The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I’d like to respond to Daniel Kite and Timothy Lewis’s criticism in the October 2000 Correspondence section of my interview with Vine Deloria [“Where the Buffalo Go,” July 2000].
Kite says, “Science is about understanding how the universe works, or, more simply, about satisfying curiosity.” He mentions the importance of validating observations through the “scientific method,” which he contrasts with superstition. He tells us the scientists he knows are relatively sensitive and suggests that the problem isn’t science but “our hollow collective Western soul.”
He’s right about our Western soul being hollow, but what does he think gives rise to science, if not the Western soul? Science didn’t arise out of a cultural vacuum. Why does Kite think indigenous peoples worldwide haven’t developed a science like ours? It’s not because they’re too stupid. They just don’t share our cultural presumptions.
As a trained scientist myself, I can testify that Kite is wrong about science being simply about “satisfying curiosity.” From the beginning, the primary purpose of science has been to control and dominate the natural world. This was as true in the time of Descartes (“I perceived it to be possible to arrive at knowledge highly useful in life . . . and thus render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature”) as it is today, when prominent theoretical physicist Gerard J. Milburn states, “The aim of modern science is to reach an understanding of the world, not merely for purely aesthetic reasons, but that it may be ordered to our purpose.”
Is genetic engineering about curiosity? Ask Genentech and the other “genetic prospectors” who stand to make billions while they tear apart the world. How about nuclear engineering? How about engineering of any stripe? By definition, engineering is about ordering the natural world to the purposes of production. And who pays for scientific research? When was the last time any company — or government — put out hard cash just to satisfy simple curiosity?
Kite wants to understand the world. Presumably, he also wants to understand his friends and neighbors. Does he treat his friends as objects to be experimented upon? Does he use mathematics to describe his relationships with them? By the same token, has he ever asked the world what it wants and needs? Has he ever expressed love for the tree outside his window? Why not? Where does love fit into a scientific understanding of the world? And if it doesn’t fit, what does that say about science?
It doesn’t really matter how sensitive individual scientists are, because the problem isn’t personal but structural. So long as we perceive the world as dead matter to be described mathematically and thus manipulated, we will continue to act as we have. Once we begin to understand the natural world as consisting of other beings whose behavior cannot be predicted through mathematics, but who make decisions as voluntarily as we do, it’s no longer possible for us to accept in good conscience the precepts of science. Simply put, science demands repeatability from subjects who, within certain constraints — humans don’t usually fly; trees and stones don’t usually walk — do as they damn well please.
Once people have been convinced that the scientific method is equivalent to truth, they may come to believe that any knowledge generated through science is independent of politics, history, social influences, cultural bias, and so forth. This belief is a useful tool for social control: Nazi scientists knew that if they could convince Germans that Jews were subhuman, it would make it easier to treat them as such. If modern scientists can convince us that the natural world consists of lifeless matter, it makes it easier to dam rivers, eliminate species, and take the tops off mountains.
Lewis, the other letter writer, says that “science does not ignore the living world, but merely the imaginary world that exists inside Deloria’s head.” He calls Deloria a liar for suggesting that clouds might be sentient.
To this, I say: Prove to me clouds aren’t sentient. He can’t, of course. Nor can I prove to him they are. I couldn’t even rigorously prove to him that I am sentient. One of the “beauties” of our scientific belief system is that, ultimately, consciousness — and even existence — is impossible to prove in any other being. (“I think, therefore I am,” Descartes said, but he couldn’t be sure about anyone else.)
Thus, sentience has been granted only to those who “look and act like us” — a group that scientists have reluctantly expanded over time to include women, children, and other races. If we have a monopoly on sentience, then it’s morally permissible to do as we wish to the rest of the universe. But that notion is empirically, logically, and ethically indefensible. It does not reflect the truth, and it does both us and those around us great harm to pretend otherwise.
