Monday, April 27, 2009

A case of misdirection?

Left and right. We all learn them as directions as children, though some of us need--no names here--"No, the other left," on occasion, middle-age novices in modern dance classes, for instance. We graduate as young adults to a sense of left and right as designating political positions. At this point the directional takes on the moral. Opposition no longer means the pull of one foot against the other, but the elevation of one set of propositions over another to a kind of truth value. We so easily forget the absurdity of such adversarial thinking, as though only those on the right respect "family values." Do leftists not have families that they value? Or the assumption that the left has a monopoly on LGBT issues. What about the Log Cabin Republicans, their current invisibility in Republican debate notwithstanding? And we won't begin to try and unravel, let alone map, any meaningful notion of left and right in the Catholic Church. Stay tuned on that one.

Another way in which we use left and right: the notion that the left brain and the right brain function differently. The participants and audience at a lecture/demonstration at Duke Divinity School yesterday essentially posited left-brain thinking as critical, skeptical thought, and right-brain activity as a willingness to accept felt phenomena uncritically. Certainly these models have some utility--we know what we mean when we say left- or right-brained--but they risk fostering a kind of clannishness, an "if you are not for me you are against me" mentality that, for all its biblical origins, divides us as unnecessarily as expectations about the taste of green eggs and ham.

What about those, myself included, who struggle to balance left- and right-brained thinking in our own perspectives? What you get, for example, when you mix an academically-trained mind with a spiritual longing that has come more and more to the fore in my thinking over the last ten years or so, with visible roots so much further back. The academic, left-brained side sometimes looks more like the interloper than the dominant paradigm, memories of myself poring through the dictinoary at age eight notwithstanding. One can pretty easily and cogently argue that the fault in this division lies with the way the educational system validates left- over right-brainedness as more reliable and therefore somehow less scary.

And then we have President Obama. A left-brained pragmatist who reads letters from real people and very right-brainedly responds to them himself--unless, of course, you see that gesture left-brainedly as reflecting pure calculation, while some right-brainedly take it at face value as an expression of empathy, an extension of his hanging onto his BlackBerry (as right-brained as you can get in the Oval Office--text-message your friends in Chicago?) And yet we can see his ruthlessness in dealing with people such as Rev. Wright, very left-brained, after a high-risk attempt to defend Wright, arguably right-brained with a bit of left-brained pedagogy thrown in for good measure. Notice that we haven't even addressed the thorny issue of whether his policies place him on the left, as some on the right claim, on the right, as some on the left claim, or in the middle, which seems to make so many people uncomfortable, at the same time that he has an approval rating in the 60s. Will someone please explain to me why this kind of jumble doesn't make perfect sense, as an expression of the fact that none of us, to paraphrase the president's role model, Abraham Lincoln, fits any label all the time?

So, do we scrap the categories of left and right? A lot of dancers, not to mention drivers, will get very badly hurt if we do, our moral landscape will seem utterly inscrutable--though how many find it scrutable at the moment remains an open question--our awareness of the range of ways in which we perceive the real and apparently real will become muddled, and our politics will, of all things, lose its center of gravity. Left and right function as balancing principles; imperfectly though they fulfill their function, we need the bearings they give us. If only we could learn to take the process of getting our bearings a bit less seriously, it all might seem a little less important, a little less worth the bickering and the name-calling and the posturing.