Social Sciences


Social Sciences (part6)

Think of a pit bull raised from a puppy in the dark in a cellar, fed only every other day and beaten with a stick at every opportunity. The dog will grow up mean, and if it escapes some day, it will attack the first person it runs into. Is the dog's behavior its fault? Yes and no. It did not cause its own anger; nor can it be expected to control it. But it is still a "bad" dog, however that meanness got programmed into it. The very word "fault" suggests why we get so confused over this issue. The word also means a crack in the earth, or a vase. If something is wrong with an item, we say it has a "fault." Literally, the crack is the vase's fault. The vase may not have caused the crack, but the fault is there nonetheless. We human beings all have faults we did not cause. They are our faults. And like the pit bull, we can be restrained and imprisoned for our faults "as if" we were responsible. Like the Fairfax principal and the pit bull, we can be separated from society and locked up, even forced to undergo reprogramming. But the principal, like the pit bull, also deserves our sympathy. "There but for the grace of God go I" is a moral stance superior to "Throw all the evil people in jail so the world will be safe for us good guys." As Edwards said, being aware of our mutual contingency ought to make us all more tolerant.

An Englishman once traveling in India asked his native guide one evening what he thought the world was. "Ah, Sahib," replied the Indian, "the world is a great elephant and we live on its back."

"What then holds up this elephant?" asked the Englishman.

"It stands on the back of a big turtle," came the reply.

"And what holds up that turtle?"

"It stands on the back of another turtle."

"But what then does that turtle stand on?"

"Ah, Sahib," came the answer, "after that it is turtles all the way down."

The story is remembered and retold because it is a metaphor for the infinite regression we get not only in trying to watch ourselves watching, but also in trying to decide which came first, the chicken or the egg. The social science paper is thus an exercise, as is the literary paper, in trying to push back the mystery as far as possible. If we are to argue for the need for more battered women's shelters in the Bronx, we must explain why women in the Bronx are battered and why we think funding shelters will have the desired effect. But every cause is itself the effect of some prior cause. Behind each of these is an infinite regression of whys.

The biggest danger is in taking this responsibility too lightly and assuming that we know the turtle at the bottom of the pile. We don't. Reality is far too complex. As Thomas Hooker once said, "Our cockleshells will never comprehend that sea." Easy answers must always be challenged with another "why?" Any dogmatist who thinks he or she knows any answers needs to think again.

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