Michele Cacho-Negrete’s “In the Lions’ Den” [October 2000] showed me that there are other people as appalled as I am by Americans’ desensitization to violence, be it physical or emotional. I was born and raised in France, and after almost forty years of living in this country, I have fortunately never been contaminated by this gradual numbing. My friends and acquaintances often can’t relate when I condemn a movie for being violent. Some people trivialize my reaction by telling me to “grow up.”
I thank God that I’ve remained tuned in enough to still feel shock, outrage, disgust, and pain; and to object to and boycott what I consider to be violence or aggression.
The Readers Write on “Losing Weight” [October 2000] made my stomach hurt. So many stories, so much shame. Our obsession with thinness causes deep scars and steals our dignity.
I see my own story in many of those submitted: the shame at being heavy; the degrading remarks that burn into you and haunt you for a lifetime. I wish I could say that reading these stories was cathartic for me, but mostly I felt a great sadness.
I’ve seldom read as strong an indictment of America’s cultural demise as your Readers Write on “Losing Weight.” The energy spent on this sick pursuit of being thin is a waste. That so many in our society would buy into this unnatural enterprise, believing the myth that protruding female bones are beautiful, confirms my worst fears. Our common sense has been blinded by media-driven standards. Those letters from readers opened my eyes as few essays or interviews have.
In response to Diana Fox’s negative letter in the October Correspondence section about John Tait’s “Cementhead” [June 2000]: I found “Cementhead” to be the most fascinating piece of fiction that I have ever seen in The Sun. In no way do I endorse or admire the narrator’s actions, and I highly doubt that the author does, either. But the story is a truly insightful depiction of the dark side of the human soul. It is unfortunate that so many people today feel threatened and offended by the portrayal of a reality that does not match their own.
Thank you for publishing Wendell Berry’s “In Distrust of Movements” [September 2000]. The more I learn about the corruption of our society and the destruction of our planet, the more inspired I am to work for change. Berry’s essay offers me a hope that change is possible and also confirmation that I’m on the right track.
Wendell Berry’s quarrel with America’s reform movements contains elements of truth, but he’s wrong to blame organizations for focusing on single issues. The pitfalls of our organized efforts toward reform are ultimately reflections of two problems: the degree to which corporate lobbyists and elected officials restrict attempts to curb their power; and the latent narcissism of many of us who were raised in dysfunctional families and a culture that glorifies money, status, material goods, and celebrity. Positions of power, even in benign institutions, can nourish this narcissism, leaving us prey to the self-righteousness, self-betrayal, and pinhole vision that dissatisfy Berry.
Whatever their potential for corruption, America’s reform movements are still the best vehicles we have for expressing our outrage and opposing the daily atrocities of an unjust and violent system. God forbid that Berry’s blandishments should dissuade any of the sincere people working on such single issues as civil rights, clean water, workplace safety, genocide in Latin America, nuclear disarmament, universal medical care, homelessness, and so on.
Apparently, Berry is unaware that there already is a movement to, as he puts it, “make a whole thing of ourselves and this world” — in other words, to put all the broken pieces together. It’s called the Green Party. Rather than denouncing movements for working on pieces of the whole, the Green Party platform articulates, step by careful step, the principles upon which to begin transforming this fractured world into a democratic, peaceful, and just society where human needs are in balance with natural cycles and the needs of nonhuman life. Now, that fine work is grounds for genuine hope and good cheer.
I was shocked when I read the Readers Write on “Disguises” [September 2000], in which a woman’s son wrapped his face in a blanket, “covering all but a narrow slit for his eyes,” and announced, “No one will recognize me now. They’ll think I’m an Arab.” The writer seemed totally unaware that her son had acted out an offensive racial stereotype. To the contrary, she even “burst into uncontrollable laughter.”
I wonder if she would have laughed had her son painted his face dark and his lips red and claimed to be a black man, or pasted on a long mustache and pulled his eyes back and claimed to be a “Chinaman,” or put on a long nose and a curly wig and claimed to be a Jew.
With the end of the Cold War, the new enemy in the U.S. has become “the Arabs,” and the war waged against them has been based primarily on stereotypes and racial slurs. It makes me sad to think that a so-called progressive magazine would so readily join in this attack on the humanity of a group of people.