Universal Translator

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Consciousness, Communion, and Blog Posting

This post is only a small part of something much larger I originally posted over at Daily Kos.  The complete post was sparked by something I had seen at DK the day before, and is a fairly longish diary that describes my own political awakening, the importance I place on being politically aware, and concludes with some thoughts about 
our need -- not our desire, but our need -- to communicate with each other, to share with each other our ideas, and to try to persuade each other to see things from our point of view.  [I started] thinking that maybe this need is inherent in the very nature of our existence as conscious beings. 
Because the original, longish post itself is fairly specific to my experience as a member of the Daily Kos community, it didn't seem necessary to cross-post the entire thing here.  (Although by all means . . . if you have any interest in my personal journey to political involvement, please feel free to click the link above.)  However, the actual nut of the post - some thoughts about consciousness and communication -- I really did like and so I thought I'd throw that section of the post up on this site.

You can read it below the fold.

The truth is, I don’t think “humanity” has anything to do with DNA or biological morphology – I think it has to do with consciousness.  Consciousness is the hallmark of humanity.  We may not explicitly talk about it all that very often, but the stories we tell ourselves confirm that this is true.

For example, if you’ve seen the summer movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, or even if you’ve just seen the trailer, then you know there is a scene in which one character tells James Franco, “They’re not human, you know.”  But when you hear that line as an audience member, even if you don’t consciously acknowledge it, you know that sentence simply isn’t true.  Caesar, the main ape, is intelligent, self-aware, can reason, has a sense of dignity, experiences emotions . . . he is conscious.  When the audience sympathizes with Caesar we don’t do so because he is “a cute monkey” – he isn’t.  We do so because he is misunderstood and is being mistreated; we sympathize with him because his dignity is being assaulted.  We sympathize with him because – for all that he genetically is a chimpanzee – we recognize in him another thinking, conscious person, a human, being treated unjustly.

I also believe that it is our continuous, separate consciousness that make our very sense of self possible.  Our separate consciousness is what persuades us we ourselves continue uninterruptedly even as the circumstances surrounding our physical existence (including our own bodies) constantly change.  My separate and continuing consciousness is what allows me to assert that I am the same person as I was yesterday, or as I was last year, or as I was when I was seven years old.  Without a separate consciousness continuing uninterruptedly from moment to moment, from year to year, our very concept of identity wouldn’t make sense.

But that same consciousness that makes identity possible and that defines us as human is also the source of the essential and inescapable tragedy of our existence, in a way so fundamental that we usually never even notice or talk about it, because being conscious means being aware on some bedrock level that we all of us exist separately from one another.   And there is not much conceptual difference between “being separate” and “being alone,” and there is even less between “being alone” and “being lonely.”  And that, of course, is why we talk to each other.

I think talking with people, debating ideas and trying to persuade the other person that your point of view is correct (or is more accurate, or more aesthetic, or whatever the appropriate criterion is for the situation), is probably the most human thing we do.  More than that, I believe it is the most elevated thing we do.  When we talk and exchange ideas with each other, especially ideas that are really important to us, we get to know each other in an elemental way and we get to share a little bit of ourselves with each other.  It is a communion in all the best possible senses of that word.

Sometimes – in fact, very often – the ideas we wish to share are different from one another and so when that happens we try to explain ourselves better.  And this attempt at explaining ourselves is really the essence of persuasive speech.  At its heart and at its best, persuasive speech is not an attempt to mislead or hoodwink someone, and it certainly isn’t an attempt to coerce someone else; instead, it is most properly understood as an effort to explain ourselves so that the other person understands who we are, why we think the things we do, why we believe the things we believe and why we believe those beliefs to be correct. 

Fundamentally, we seek to persuade others because we want those others to know us.  And when we have persuaded someone else to see things from our point of view, when that other person now sees things the way we see them and adopts our understanding of the world, then a little piece of our own consciousness has been shared and a little bit of that separateness under which we all labor has been lifted.

But the truly wonderful thing about all of this is that it works the other way ‘round, too.  As people discuss things together honestly and in good faith, it is not just us trying to persuade them . . . they are trying to persuade us right back.  Because they also want us to know who they are.  And if we’re having the kind of intellectually honest debate that good faith requires, it turns out we just might have our minds changed too, or perhaps both parties – contemplating the same phenomenon from different perspectives – might change together, to form a greater and better understanding of our shared world.

In this way, debate and discussion and persuasive speech is a growing together for people, a growing closer for people; in fact, I tend to think it may be the only way that humans, creatures of consciousness that we are, truly can grow close to each other in any way that really matters.

* * *

And that, ultimately, is what I meant when I said I think these ideas “deal directly with what I see as one of the fundamental goals and benefits of the Daily Kos community.”  Yes, DK is a great site for grassroots organization, for activism, for raising money, for helping out those who need help.  It is a great site for keeping informed and finding out what is happening in the world and what steps one can take to help shift things a little bit more our way.

But for my money, first and foremost Daily Kos is a great site for a whole lotta people to get together and talk and share and tell story and debate and carp and – yes – try to persuade each other and change each other’s minds about things.  It is a great place to experience the sacrament of communion. 

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