There is a type of knowledge called “what you already know (but don’t quite know that you know).” I have always listened with great enjoyment to talk of the relative value of words. I love discussions of phrenology and meaning. I have always intuitively known that as humans we tend to define words differently. Sometimes so differently that we can talk, use the same words, mean two different things, and completely miss the understanding that we do. Yet two incidents in the past month have driven that message home.
So yesterday I was reading a Time magazine piece on Paul Ryan (R- Wisc.), who recently appeared on the losing GOP presidential ticket. It is also intriguing to listen to someone explain and discuss such a loss. You learn a lot about a person by how they handle failure. For the record I have gained respect for Ryan and how graciously he has moved on to his new term as a Representative from Wisconsin. For his grace in defeat and his commitment to serve out his term (rather than packing up his toys and going home- something many of his advisers recommended), he has earned some respect from me.
That said I found it interesting that he felt his party (and both himself and his partner in the election) should have talked more about helping the poor. People within his party advised against that move afraid it would dirty their message of financial frugality. He then stated that he was committed to bringing his message of helping the poor back into the set list, so to speak. Once again these comments were so comforting to hear from someone whose pre-election image of someone who did not really seem to care for the poor (I’m not saying he didn’t, but one of the reasons the GOP lost is that their opponents did a great job in getting this message to stick- though neither candidate helped himself with disparaging remarks about makers and takers). Yet here was the nous vou moment- he then stated that he hoped to help the poor by reforming welfare and taking away the poor’s ability to relay on the government for subsistence. His big idea for helping the poor is this: to take away the services that the government provides them. To be clear: to stop providing them with food, clothing, shelter, job training, and any other way we are actually providing them. This was the loving response to poverty: find little Timmy and kick the crutch out from under his arm. Make him get up and walk like a man. And a merry new Ebenezer Scrooge is born. This what love is, he argued.
A week or so ago, I sat in a warm theater with a bunch of rich people munching on popcorn and drinking coke while watching people sing about poverty and the crushing nature of the modern industrial world. I made a cheap joke about this irony: watching a movie about the horrors of poverty in comfort with people who voted for the type of person mentioned above. Throughout the week my mates in the audience might listen to people rave about the horrors of those takers who are ruining our country, but look at that Anne Hathaway ain’t she pretty. Several people reacted in confusion. It dawned on me that we might as well be watching two movies.
Here are two incidents in which we are talking about the same things: poverty, love, and aid for those in trouble. Yet we were talking on two different wavelengths. It never would have crossed my mind to think: you know how I can help that homeless man, I’m going to take away his welfare check, that will teach him to get a job and support himself. I cannot imagine watching Les Mis and not thinking God for the welfare system; that a woman unjustly fired would have to stoop to selling her teeth, hair, body, and dignity seems to me to make it worthwhile to throw a few extra dollars to the state for a social safety net. I think I can go without the large popcorn if it means someone might escape that life (if only for a second). Yet as the reaction to this essay will probably show, that thought is as alien to many of my frtiends as not thinking that thought would be for me.
This discourages me. How can we deal with the realities of life is we cannot even argue to the definitions of words like love? If we cannot even watch the same movies without coming to completely different ideas of what is just; then how can we govern a society? Are we doomed to continue yelling words that mean totally different things at each other, only to collapse in frustration at not being understood?
So I ask you how can we get to the same page? How can we come to a place where we truly listen to one another? What hope do we have? Tell me. I would like to know. I only hope I can understand the words coming out of your mouth.