little things like the definition of science . . . it's silly, just open a book and look it up, you know?

But often fights with you in the past have devolved into silly battles over shit like that. I get angry at times as well, true, but I try to save it for important stuff . . . I find I get less angry as I get older . . . and I save my fights for the stuff that really matters.

And what are we fighting over now? The fact that David believes religious people are delusional? So what? Is that really that bad?

He's not mandated his beliefs on anyone . . . and nor is what he's doing that different from a preacher at church telling us that, if we don't get saved, we're going to roast in eternal torment. Why pick on him and not the multitudes of preachers?

Again, what you bring to the discussion, when I've been involved in dialoguing with you, is almost pure id and emotion . . . the ideas seem spur of the moment, not considered, and the sides you chose strictly based on the emotion of the moment . . . for example, you've jumped on David because you felt he was unfair to the 87 kids for walking out of a show for allegeded christian values . . . you felt for the kids and rushed to defend them . . .

Really, are they going to be touched by this? Do they care, are they changed?

I dunno, I often am mystified by the postions you've taken, just on this science debate, for example. It makes no sense, and it seems like you've taken up convenient positions to support whatever arguments you're having now.

If a grad student wrote a paper about science, wouldn't he have to cite sources and define terms?

I dunno.

It's hard talking to ya, man . . . I can't say that it would be different in person, mayhap it would be . . . but I get the professor lecturing / challenge vibe from you, and it's frustrated when it seems like your positions aren't grounded -

I wouldn't say that I think you're ill-intentioned, because I haven't seen evidence of such . . . but it's a pain, often, to dialogue with you . . .

It could be me, I admit, but I'm pretty active on a number of blog, not just theatre ones, and don't really have troubles with others . . . as I've noted, it's pretty common with you, I mean, we've had four or five fiery debates ourselves, and you've gotten into it with a number of others - so the evidence would point to the common factor as your temperment and arguments, right?

There's another guy I know, from the novelist blogs, who fights with everyone and has been banned from a whole lot of forums . . .

He's convinced it's not him, yet he fights all the time at the drop of the hat . . . the minute someone says something critical, he calls them names, jumps up their ass and it's all unfounded. And he would swear it ain't him, that everyone else is the one with the problem.

I don't think you're nearly in that guy's league (and I can send you to his blog if you wish) but that's the experience I get with you and others . . . whenever there's a debate, it's like, I KNOW there's gonna be a scuffle, if not with me, then with someone else . . .

It's like when I was a bouncer, we could tell when a guy walked into the room, there was going to be a fight . . . we didn't know who the fight was going to be with, but we knew he'd be in one before the night was over.

And hey, sometimes a guy has to fight - but it needs to be something WORTH fighting for . . . most of the time, fights are only about silly shit - this I know from experience - hurt feelings and bruised emotions . . . so I'd say my experience with you is there's gonna be a silly fight over something, then lots of intense personal rumination, after you which apologize, maybe admit to being wrong but often then go and state the same silly position that started the fight in the first place and maintain that you felt this, and since it's YOUR truth, it must be TRUE for everyone.

And hey, your feelings, you can have however many you want and value them however you need.

But -

If we're going to talk about science and philosophy, itthe world isn't only ruled by opinion and feelings, it's also a place of reason and logic, right?

And we were speaking of science. It's not a belief system and it's not a philosophy, however much people would like it to be, it's simply not, according to Websters and the scienctists and Doctor's that I have known . . . it's not my opinion, it's a well documented and well sourced world fact.

So listen, dude . . . don't know what else to say . . . I'm still wondering if it was even a good idea to come here again, but . . . I sometimes can't help myself, either.

Best to ya.

Joshua James said...

Scott Walters said...

Joshua -- At risk of sending you screaming into the night, I'd like you to read your comment above and count the number of times you refer to me or my ideas as "silly" or "emotional" (by which you mean, I assume, irrational). Now, how can we have a real dialogue if you can't, at least temporarily for the sake of the conversation, grant me the respect that my ideas, even though different from yours, might be based in serious, rational thought? Without that agreement, which is the basis of all civility, then a conversation simply can't occur. If the starting point is that I must first say, "Josh, you are serious and rational, and I am silly and irrational," then how can we continue? I really can't address the rest of your comment unless we can acknowledge each other as intellectual equals. Than I would be happy to continue.

Scott Walters said...

Joshua James said...

You asked:
"What is your impression of what I bring to the discussion, specifically as it relates to you?"

You asked and I answered, now you take me to task for my impression?

I called you irrational and emotional that because you've demonstrated yourself to be that, and I sourced it with an example of your action that demonstrates such.

You stated science is a belief system and a philosophy . . . I stated that's silly, I defined what it was and I sourced it and challenged you on it.

Nowhere do I state that you have to bow down before me, in fact, I made a point that I am as flawed as anyway, but I state that in order to dialogue we must both acknowledge certain common things, reason being one, logic being another.

You say:

"the starting point is that I must first say, "Josh, you are serious and rational, and I am silly and irrational,"

Is very much an immature response, and this is why I don't like dialoguing with you . . . you don't want to address the points because you're feeling the sting of them personally . . . you want to deal with how you feel about what we're talking about rather than the meat and potatoes of the conversation.

