The Human Condition:

Knowing the Other – April 17, 2016


King Lear’s Fool
© Shakespeare and Company, 2003

It’s a common saying in identity politics these days that unless you have lived the experience of being African American, Hispanic, Asian, or any other minority ethnicity, you cannot understand that person. That his or her—or the group’s as a whole—psychology, thinking, needs and wants, political views, and animosity toward Caucasians and, in subtext, toward the larger community and its class structure, remain forever a private affair, closed to outsiders.

My first reaction is that this notion of emotional and psychological exclusivity is either sloppy thinking or it is adopted as some kind of protective mechanism. The sloppy thinking would come from confusing “cannot understand” with the outsider’s alternative possibilities of “don’t want to understand,” or “would have trouble understanding,” or “refuse to understand.” That kind of negativity places inherent barriers on the mind and supports the latent prejudices of the outsider trying to understand the subject group.

As a form of protection, the notion of exclusivity is covering for a member of the in-group who has simply given up trying to make his or her point. “You just don’t understand me” is a comforting reciprocal to “I haven’t made myself clear.” When someone is tired of talking to an opposing point of view, perhaps held by people he or she perceives to be hostile blockheads, the person too often will revert in exasperation to “You don’t understand” and its more dramatic cousin, “You just can’t understand.”

In similar fashion, if the person on the outside of the group fails to agree with and support the insider’s position, the “You don’t [or can’t] understand” retort is meant to be a show-stopper. If arguments are failing to achieve their intended effect, then rather than examine them critically, adopt better arguments, or perhaps change positions, the easy solution is to retreat into inscrutability: “You don’t have the experience, the mental capacity, the sincerity, or the personal honesty to understand my position. If you had any of these things, then of course you would agree with me.”

In my view, if this position—that communication, understanding, and potential agreement are not just difficult but actually impossible—is sincerely meant, then it is a trap for the person who uses it. If I cannot understand your experience, thinking, psychology, wants and needs, political views, and animosity, no matter how willing I may be to discuss the issues or how hard I try … then what is the point of trying? If the thing is impossible, why bother?

The corollary to that dead end is an acceptance, by both of us, of permanent status as “the other.” We are mutually exclusive. We share no recognition of each other as possible equals, as people worth knowing, or even as full human beings. The other is a member of a different species, an unknown quantity, an indescribable enigma. And other species, unknown quantities, are not granted the same rights, aspirations, or potential for success that I and members of my kind possess.

In similar fashion, recent literary criticism based on the tenets of deconstruction would seem1 to suggest that texts from earlier times and other cultures are unknowable. Because the author’s intention and meaning are closely bound to the reader’s interpretation of words and cultural references in the context of his or her current experience, readers from other places and times are presumed to be incapable of understanding the work’s true meaning. And so a modern reader is separated from, say, Shakespeare and his characters by 400 years of changing language and shifting cultural values, or from the satires of a Defoe or Swift by nearly as great a gulf in contextual and political evolution.

Of course, I don’t give much credit to modern interpretations of old texts, either. I remember, for example, years ago reading an annotated version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, in which the Fool pauses in a response to Goneril (Act I, Scene 4) to exclaim, “Whoop, Jug, I love thee!” The modern Spark Notes rewriting of Shakespeare renders the line as “Whoo-hoo, honey, I love you!” This would seem to be the Fool leering at the king’s daughter—which, while appropriately offensive, seems inconsistent with his preceding comment. The annotations to the original text that I was reading explained that “Jug” was an Elizabethan rendering of the name “Joan” and so was probably a reference to the Fool’s wife—who is nowhere else in evidence. My simpler interpretation is that, at this point in the conversation, the Fool hoists a jug over his arm, takes a slug, and bellows his affection for alcohol. But that’s just a guess.

I have also heard it said that modern standardized tests must take great care in selecting passages for reading comprehension because of this supposed misapplication of context. If a story or reminiscence is set at the seashore, it might disadvantage a child raised in the mountains. If set in the mountains, it might confuse a child living by the sea. And any passage from a work more than a decade or two old will likely contain words and references that the young reader will find either baffling or upsetting.

If the point of deconstruction is to say that we cannot have perfect understanding of an older text because the meaning of many words may have changed or the author might use references particular to a certain political or social setting, then the objection is obvious and trivial. No, I cannot understand every joke in Shakespeare—like the Fool’s jug—in the same way an Elizabethan audience would. Neither can I understand a play by Sophocles in the original Greek without knowing the language or the Epic of Gilgamesh without reading cuneiform.

If the point of deconstruction is a counsel of perfection—that, because we might miss some references or misapply some words, true understanding is impossible—then the objection is pernicious. Like the argument that you cannot understand another human being without sharing his or her ethnicity and personal experiences, deconstruction suggests that earlier times and cultures are closed to us because we do not live in them. And if that’s the case, there is no point in reading and trying to understand in the first place. World literature is a closed book. Why bother?

I will admit that, on an individual level, each of us contains personal mysteries, secrets, painful or joyful experiences, and hidden prejudices that color our perceptions of the world and render the universe that we construct inside our heads unintelligible to even our nearest and dearest. But that is an admission of innermost veils of psychological darkness which exist apart from our attempts at communication.

As a professional communicator, I find the negativity of identity politics and literary deconstruction offensive. I have spent my life studying and using words, seeking clear expression and understanding in my technical writing, and creating worlds of imagined experience with my fiction that any reader can enter and sample.2 To state or imply that communication is not possible, that the attempt to understand is futile, that other places and times are denied to us by changes in meaning and reference—that is a refutation of everything I was taught in the humanities. It suggests that modern readers lack wit, imagination, and empathy.

As human beings, as thinking creatures, as people of good will and generosity, the world’s people possess more in common than they hold in isolation. We benefit from trying to see the other person’s point of view and from inserting ourselves by study and imagination into the lives of people from different cultures, places, and times. We may not do any of this perfectly or without error. But not to try, not to bother, would be the greatest error of all.

1. When I studied English literature in the 1960s, we learned the New Criticism, which essentially said that the text—i.e., book, poem, or play—had to stand on its own. We were taught to read and interpret from the words on the page, not giving weight to the author’s separate statements about his or her intentions in creating the work, and not delving into analysis of his or her life experience or cultural antecedents to psychoanalyze the author and the work. Deconstruction as a form of criticism came in during the following decade, and so I never studied it formally. But the premise would seem to deny the analyst the opportunity to examine even the words of the text itself.

2. Of course, as an old book editor I have always relied on addressing what people in the trade call “the educated lay reader.” In weighing word choices, their denotations and connotations, and their familiarity, as well as cultural and historical references, an editor constructs in his or her mind an intended reader who would be interested enough in the subject matter to pick up the book. While an author or editor wants to avoid obscure terms and jargon in order to invite the nonspecific reader, he or she must make some assumptions about reading level and prior experience. Otherwise, the reader who fits the appropriate age and interest levels would be annoyed at having every word and reference backed up with painstaking and redundant detail.