So now you have my answer . . . this is why I don't like dialoguing with you, I note I'm far from the only one, and I will wish you the best and bid you farewell on your travels.

Praxis Theatre said...

Hi Joshua, Scott,

Thanks for this wonderful exchange. I hope nobody's too discouraged. From the outside, I'm not sure your positions are as dichotomous as they may appear to be from the inside.

This exchange reminds me of the many discussions I have with friends over drinks in the back yard. It gets heated, people are accused of being contrarian (sometimes it's true), feelings are hurt . . . but it's almost always in the pursuit of better ideas, clearer ideology, more concise and useful language. And even when we're too proud to give ground during those heated debates, we often develop more thoughtful and informed positions in their wake.

I do think that calling your debating opponent's position "silly" is counterproductive, though. But, hey, arguments have an emotional component.

So, for what it's worth, I think your arguments are worth it. Thanks again for putting it out there.



Scott Walters said...

*sigh* Josh, I did my best -- I'm not sure what more I could do. I certainly didn't attack you in any emotional terms, or in any terms whatsoever. I simply requested a show of mutual respect.

For the record:

"Karl Popper (1902- 94) was critical of the inductive methods used by science. The empiricist David Hume (1711-76) had argued that there were serious logical problems with induction. All inductive evidence is limited: we do not observe the universe at all times and in all places. We are not justified therefore in making a general rule from this observation of particulars. Popper gives the following example. Europeans for thousands of years had observed millions of white swans. Using inductive evidence, we could come up with the theory that all swans are white. However exploration of Australasia introduced Europeans to black swans. Poppers' point is this: no matter how many observations are made which confirm a theory there is always the possibility that a future observation could refute it. Induction cannot yield certainty.

Popper was also critical of the naive empiricist view that we objectively observe the world. Popper argued that all observation is from a point of view, and indeed that all observation is coloured by our understanding. The world appears to us in the context of theories we already hold: it is 'theory laden'."

"[Thomas] Kuhn looked at the history of science and argued that science does not simply progress by stages based upon neutral observations. Like Popper, he agrees that all observation is theory laden. Scientists have a worldview or "paradigm". The paradigm of Newton's mechanical universe is very different to the paradigm of Einstein's relativistic universe; each paradigm is an interpretation of the world, rather than an objective explanation."

"Paul Feyerabend thought that the superiority of the modern scientific method should not be assumed. He argued for an anarchist approach to knowledge: we cannot predict what shape future knowledge will have, so we should not confine ourselves to one universal method of gaining knowledge. Feyerabend agrees with Kuhn that the history of science is the history of different viewpoints, and for Feyerabend this means that what counts as 'knowledge' in the future may have paradigms we cannot yet know. As we cannot yet know them, we should not attempt to forbid future intellectual enterprise by attempting to define one narrow dominant paradigm of knowledge using the model of physics."

Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend -- these are not the names of nutjobs, but of respected and important contributors to the philosophy of science. A great deal has been written buiding on these ideas -- many, many courses are taught across the world about their ideas. Controversial, yes -- but mainstream as well. And I suspect that the connection to the scientific "disproving" of God's existence is fairly obvious.

What we're arguing about is not what science IS, but rather whether it should be seen as the final arbiter of objective truth when it comes to the existence of God or the validity of religious values. I think there is more than the physical world, and that that cannot be disproven by science, which is prepared only to deal with observable, measurable data. I have listed several major thinkers who agreed, and noted that science is as embedded in ideology and theory as anything else.

The suggestion that I ask somebody from the scientific community to clear this issue up for me seems a bit odd. If I told you to clear up the existence of God by going to talk to a Baptist minister, you would rightly object. But how is this different?

The reason that I listed all my beliefs is that they form the foundational premises for my opinions. Thus, I wrote that I "believe that human beings are, at root, basically good and generally want to do the right thing, and consequently they deserve to be addressed with respect from the stage." This is the premise from which I questioned David, who was showing no respect by calling the 87 students "boobies."

It seems to me that I have been quite polite, rational, and open to discussion. But at the same time, I don't agree with your bedrock belief in the ultimate truth of science.

Joshua James said...

"But at the same time, I don't agree with your bedrock belief in the ultimate truth of science."

NOWHERE do I state that my bedrock belief is that ultimate truth rests in science. NOWHERE.

You put words in my mouth. Do you recall I am a Buddhist?

This is why I don't like dialoguing with you. Sigh. I told myself I wouldn't come back here, and I did, so it's my fault.

I state that science isn't a belief system, nor a philosophical one. The majority of those in that industry would agree. At no point do I state its the ultimate truth.

Okay. I need to stop this.

I'll end by getting emotional and calling you a jackass, because that's what I believe you are.

Scott Walters said...

Then, in fact, we have established that we are in agreement. Why was that so hard?

Mac said...

Josh, I can't what you're reacting to here. I've gotten mad at Scott in the past, but his post and comments here seem to be interesting and in good faith.